Thinking revolution that stills the brain

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Is the new big idea going to get a ministerial kiss of death, asks Mark Edwards.

Primary teachers will be aware of an emerging interest in thinking skills. Books and courses abound; there is even a whole magazine devoted to the subject. At first glance this looks like a good thing. Yet I am not getting too excited. I am experiencing a distinct sense of dej... vu which is in danger of turning into downright cynicism. I await with dread the arrival of a DfES document on the subject, because it would be the kiss of death.

I have good reasons for saying this. In the mid 1980s, I was one of the then education secretary Sir Keith Joseph's band of "maths missionaries". Our "mission" was to venture into the darker regions of the local education authority and turn the natives on to a new type of maths teaching. This followed the publication of the Cockcroft Report which recommended the development of investigative and problem-solving approaches to maths.

I ran in-service courses and demonstrated lessons - often using games, puzzles and "real-life" problems - that were designed to fire children and teachers' enthusiasm and get them thinking - logically, creatively and mathematically.

It all went very well, and even parents got involved at evening and Saturday workshops; they would often bombard me on a Monday morning with answers to various mathematical conundrums that they had spend most of the weekend pondering. But a few months later things started to change again. Sir Keith disappeared, Kenneth Baker arrived, and then came the national curriculum.

I didn't worry too much at first - I thought it would be a simple affair to link the approaches I had developed to the new attainment targets. What I didn't notice straightaway was what was happening to the commercial resources that were arriving in schools to support the new curriculum. I remember the feeling of dismay that I experienced on opening a book which had the words "real-life problems" in the title, and which then asked how to share 240 apples equally among six children. Very hungry children they must have been.

So it was with a feeling of nostalgia the other day that I picked up another book, in a local school, on mathematical investigations. It dated from the mid 80s and I flicked through it, recognising some of the logical problems that were described, and I wondered who had written it. No, it wasn't one of mine. It was by an author whose name I had seen that same morning - on the cover of a newly-acquired book on thinking skills. Furthermore, closer investigation revealed that many of the ideas contained in the new book had had earlier incarnations as mathematical investigations.

Well, good for the author for having the savvy to recycle. And good for the children that they may have an opportunity to experience learning in a way that many will find highly motivating. But I can't help wondering if the new thinking skills approach will go the same way as the mathematical investigation stuff did in the 90s. The system, whatever that is, does not seem to like to encourage children to think for themselves or to look at things in a different way. The system that we have at the moment seems instead to take hold of something creative and different and mould it into a creature of its own fashion. In doing so it removes something vital.

It reminds me of an old 50s science fiction film called The Blob in which a vast lump of jelly wobbled along, absorbing everything in its path and getting bigger and bigger. No matter what it was, once it was absorbed by The Blob, it became part of that indefinable lump.

That's why I dread the arrival of a DfES publication on Thinking Skills. I just know it will be boring and have nothing to do with real creativity. Anything that happens in schools nowadays has to be quantifiable, with visible, easily measurable progress. That's why we have a dumbed down, non-thinking curriculum geared to producing statistics rather than educated, thinking people.

The story goes that Sir Keith used to wander the corridors of the Houses of Parliament asking "what is the purpose of education?" It's a question that is seldom asked there these days, but if it was, one might be tempted to answer that its purpose is to keep the Government of the day in power.

That's what I think. What about you?

Mark Edwards is an educational consultant. Any thoughts? Write to Primary@tes.co.uk

A post-Cockcroft activity

'Guess the Number', from the MEP computer resource pack for teachers, by Anita Straker (1984), where the teacher thinks of a number between, say, one and 100. The children can ask questions such as is it oddless than 20 to which the teacher can only reply yes or no.

A thinking skills game

There is a bingo game for primary-age children in a resource pack called Let's Think, published by Nelson, in which children ask questions about a picture of clown - is his hair blue, are his lips red? Similar cognitive processes are involved.

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