How to Create and Develop a Thinking Classroom By Mike Fleetham
Getting the Buggers to Think By Sue Cowley Continuum pound;12.99
Nicola Call's The Thinking Child Resource Book provides advice on a wide range of "brain-based" teaching ideas for early years teachers. The concept of brain-based learning is a little odd, for most learning must surely involve some activity of mind (or brain). Nicola Call claims that brain-based research has informed the approaches to teaching advocated in the book. Beginning with the physical needs of the brain it offers practical strategies to ensure hydration, nutrition, sleep, movement and attention. Other brain-based techniques include mind mapping, use of music and "brain-break" activities.
Advice is illustrated with case studies and scenarios drawn from early years settings. The book is punctuated with lists such as 21 ways to manage impulsive behaviour and 75 ideas for interesting displays. Some ideas, such as "Encourage children to pole-bridge", contain insufficient guidance for those who don't know what it means (why? when? how?) and seem superfluous for those who do.
"Forty ways to get creative" includes advice such as "blow bubbles outside or inside" and "put sponges in the sand tray". How these activities are creative is not explained. What they might do is to take the reader beyond the book to think of ways the suggested task could be made creative. The research base for the book is thin (Howard Gardner's 1983 version of his theory of multiple intelligences is cited but not his later work). There are some useful ideas here for working with children. What is needed is a thinking teacher to turn the lists of activities into rich experience.
Mike Fleetham's How to Create and Develop a Thinking Classroom is another general introduction to "tools" such as brain-based learning, individual learning styles, multiple intelligences, thinking skills, accelerated learning and VAK. These are, of course, not tools at all, but theoretical constructs supported by varying levels of research. The book comprises four short chapters. The introduction to the final chapter says ominously "all you will need to get going" to develop your Thinking Classroom "is a photocopier", and, predictably, the book ends with 10 photocopiable worksheets. Little reference is made to research or to further reading, although some websites are given for commercial products such as BrainGym and Buzan's mindmapping software. A virtue of the book is that it is short.
It contains some practical ideas for classroom use - a boon for the busy teacher, but any thoughtful teacher will want more than this.
Sue Cowley's Getting the Buggers to Think has high ambitions - to bring joy through "lighting the flame of a love for learning within your children that will never fade". Though why children are referred to as "buggers" is not explained. The book has no reference to research or the work of any other educator, no talk of learning objectives or reference to the primary strategies, only passing reference to the national curriculum, no suggestion for further reading or engagement in debates about the nature or assessment of thinking. It is assumed that "thinking" is a good thing. Not so - thinking can be sloppy, unfocused, unreasonable and superficial.
Thinking is not an end in itself but a potential means for improved learning.
What is offered is a range of vaguely creative tasks, some useful introductory advice on circle time and management issues such as how to remember children's names. The suggested activities might be useful for wet playtimes or worried parents. Flour Babies is one such activity, where bags of flour are used as pretend babies for children to "babysit". "I just love this idea," enthuses the author, confessing she has "used it on a number of occasions, with varying results."
She admits the final chapter caused problems. She did not know what to write, so made a "lateral jump" - the kind of "original and innovative thinking" she claims this book is about. The final chapter becomes a plea for "your ideas about exercises for thinking skills" - promising to include some in future editions. I have an alternative idea - let us not just share exercises and activities, let us begin by thinking about the specific purposes of learning and find evidence for what works in the classroom. In that way we might turn mere activity into real learning.
Robert Fisher is professor of education at Brunel University