Think it over
Imagine a world where every child excelled at something. Where children were encouraged to think creatively. Where the national curriculum was used as a launchpad for innovative problem-solving. Where children thought about the implications of their behaviour. Where communicating ideas, feelings and needs was highly valued by teachers and children.
Do not adjust your set: you have not entered the Twilight Zone. Such a world does exist in our own galaxy, and it is called Talents Unlimited. It is a programme of teaching strategies that harnesses children's innate abilities towards academic achievement, creativity and self-esteem. And a small, unassuming first school in Exeter is in the vanguard in this country, running a programme in Talents Unlimited for its own pupils as well as training teachers from elsewhere in its methodologies.
Talents Unlimited is a thinking skills approach based on Calvin Taylor and J P Guilford's theories of multiple intelligences which emerged 40 years ago. It was originally connected with research generated by industry, looking at what kinds of thinking were necessary in the world of work.
In the 1970s, educators in Alabama - a state not renowned for its progressive approach to anything - translated these theories into classroom models for schools, set up teacher-training projects and watched it spread like wildfire. Today, thousands of schools across the United States and some in other countries have adopted Talents Unlimited as a "teaching for thinking" programme that equips children for the skills they will require in the world of work. But it does more than that. It encourages children to think in ways that will enhance all areas of their lives, including their way through the otherwise rigid national curriculum.
Hilary Jones is deputy headteacher at Bradley Rowe First School in Exeter. Ms Jones and headteacher Annie Tempest are the only two teachers qualified to teach the Talents Unlimited programme in this country. For Ms Jones, "the beauty of Talents is how it unlocks thoughts and ideas in children's minds, enabling them to think alternatively and laterally, which they might not have the scope to develop otherwise".
The programme focuses on the development of five key areas: productive thinking, decision-making, planning, forecasting and communication. There are 22 thinking skills (for example, fluency, flexibility, originality, elaboration) applied to each of these areas. Although seemingly formulaic, it is a system that proponents say is essentially flexible, able to fit any format that you wish. It differs from other thinking skills models, says Hilary Jones, in the sense that "others are often bolted on to a lesson once a week. But we deliver almost the entire national curriculum through Talents."
For example, in a history lesson on settlers and invaders, a teacher would ask the children if they could think about some of the causes for the Romans invading - a "productive thinking" gambit to encourage them to think laterally and take an inquisitive approach to the subject matter. A geography lesson could tackle the "planning" talent by asking the class to work out how they would get across a river.
Caroline Scott, one of the Bradley Rowe teachers trained in Talents by Hilary Jones and Annie Tempest, admits that many of the methodologies of the programme are carried out by teachers around the world who have never heard of Talents Unlimited. "We're not saying that this is something that no one has done before. But Talents has crystallised a lot of different ways of teaching into a system and given it a name."
Central to the philosophy of Talents Unlimited is that the brain can be taught to be creative through training. Ms Scott says: "By using different pathways of the brain, children are able to find creative solutions, to solve problems, to devise designs."
At Bradley Rowe, teachers have been surprised at which children have blossomed with Talents and which have had difficulties with it. The conventionally academic high flyers do not, as a rule, take to it easily. "The bright children find it scary," says Hilary Jones, "because in productive thinking, there are no right or wrong answers."
On the other hand, children who may not pass traditional benchmarks of academic or personal progress may outshine others when they are asked to think productively. Ms Jones cites Michael, a seven-year-old with specific learning difficulties which resulted in low self-esteem, who was "unexpectedly good" at productive thinking. "It has done great things for him, being able to demonstrate to his teacher and to the rest of his class how good he is at something. That's another principle of the system - every child has a talent and a strength. At our school, every teacher has got positive results from using Talents, no matter what the age or ability of the child."
Year 3 teacher Caroline Ainsworth spent a session on "planning", demonstrating the collaborative powers of using Talents with a small group. The children's brief was to plan a trip to a museum. The scope of their offerings was illuminating. Not only did it belong to the best traditions of brainstorming, but it showed the teacher how children's minds worked. "We need to tell parents to send packed lunches," offered the first child. This led to a brief discussion of how children who get free school dinners should be catered for.
Within a few minutes, the children had discussed everything they would need to do to ensure a smooth trip. For Caroline Ainsworth, it was just another illustration of how Talents can inspire young minds. "The ideas roll from one child to another as they link up ideas. The important thing is to start from where the children are with Talents. That's why I like it. It makes you look at how often you are really making them think in the course of a day."
THE SIX KEY AREAS OF TALENTS UNLIMITED PRODUCTIVE THINKING
To generate many, varied and unusual ideas or solutions and to add detail to the ideas to improve or make them more interesting.
To outline, weigh, make final judgments and defend a decision on the many solutions to a problem.
To design a means for implementing an idea by describing what is to be done, identifying the resources needed, outlining a sequence of steps to take and pinpointing possible problems.
To make a variety of predictions about he possible causes and effects of various phenomena.
To use and interpret both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication to express ideas, feelings and needs to others.
To develop a base of knowledge and skill about a topic or issue through acquisition of information and concepts.