Great collaboration

17th September 2004 at 01:00
The Early Years and Primary Teaching Exhibition is at the Business Design Centre in London from October 1-3, offering teachers the chance to catch up with the latest resources and teaching ideas.

Sue Dean, who will be presenting two seminars, here shares ideas on how speaking and listening can develop thinking

Over the past decade, many educationists have focused on how learners learn. There are many excellent books about how the brain works and how to speed up the learning process. However, as with all educational thought, ideas need to be translated into action in order to become embedded practice.

Speaking and listening are primary modes of learning as well as of communication. When we listen we are receiving messages from people. We process these messages through thinking and when we talk we communicate the meaning we make of these messages. Often through talking we also clarify our meaning. It sounds simple: listen - process - talk. However, though we do this naturally, we are beginning to discover there are lots of things we can do to promote good thinking.

David Perkins of Howard University, Washington DC, says: "Everyday thinking, like ordinary walking, is a natural performance we all pick up.

But good thinking, like running the 100 metres, is a technical performance.

Sprinters have to be taught how to run the 100 metres; good thinking is the result of good teaching, which includes much practice."

Many of these practice activities are already established in classrooms.

With slight adjustment they become powerful ways of supporting children as developing thinking. Practices such as:

* Partner work and small group work - to give children opportunities in all learning areas to work collaboratively; solve problems together; engage in structured play activities and research together. Partner and group work will, over time, develop right (creative) and left (critical) brain thinking.

However, all teachers know that true collaborative work either with a partner or in a small group needs highly explicit teaching over a long period of time. It needs a whole-school approach and needs to be planned for regularly. Teachers need to work with pupils on negotiating roles and tasks within the group. So before the task they should talk about goals and parameters.

During the activity, they should stop and talk about how consensus was reached and after the task is finished assess the process as well as the product. How did partners help each other if the need arose? How did partners deal with disagreements? What was the best thing about it?

* Developing children's questioning - the kind of questions children ask provides teachers with insights into their thinking. For example, why is that horse wearing furry slippers? This from a child seeing a shire horse for the first time.

Such questions reveal their level of understanding, indicate gaps in their knowledge and their level of language development. Giving children the opportunity to ask their own questions is often an effective way of developing their understanding.

However, simply providing the opportunity is, for many children, not enough. Guided practice over time helps them realise that through talk we can make our thinking visible to ourselves and others. For example, when children are aware of the different question words we can use (who, what, where, when) we can help them extend the type of questions they asking, for example, "right there" and "think about" questions. In the early stages of developing this technique, children might discuss a picture and put questions that can be answered "right there" by looking at an object or colour or position in the picture, for example, "What colour jumper is the boy wearing?"

Then they consider "think about" questions which you have to answer by predicting or inferring, for example, "Who might the lady be buying the flowers for?" Developing questioning in this way promotes left and right brain thinking -seeing sequences, exploring cause and effect as well as making connections and seeing resemblances.

Running alongside such teaching practices is the most significant of all - what is grandly called teaching for meta-cognition but which simply means helping children develop a range of thinking processes and strategies which can help solve problems, make connections, see resemblances, explore cause and effect through the use of activities such as learning charts, look-what-I-can-do statements and goal-setting.

If we focus on tried-and-tested teaching practices and give children structured opportunities to listen and talk then we are within a whisker of having thinking classrooms as a matter of course.

Sue Dean is manager of Steps Professional Development. Her seminar, "How Speaking and Listening can Develop Thinking in all Areas of the Curriculum" is at 2pm on Saturday October 2. She will also speak on "Building Confidence and Self-esteem Through Physical Movement in the Early Years" at 12.30pm on Sunday October 3.

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