• 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?)

Creative skills - allowing pupils to express and extend new and current ideas.

Reasoning Skills - allowing pupils to make informed decisions based on reasons and evidence.

The list is huge yet we send pupils into this educational minefield with little or no teaching in the area of thinking or reasoning. 

One member of our staff has just returned from teaching in Australia in a school which taught some aspect of 'thinking' each and every week.  We are currently using her skills and knowledge to introduce some aspects of this to our own school.  She is introducing a collection of up to ten different approaches to help pupils think and reason out a problem. Included in this are many simple techniques that would have been 'taught' during preparation for verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests - the type of tests used for grammar school selection.  Taught strategies will now include making a table, making a list, looking for patterns, making pictures and diagrams and brainstorming involving pupils and staff. All skills of the type taught to pupils being prepared for 11+ or 12+ examinations. 

We don't expect dramatic and sudden changes but we are looking for positive long-term improvements in our pupil's ability to think and reason.  This new approach cannot be poured over the school community to get a quick fix but will require time to become integrated into the day-to-day process of education. 

The teaching of pupils to think is represented by a strong movement in America going under many titles including 'Critical Thinking' (key 'critical thinking' into Google and you get nearly 4 million results).  This group, a very large group, reason that if you teach children to think in a 'critical' manner then you can add significantly to the vocational and personal success of pupils.  Critical thinking will help with assessment as pupils analyse and assess their own work in all spheres of school life.  Raising self esteem and the importance of the individual are central to critical thinking and it should not be seen as an isolated skill but as something central to the whole process of education.  The ability to think critically across all subject matter and curricular areas is something that isn't natural but must be taught - the two skills of thinking and questioning go hand in hand. 

Taken to its highest level when pupils are taught to think and reason then they are better placed to reason their actions against the expected outcomes and this can reduce poor behaviour in school and anti-social behaviour in society. 

 Pupils sitting grammar school selection tests will have been prepared for the exam and taught to 'think' as they are taught to reason out verbal and non-verbal reasoning questions.  Is this why grammar school pupils are less likely to be involved in violence and anti-social behaviour?  Has initial teaching in the art and skill of thinking via verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests been carried forward into post-primary schools and into adult life where they think about the consequences of their actions? 

Simplistic I know but is there an element of truth here and was my teacher correct when she said, "At least when we had the 11+ verbal reasoning tests we had to teach them to think!" 

Teach them to think positively and not to fear failure. 

Learning Together 11-plus Publishers Ltd.

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