Unlock those little grey cells

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
Thinking skills

Should teaching now focus on how, rather than what, pupils learn? Elaine Williams reports

For the past 20 years education policy in England and Wales has been driven by concerns about what - rather than how - children learn in school. The national curriculum and subject syllabuses have been created, scrutinised and revised again and again.

Now attitudes are changing and there is more concern with how pupils can improve their thinking. For much of the 20th century educational theories and practice assumed that thinking and reasoning abilities were fixed. A lot of research now suggests that people can be made more intelligent through higher-quality thinking.

Much of this research highlights the need for improved interaction between teacher and learner. And some successful programmes, such as Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (see box), claim to dramatically improve GCSE performance.

The Government is waking up to this shift in focus. In 1998, the Department for Education and Employment commissioned a review and evaluation of research into thinking skills by Professor Carol McGuinness of Queen's University, Belfast, Britain's leading researcher on this subject.

Her latest research project: "Sustainable thinking classrooms" which will evaluate "more stringently" the impact of thinking approaches on pupils' learning, has recently gained major funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. She said: "Research so far has shown that making thinking skills more explicit can change children's approach to learning. Instead of jumping to conclusions they begin to ask for evidence."

The revised national curriculum includes thinking skills, but the advice is buried in the secondary teachers' handbook. The suspicion is that ministers are nervous of embracing thinking skills for fear of rattling traditionalists who favour a content-based approach.

Advocates of thinking skills argue that learning is about searching out meaning and imposing structure, going beyond the information given, dealing systematically yet flexibly with novel problems, adopting a critical attitude to information and communicating effectively.

Professor McGuinness and her ilk believe that pupils must be taught how to become better thinkers. This involves tasks that have a degree of open-endedness and uncertainty. Thinking skills generally refer to the ability to sequence and sort; compare; make predictions; relate cause and effect; draw conclusions; generate new ideas; problem-solve; test solutions and make decisions.

Professor Robert Fisher of Brunel University, who has written about primary teaching of thinking and is associated with a programme to teach children philosophy, is fond of the adage: "Education is what you remember when you forget everything you have been taught." In other words, the way in which you have learned to think is what will carry you through life.

"The old-fashioned view of intelligence was that you were born with it, like a nose, but cognitive research reveals that the brain is more like a muscle than a nose: you have to stretch it so it becomes more flexible," he said.

Because the movement has no official government backing it is difficult to know how many schools are teaching thinking skills, but hundreds are involved in each of the major programmes such as Philosophy for Children.

Dr David Leat, a senior lecturer in education at Newcastle University, co-ordinates a Thinking through Geography programme. He said that the development of thinking skills was an antidote to the national curriculum and inspection. These had "closed things down and made teachers play safe".

He said: "There is a huge difference between asking a class a closed question which requires only one answer and asking a genuinely open question which requires children to give and develop the reasoning behind their answers. It's about creating powerful pedagogic tools which require pupils to talk about how they have handled information, how they have made decisions, and to connect their understanding to other bits of the curriculum and to life outside and beyond the classroom."

He says that if we don't create pupils who are better thinkers "then we will reach a glass ceiling on results". In countries such as Singapore and China, curriculum content is being reduced by up to 50 per cent to make room for creative and thinking skills, which they see as the key to an adaptable, flexible and quality workforce. Many believe that we should follow suit.

From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classrooms by Carol McGuinness, school of psychology, Queen's University: www.dfee.gov.ukresearchre_briefrb115.doc


Key thinking skills programmes include:

* CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education): designed to develop scientific-type thinking in key stage 3. One of the most successful and well-evaluated programmes.

A parallel programme (CAME) targets mathematical thinking.

Contacts: www.KCL.ac.ukdepstaeducationteachingCAT.html (for CASE and CAME); www.case-network.org * Thinking Through Geography: built around big concepts in order to teach the subject in a way that develops thinking.

Contacts: www.ncl.ac.ukneduc * Philosophy for Children: widely used in primary schools, particularly in social and moral education where the philosophical emphasis on questions and questioning is important. Evaluations show improvements in children's discussion and argumentative skills and self-esteem. Contacts: www.brunel.ac.ukfacultyedrobert_fisher * Activating Children's Thinking Skills (ACTS): an upper primary infusion methodology (where thinking skills are threaded through the curriculum, not taught as a bolt-on). Teachers trained in ACTS (based on the work of Swartz amp; Parks, USA) have identified opportunities for developing a range of thinking skills in the Northern Ireland curriculum at key stage 2.Contact: c.mcguinness@qub.ac.uk * Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment: one of the best-known general thinking skills programmes in the world. Initially intended for slow-learning adolescents it is now used across wider age groups and abilities.

The Somerset Thinking Skills Course is a UK version of this approach. Contact: nba@somersetthinkingskills.co.uk; www.somersetthinkingskills.co.uk


Case study: St Thomas More

Year 7 geographers at St Thomas More Roman Catholic high school, in North Shields, were having to think long and hard about the cause and effect of population growth.

They were struggling to plot a series of statements along a graph recording growth from the Middle Ages to the present. Where, for example, to place the statement: "Most people in the Sudan, including children, work on farms"? In the distant past, in the 19th century, now?

Group discussion ensued about the state of Africa past and present. Julie McGrane, head of geography, called the class together and pushed the reasoning further through constant questioning, exploring concepts like more and less developed countries and the notion that more does not necessarily mean better.

Pupils seemed eager to take part, and there was certainly no "off-task behaviour" as Ms McGrane calls it. But 11-year-old David Allcock put it more plainly. His teacher's probing approach, he said, "makes you get your brain working".

One of McGrane's favourite strategies is called "mysteries". It requires pupils to organise 30 statements to explain their answer to a question. She said: "When a child is stuck and you ask them what they are stuck on they often find it difficult to explain. But when you see them physically working on the table you can interpret what is going on in the brain and where the problem lies."

St Thomas More is a training school and has beacon status. Over 60 per cent of its 1,300 pupils, drawn from an area of high unemployment, gained five higher-grade GCSEs last year.

It is a member of the North-east school-based research consortium into thinking skills, a partnership between the Thinking Skills Research Centre, Newcastle University, North Tyneside and Northumberland education authorities and six secondaries. It is one of four consortia established by the Teacher Training Agency three years ago to undertake classroom-based research.

Ms McGrane, 29, is in charge of training in teaching and learning, but she is also responsible for the development of thinking skills in the school. She became a convert to the movement as a student teacher under Dr David Leat at Newcastle, the author of Thinking Through Geography (Chris Kington Publishing, pound;25).

No fewer than 27 teachers at St Thomas More are now involved in developing a whole-school, cross-curricular approach to thinking skills. This has involved keeping a video recording of "thinking" lessons and analysing practice, maintaining journals and asking pupils to keep logs.

"The research has made us reflect greatly on the process of how we teach and how children learn. We believe that the kids' ability to handle and process information has improved; writing has become more analytical; pupils give longer responses to questions and are able to pose probing, open questions," she said.

The key to success had been the use of debriefing in lessons in which teachers encouraged pupils to talk about their solutions.

Michael Moat, 17, an A-level geographer, believes he has gained enormously from the approach. He said: "I was one of those who would sit back and let the lesson flow over them. Now I have become more confident about asking questions and about developing the detail of my arguments.

"This approach pushes you to think about other factors rather than hanging onto one thing."

Julie McGrane can be contacted at juliemcgrane@hotmail.com. TTA research paper on thinking skills: www.canteach.gov.ukinfolibrarytta99_11.pdf

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