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Time now to think about thinking;Opinion

I'VE TOLD this story so often I hardly dare repeat it. But this time it is relevant so I will. I'm in my second year of teaching. There's a boy at the back of my class looking out of the window. This is a very unusual thing to do in Watford because there's nothing to see. So I say to him: "What are you doing?" "Thinking", he replies. "Well, stop it," I say, "and get on with your work."

Years later I realised that this absurd conversation accidentally represented something very deep in the British educational tradition. We have tended to assume that intelligence is general, inherited and fixed; that if you're not born clever there's nothing that can be done about it. Worse still, we believe that our job is to teach "stuff" and assume that pupils will learn to think as an incidental by-product.

In fact, both these assumptions have now been shown to be false. While there is a significant element of inheritance in what we call intelligence, it is also now clear, beyond dispute, that much of what we might call applied intelligence can be learnt from experience and explicitly through being taught.

Moreover, actually teaching thinking skills not only makes pupils more intelligent, it raises standards of achievement. The most celebrated British example is the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE). Pupils were taught not only science but how to think about science and how to think about thinking. The control group was taught "stuff" in the normal way. The CASE pupils ended up doing dramatically better, not just in their science GCSE, but in English and maths too.

CASE is just one successful project among many worldwide. As Carol McGuinness points out in the report she prepared for the Government (published this week) there are three different models for putting thinking skills into practice. They can be taught directly in general programmes such as Instrumental Enrichment. They can be taught through subjects as in CASE. Or they can be infused through the curriculum as in the programme called Activating Children's Thinking Skills.

Early in the decade John Nisbet argued that "before the century is out, no curriculum will be regarded as acceptable unless it can be shown to make a contribution to the teaching of thinking". This is a challenge for us to take up as we refine the present curriculum in time for September 2000.

We must do it well because there is a risk that the discussion will drift off into the stratosphere and become perceived as a distraction.

I have seen the teaching of thinking skills in practical action in a number of schools. There are many in this country doing it well. As it happens though, the best example of it I have seen was in Glen Waverley College in Melbourne. There it was embedded in the mission statement, infused through its curriculum and implemented with a substantial investment in professional development. Finally - as if to symbolise the whole project - the staff who led the change, researched its impact and refined the programme.

Nearly two-thirds of pupils in Years 7 and 9 agreed that the programme had improved their understanding of how they learned. Over half had used the thinking strategies in other lessons where the programme had not yet been adopted. These are still early days but already the confidence is growing among pupils and teachers that it will make a difference.

To put it in very British terms - teaching thinking as they do at Glen Waverley is not an alternative to the standards agenda but a way of taking it forward.

Carol McGuinness's report priced pound;4.95, is available from DFEE Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham, NG215 ODJ. Telephone: 0845 6022260 . Or visit thinking Michael Barber is head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit

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