Where is the "cognitive revolution" that is said to have been taking place in education over the past 40 years? While much lip service has been paid to the impact of cognitive research on educational policy, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the "revolution" is proving something of a damp squib.
The body of work on thinking skills is a good example. In the 1980s, pioneers such as Reuven Feuerstein and Matthew Lipman were emphasising the importance of encouraging pupils to "think about thinking". Since then there have been studies from cognitive scientists endorsing the importance of the higher order cognitive skills that enable learners to integrate new knowledge and structure problems efficiently.
We know that passive learning does not encourage the growth of these skills and that, without them, children cannot apply their learning to different contexts. Frustratingly, most of the empirical evidence available suggests that thinking skills approaches work.
A recent overview of research concludes that these programmes are producing significant improvements. They improve pupils' attitude and performance, both in general reasoning and in curriculum tests, especially in maths and science. And: "The magnitude of gains found appears to be important when compared with the reported effect sizes of other educational interventions"
(Higgins et al 2005).
Psychologically, this makes perfect sense. In designing machines that emulate intelligence, scientists have placed increasing emphasis on the role of meta-programs: systems that exist to co-ordinate and control the functioning of other programs. It is not, therefore, surprising that knowing how to structure problems and mobilise learning resources effectively turns out to be just as important for human learners.
Marcelo Staricoff, a thinking skills proponent and deputy headteacher from Brighton, says a benefit is that children develop the confidence to remain unfazed by the unknown or unfamiliar. "The tools we teach children enable them to drive their own path through their learning."
So why have these approaches, backed up by such reliable research, not had a more profound influence on the way we approach education?
While the thinking skills movement has undoubtedly had a diffuse influence on classroom culture and has been mentioned in the national curriculum since 1998, there has undoubtedly been reluctance to engage with the full implications of the research evidence.
The answer presumably lies partly in the fact that the implications are so far-reaching. The thinking skills approach inevitably finds itself at odds with a Zeitgeist intent on giving content priority over process. The cultivation of the relevant meta-skills requires a flexibility not afforded by an already overcrowded timetable.
Pupils would need time to examine their own learning process and teachers would require the scope to respond creatively to differences in learning styles. Spontaneity, curiosity and exploration would need to be given freer rein and teachers re-focused on the task of producing self-motivated, life-long learners.
The thinking skills agenda is not a bolt-on component that can be used to enhance the functionality of the teaching system, but rather an invitation to redefine the purpose and nature of education. As we map out the workings of the brain, new educational horizons open up before us
Thinking skills are the skills that enable people to reason and solve problems. They include sequencing and ordering information, comparing and contrasting, making inferences and predictions, hypothesising - and testing those hypotheses - and drawing conclusions.
Thinking skills programmes in the classroom help children to understand and express these processes, typically by teacher-led talk, interaction and the use of open-ended questions. Teachers may also teach thinking strategies directly, such as mnemonics and graphic organisers.
One great advantage of the approach is that pupils can apply their skills to other contexts. For instance, research has found that pupils who have followed the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education programme not only perform better in science, but also get significantly better GCSE results in maths and English.
Feuerstein, R; Rand, Y; Hoffman, MB; and Miller, R. (1980) Instrumental Enrichment: An intervention programme for cognitive modifiability.
Baltimore: University Park Press.
Higgins, S; Hall, E; Baumfield, V; Moseley, D. (2005) "A meta-analysis of the impact of the implementation of thinking skills approaches on pupils".
In: Research Evidence in Education Library, EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.
Lipman, M; Sharp, A; and Oscanyan, F. (1980) Philosophy in the Classroom.
Princeton: Temple University Press.
Staricoff, M and Rees, A. (2005) Start Thinking: Daily starters to inspire thinking in primary classrooms. Imaginative Minds: Birmingham.