Thinking in threes

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Teachers are planning lessons where concepts carry across subject boundaries. And the pupils are finding it easier to catch on, writes Diana Hinds

Fiona Morgan has two objectives for today's French lesson with Year 8. The first is for them to write longer sentences about what they do in their free time; the second relates to thinking skills - to become better at sequencing and sorting. The lesson begins with both objectives written on the board, and a brief discussion of the nature and usefulness of sequencing. "Your homework relies on you getting good at thinking in the lesson," Ms Morgan tells her class.

Soon the pupils are working in small groups, composing sentences out of short phrases written on strips of coloured paper: "Une fois par semaine je visite ma famille et je joue au ping-pong."

Slowly but surely, the children begin to grasp the idea that they can make new sentences for themselves by manipulating groups of words. They review this strategy in the lesson plenary, and consider where else sequencing might be a help to them.

"In maths, if you have a series of numbers, you can see patterns," volunteers one boy.

Fiona Morgan is one of 12 teachers at Seven Kings in Redbridge, north-east London, being trained this year in thinking skills techniques, under the key stage 3 leading in learning programme. Later in the year Ms Morgan will get the chance to work closely with teachers in other subject areas - art and science - planning cycles of three lessons that will all focus around the same thinking skill, to encourage pupils to make connections across the curriculum.

But already she has the thinking skills bit between her teeth, is reading up about it and beginning to try things out in lessons.

"For me as a teacher it is really good to look at other subject areas," she says. "And I think the three-subject cycle will make the links much more explicit for the children."

Some pupils have already had a taste of this approach. The school was one of five in Redbridge to take part in the leading in learning one-year pilot, which ended in April. From February next, the programme will be extended nationally.

"We learnt to work as a group, and we had to think a lot," recalls Deimante, aged 12. "You get to think in groups, so you had a lot of ideas to choose from. It was more interesting because there was more talking - we didn't get to read and write like usual."

Vallisha, 13, is also enthusiastic: "It's interesting to carry out the same way of thinking in all three subjects. It makes work easier, because you know what you're going to be doing in the next lesson, so you can prepare yourself. If every lesson was like that, it would be easy... And homework was really easy, because you start thinking more."

Thinking skills as an approach to learning has been gaining in popularity for some years - through programmes such as Case (cognitive acceleration in science education). But the new and distinctive feature of this programme is that it specifies three teachers working together, in different subjects, to plan cycles of interlinked lessons.

"We were anxious to find a way of developing a thinking skills programme that, when fully implemented, would involve all or most departments and teachers, and would make explicit the links between subject lessons," explains Alan Wigley, lead regional director for leading in learning.

Clearly, this involves a good deal of time - for the three teachers to plan together, review together, and, where possible, observe each other's lessons. But Seven Kings school's three pilot "guinea-pigs" - drawn from religious education, history and maths - are unanimous about the benefits.

"To have other people reflecting with you on your practice is a very positive teaching experience," says Adele Rood, an RE teacher who is keen to collaborate more in future. She says the programme has made her much more explicit in the language she uses in class.

For instance, in a Year 11 lesson she gives a clear exposition of the skills pupils need in order to answer an "evaluation" question, breaking it down into its constituent parts. The class follows without difficulty.

These are inclusive techniques, which can often help to draw in pupils with special needs. Some pupils who struggle with writing will relish the chance to explore ideas verbally, and the emphasis on clarity of language can only be an aid to understanding.

At the beginning, says maths teacher Ari Arestides, he was unsure how the approach would work in his subject. "But we now use more language in maths - even making up stories - and this makes it more enjoyable for the pupils.

It's not just: 'Add two and two together' any more; it's how we do it, why we do it, getting the children to think about it all the time."

Thinking skills at Seven Kings have developed "very comfortably" out of the school's earlier work on assessment for learning, says Sir Alan Steer, the headteacher. This was another strand in the key stage 3 strategy. It focuses on helping teachers to help pupils take the next steps in their learning, through appropriate questioning and feedback, and encourages pupils to help themselves and each other, through peer- and self-assessment.

Tracy Smith, deputy head, agrees that both strands - leading in learning and assessment for learning - dovetail very nicely. "There is a culture now in school where we talk to children about learning and thinking, and they know why they are engaging in certain activities: it's what school is about. It's good teaching - and nothing more than that, in a way."

LEADING IN LEARNING: HOW IT WORKS

Schools begin by selecting three teachers, in three different subjects, for initial training.

The teachers meet to plan a cycle of three inter-related lessons (for example, one cycle per half term). For each cycle, they focus on one of the five National Curriculum Thinking Skills: information processing, reasoning, enquiry, creative thinking, and evaluation. Training material provides ideas on different teaching strategies to adopt, such as questioning, establishing collaborative groupwork, running effective plenaries. Lesson content need not deviate from the curriculum.

One teacher gives the first lesson, watched, if possible, by one of the other two. (Videoing the lesson is an alternative.) The lesson begins with a starter activity, which may be followed by pupils working together in groups. The lesson ends with a substantial plenary session, in which pupils review and reflect on their learning.

The three teachers meet for a debriefing on the first lesson. They plan the second, which is given one to two weeks later, followed in due course by the third. The start of the second and third lessons will make specific reference to the thinking skill explored previously, and the plenary sessions allow time for pupil reflection, metacognition (thinking about their thinking) and bridging.

In time, this model is extended to include as many staff, and pupils, as possible. Teachers observing lessons with a thinking skills focus is strongly encouraged.

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