Thinking skills can never be crossed off a teachers ‘to do’ list, argues David Leat. Here he challenges some emerging dogmas about objectives and lesson planning

If someone says ‘We have done thinking skills’ they may have observed the letter of the law but not the spirit. Thinking cannot be ‘done’ in the sense of being finished – it is always work in progress. My own thinking is still fairly rudimentary and full of holes and mistakes, and I notice what I can’t do and stumble over. In this article I intend to challenge some emerging dogmas about objectives and lesson planning.

A definition
Moseley et al (2005) offer a useful definition of teaching thinking skills: ‘courses or organised activities which identify for learners translatable (as opposed to directly transferable) mental processes and/or which require learners to plan, describe and evaluate their thinking and learning.’

Four things stand out for me here. Firstly, translation or transfer of learning is implicated. School education is notable for the student not transferring or translating much of their learning. Secondly, there is an onus on thinking processes and thirdly, there is a strong implication that you need words, indeed a language, in order that students can plan, describe and evaluate their thinking processes. This thinking and talking about thinking is termed metacognition. The fourth thing is almost hidden and it is the word ‘require’. We usually take ‘require’ to mean that you have to do something, but in this case it is not because you will be punished if you don’t, but because the context is exciting, meaningful and draws you in so that you can’t resist. Motivation matters and we cannot assume it. Teaching thinking does not assume motivation but tries to achieve it through challenge, collaboration and making connections. This does not make for tidy lessons with clear outcomes.

Diverse outcomes
There is a rapidly developing dogma in education that all lessons have clear objectives which are shared with students. Good teaching thinking lessons will often offend this slightly misguided principle. In a good thinking lesson the outcomes are likely to be very diverse. One of the theoretical tenets underlying the approach is constructivism. We each construct a unique understanding of new material, messages or experiences depending on what we already know. We use our existing knowledge to help make sense of the new information. It follows that in a stimulating thinking lesson, where groups of students talk intensely in trying to make sense of issues or problems (social constructivism), what is learned by each individual is likely to vary. The more stimulating and challenging a lesson, the more varied the outcomes. Some lessons can have clear objectives, but thinking lessons are better suited to having broad goals.

In one project I interviewed some girls who had been doing a considerable amount of teaching thinking work in geography with an excellent teacher. When asked what they had learned they said that it was the same things in most lessons. This sounds negative, but it wasn’t. They explained that what they were learning was about why things happen, to think beyond your first thought, to look at things from more than one point of view, about how thinking got better if you shared ideas. Such outcomes are not achieved in one lesson: they are long term.

This hints that teaching thinking may have delayed effects and the learning may not be measurable in the short term. Indeed, CASE (cognitive acceleration through science education) and CAME lessons are aimed at accelerating cognitive development over a period of two years rather than any particular knowledge, understanding or skill objective. It is quite likely and entirely healthy that students can emerge from a thinking experience in a confused state unable to resolve a tangle of thoughts. Generally speaking, struggling with thought is good for you as not all learning comes in tidy, neatly labelled packages.

It is tempting to assume that if you cannot accurately predict learning outcomes in thinking lessons then you can just ignore or forget about them and let them take their own course. Not so – instead the teacher plays a very crucial role in mediating the learning the experience. In other words they go to considerable lengths to help the student make the fullest meaning possible from it. My colleagues and I tend to use the word debriefing as this term has a meaning in our culture which is helpfully suggestive. However, mediating or debriefing successfully means that the teacher has to collect whatever intelligence that they can about what the pupils have learned. You need to watch and listen carefully, not for right answers but for interesting comments and methods, creative thinking, nice ideas, appealing solutions and productive bits of dialogue. With careful questioning added to your observations one can begin to piece together what happened or how students tackled a task. From here the challenge is to learn as much as possible from that – to make meaning.

Implications for planning
All of this has serious implications for planning. I am arguing that you cannot fully predict what learning will come out of a particular thinking lesson. Of course experience helps. However, one cannot plan all one’s questions in advance or indeed what needs to be said in the final lesson plenary (or debriefing). You can plan up to a point but the teacher also needs to be responsive and interactive, able to make decisions which will take lessons in particular directions to suit unfolding events. In good thinking lessons you hear of ideas or actions which you have not encountered before and you decide to follow your nose because you think it is the most productive thing to do. This presents new challenges to professional learning.

Further reading:
Moseley, D, Baumfield, V, Elliott, J, Gregson, M, Higgins, S, Miller, J, and Newton, DP (2005) Frameworks for Thinking: A Handbook for Teaching and Learning, Cambridge: CUP