• Learning Together

Getting Children to think.


Stephen McConkey, an experienced head teacher and co-author of the Learning Together series of verbal and non-verbal reasoning series, asks us to think about thinking.

 "Think about it John!" - A reasonable approach 

"Think about it John!" or "You're not thinking Mary!" How often in a school day would we hear this 'chant' or should it be this 'rant' from our teaching staff?


Scientific research has shown us the various ways in which our brains learn - visual, auditory, tactile and so on and educationalists tell us how this knowledge can guide our teaching styles - a class of 30 pupils requiring 30 different styles - do you recognise the picture? 

As a school staff we sat down to analyse our internal school exam results and it was obvious to all that 'Problem Solving' was indeed a problem!  So we asked the question "Why is this so?"

Heated debate followed with various reasons offered including - "Our children don't think!" or "Our pupils are from a deprived area and are less able!"  I couldn't and, as a self -respecting head teacher, wouldn't accept the second premise.  The first theory, however, did catch my attention - "Our children don't think!" 

If this is the case and it obviously is, why does it happen?  As a province with a population of approximately 1 ½ million we have a grammar school selection system which until relatively recently was based on Verbal Reasoning tests (verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests are still widely used in many areas of England and Scotland as a selection tool at 11+ and 12+) 

I don't wish to comment on the debate surrounding grammar school selection tests at 11 years or 12 years except to recount the comment of a senior member of our staff - "At least when we had the 11+ Verbal Reasoning tests we had to teach the pupils to think!" 

How much of the truth is held in the last 8 words of this statement?  As a staff we wanted to unpick the issues and if there was a problem - how could we fix it? 

The reality began to dawn on myself and my staff that we really do not teach our pupils to think or reason yet we expect them to be able to do it –“naturally”.  We wouldn't consider the premise that a year 1 or Year 2 pupil can read “naturally” and therefore not teach him/her to read.  We wouldn't consider telling a pupil to enter the swimming pool with the misguided belief that he / she can swim – “naturally” - no, we would teach them to swim.  We teach lots of different, perhaps isolated 'things' in a school but I'm not sure that we teach our pupils to think or reason and this should be our number one priority. 

Most teachers have made their way through into adult life without ever having been taught to think and will have developed their thinking skills primarily through a process of trial and error.  Intrinsic to this process is the error or failure element - so devastating to all people especially young primary school children.  If we knew that we wouldn't fail we would try everything!  We all know our pupils fear failure and so don't or won't try new or different things. We ask pupils to think and reason yet give them little or no guidance or teaching in this central issue. 

The list and type of thinking and reasoning skills demanded of pupils is daunting and includes :-

Information - processing skills allowing pupils to analyse information, sort data and classify items.

Questioning skills - allowing pupils to plan, predict outcomes and define problems (not just ask why? why? why?)