You can agree with people when they are not your friend and you don't even like them." I overheard this comment while listening to a group of infant school children discussing a thinking skills activity in their RE lesson. They were looking at three images of Jesus drawn from different cultures and their task was to work in groups to decide which was the odd one out, and give a reason why. The activity develops skills in categorising and classifying information, as well as encouraging reasoning. It also gives the teacher valuable insight into the pupils' prior knowledge and misconceptions and is a useful assessment tool.
In the infant class that I observed, the discussion would not have been out of place in a sixth-form ethics lesson as the merits of deciding how many factors could support a view as opposed to weighing factors according to their importance - quality versus quantity - were examined.
The emphasis on respecting the opinion of others, evaluating arguments using explicit criteria and exercising good judgement, make thinking skills approaches particularly attractive to teachers of RE. But if you embed thinking skills into existing RE schemes of work, what does the lesson look like?
Articulation: pupils talk about their work and are encouraged to describe their thinking.
Mediation: the teacher intervenes to discuss the learning. Sometimes the pupils act as mediators for their peers in the paired and group work.
Connecting learning: the teacher and the pupils make connections between the tasks and their experiences. It helps pupils to apply what they know and can already do to new situations.
Metacognition: the teacher and pupils discuss and evaluate the learning. This helps to develop an understanding of learning strategies, styles or approaches that may help them in future learning.
Thinking skills approaches also address many of the key issues identified in policy documents from QCA and Ofsted addressing standards in RE:
* planning in RE often focuses on what teachers will teach rather than what pupils will learn. Developing thinking skills activities makes teachers focus on what pupils will learn.
* progress is characterised by gains in knowledge rather than deeper understanding or extension of skills. Feedback from pupils during the lessons and through their written work demonstrates a deeper understanding with evidence of the use of analogies, more critical evaluation and the linking of ideas and concepts from one topic to the next.
* too often the context for extended writing is narrative or description. Pupils' written work is more evaluative and they are able to draw upon a range of different opinions and form judgements based on the strength of the arguments.
* pupils receive few opportunities to analyse, interpret, compare and contrast, or to develop their own ideas. A key factor in the improved motivation of pupils is an appreciation of the chance to discuss and develop their own ideas.
* The language of respect is important in RE. An open and inclusive use of language will encourage pupils to respect themselves and their traditions and develop respect for the beliefs of others.
Vivienne Baumfield is director of the Thinking Skills Research Centre at the University of Newcastle and author of Thinking Through Religious Education, (Chris Kington Publishing, pound;30) A final word Thinking skills offer a valuable tool for the teacher but, like all tools, careful choices need to be made about when, where and how to incorporate them. They will particularly lend themselves to exploring issues where it is important to take account of a range of opinion and be open to ideas, but may not be as appropriate for acquiring factual knowledge where direct instruction may be more efficient.