It's the thought that counts when teaching children to be confident and independent learners, says Margaret Kirkwood
HOW can schools improve children's thinking? There is currently much interest in Scotland and farther afield in how thinking skills can be enhanced. A recent forum, organised by the Scottish Executive Education Department, had as its theme teaching thinking skills and addressed questions such as "What are thinking skills?", "How can they be useful?" and "Can they be taught?" All teachers need to be well informed in this area, and also wary about the claims being made for some thinking skills programmes. First of all, it is important to be clear about what is meant by "teaching thinking". Children use a variety of types of thinking in their everyday lives, such as making predictions and generating possibilities, and they do not have to be taught to "do thinking".
Teachers can, however, support children to improve the quality of their thinking, and thus to perform thinking tasks more skilfully. Thinking is always thinking about something, and it seems to me that the curriculum is the prime target.
While I am not in favour of rigid subject area divisions, nevertheless there are ways of thinking within disciplines such as history, mathematics or science which are important for developing deep learning and understanding. Therefore I favour an approach which infuses thinking skills into content instruction. This should have the added benefit of enhancing children's understanding of syllabus topics (and thus raising their attainment), while simultaneously providing many natural opportunities for a range of skills to be learnt and practised in varied contexts.
Children should be enabled to grow in competence and confidence as thinkers, which should, in turn, raise their self-esteem and make them feel better disposed towards future thinking tasks. If all this sounds too easy or impractical, then it is important to emphasise that nurturing children's thinking requires sustained effort. It isn't just a matter of children learning to apply thinking skills; their perceptions of the value of thinking and reaching independent judgments need to grow.
The teacher must therefore communicate to pupils clearly and consistently that these are highly valued activities by, for example, asking clarifying questions, seeking and valuing pupils' opinions, and allowing time for pupils to respond thoughtfully.
Positive thinking should form one important strand within an integrated thinking skills approach, in which other types of thinking also feature strongly, for example, logical, critical or creative thinking. "Brain-based learning" is the current buzz phrase. (I can't be the first person to ask, is this to distinguish it from learning that takes place in some different part of the anatomy?) Exciting new ideas - some children are right-brain learners while others are left-brain learners - are being discussed on in-service courses in relation to learning styles and teaching approaches.
However, a recent research review warns that the implications of brain research for learning and teaching remain largely unexplored. The over-enthusiastic adoption of such ideas in schools could therefore be damaging to children's education. On the other hand, a modest "testing out" in the classroom, with the findings being shared among interested colleagues, is likely to be more fruitful.
It almost goes without saying that you cannot have thinking classrooms without thinking teachers. An "off the shelf" thinking skills programme which forms part of the personal and social education curriculum should, hopefully, have some positive impact on how teachers teach at other times.
There may be more encouragement for children to formulate their own questions, or prompt thinking - "why do you think that?"; "does that answer make sense?" - or a bridging of thinking skills to new contexts. Also training in the use of a particular programme - and for many thinking skills programmes this is a requirement - should ensure that it is more effectively implemented, particularly if training explains the general principles.
However, a better goal to aspire to is for all teachers to become knowledgeable thinkers about how best to nurture children's thinking. This process should begin in initial teacher education, and should continue through programmes of continuing professional development and within schools, where teachers are afforded regular opportunities to share experiences and to develop their thinking and practices.
Perhaps, post-McCrone, this may become a reality.
Margaret Kirkwood, a senior lecturer in Strathclyde University's education faculty, is president of the Scottish Educational Research Association.