Give thinking the status it deserves

11th November 2005 at 00:00
If children are not taught to be rational, schools will continue to fill leaky vessels, says Graeme Nixon

During the SETT conference in September, one of the sessions was on the philosophy for children (P4C) initiative in Clackmannanshire primary schools. During the seminar, the audience was given powerful evidence that this thinking skills programme has demonstrably positive effects on the volume and quality of pupil participation, evaluation and analysis. This is quite apart from the impact on self-esteem and behaviour.

The speakers, among them Steve Trickey, who has conducted research into the initiative, seemed to be preaching to the converted - I was certainly one of them. The success of the scheme has led to P4C being introduced in Clackmannanshire secondaries, with trained "champions" co-ordinating the activity in each school.

At the end, someone asked: "Where is the curricular time coming from for this?" The answer was that, at one school, a period of PE had been removed to accommodate philosophy. There followed groans from the assembled - how could they, at this obesity-conscious time, reduce PE provision? Unfortunately this was the note on which the session ended.

Having reflected on this in the weeks since, I have wondered about the importance of explicitly teaching thinking and the oddness of such indignation, especially since clear thinking is much more the basis of the good, happy and healthy life than compulsory "running around" for 55 minutes (or any other subject for that matter).

I have come to the realisation that teaching thinking skills has never been an explicit aim of schools. This is scandalous. Oh but it is, I hear some teachers attest - it is infused in our subjects, in our methods and in the skills we ask pupils to employ, ranging from circle time to evaluation in Advanced Higher.

I can hear enlightened colleagues who teach religious, moral and philosophical studies stating that they may have a particular role in imbuing philosophical skills. Assessment is for Learning also recognises the need for thinking time.

However, according to thinking guru Edward de Bono, this is not enough.

Thinking skills must be taught as a separate subject. This subject must be given recognition and an obviously exalted status. Pupils must know they are in a thinking lesson. They must have a place in their timetable which furnishes them with a proper vocabulary of thinking.

If these sessions take place early enough, they will be truly equipped for life as these skills become habitualised in their minds. The benefits are immeasurable.

For the most part we teach the young to think only accidentally - in the occasional mnemonic, reflective task, mind map or perhaps in the study skills sessions to which we give minor status in our curricula. Otherwise, it is down to the gifted teacher to imbue an enthusiasm and ability for thinking, in which case it usually occurs because the teacher models a thinker rather than a dictator. This is not usually part of any lesson plan or learning outcome.

So, if thinking is infused in our subjects, it is not done so in a particularly thoughtful or consistent way. In my view, A Curriculum for Excellence demands thinking skills programmes. Look at the four capacities.

In writing this article, I started by highlighting those areas where thinking skills might be of benefit, but quickly gave up when I realised the four capacities are completely satisfied by what a thinking skills programme can provide. Check it out for yourself.

As a result of P4C in Clackmannanshire there were increases in participation, confidence, concentration, communication and positive social change. There was a measurable and sustained effect on cognitive ability (using cognitive ability test scores), critical thinking and emotional and social development. The CAT scores of the control group, who had no P4C, showed a marked decrease over the same four-year period. This period covered P6-S2, confirmation perhaps that for many pupils this is a time of stagnation in their educational development.

So either we take major steps to infuse thinking into our subjects, as Carol MacGuinness's "Activating Children's Thinking Skills" (ACTS) initiative purports to do, or we develop and give resources to a separate thinking skills input. The status quo is not acceptable.

Personally, I'm with Dr de Bono. I long for a time when we could put on our various thinking hats, sharing a common vocabulary of thinking that would resolve conflict, lead to greater objectivity and creativity, and get us far away from the argumentative and egocentric habits that are symptomatic of bad thinking.

Our curriculum must model thinking's centrality - or else we will all still be slaves to content, and education will continue simply to fill leaky vessels Graeme Nixon is a lecturer in religious, moral and philosophical studies at the school of education, Aberdeen University.

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