Using thinking skills across the curriculum can be an effective way to boost learning. Anne-Louise Gibbon describes her experiences of developing thinking skills activities as part of a school working party

Mysteries, Odd One Out, Mind Maps and Diamond Nines. These are all thinking skill techniques that I have come across in my seven years of teaching. So, when I heard that a member of staff at my school was putting together a thinking skills working party to develop the use of such methods across the curriculum I was quick to put my name down, thinking I would have plenty to contribute, if not teach a few of the people a thing or two.

However, amid the steaming cups of coffee and chocolates of that first meeting, when faced with the question ‘What are thinking skills’ I quickly realised that my contributions were limited to the names of the above techniques. I was surprised that half of the eight or so other participants had not heard of these activities, but still I felt out of my depth when we started to discuss the point of thinking skills: getting pupils to discover how they discover. I had to accept although I was a hot shot with the tasks and practical activities, my grasp of the concepts and theory was blurred.

My first encounter with thinking skills was in my PGCE days, when we were encouraged to buy David Leat’s book Thinking Through Geography, which, in addition to practical activities that could be used in lessons, provided the theory behind lots of techniques.

My pupils have always responded well to the activities and resources that I developed from Leat’s examples, and there are many more to be found on the internet (see web reference at the end of the article). These activities might require the pupils to solve questions, classify information, sequence card statements, or ask questions about pictures. If you asked my classes what these types of lessons were about I suspect they might say they were exciting ones involving lots of envelopes with cards in. Somewhere at the back of my mind I have always known that the debriefings were the most important part of the lessons, but over time, as my workload has increased, not to mention the size of my family, the time I have committed to these debriefs has gradually shortened.

What are Mind Maps?
Most of my students love mind mapping. I begin by giving out large sheets of paper and then the pupils write the central key word, idea or questions. Then the diagram is expanded by linking other words or ideas to the centre. It is an image-centred diagram that represents semantic or other connections between portions of information. By presenting these connections in a radial I believe that it encourages a brainstorming approach and allow the pupils to arrange their ideas in a way that makes sense to them. Discussing the manner in which the pupils’ have organised their ideas stimulates them to think more closely about connections and classifications rather than a collection of disconnected words.

A clearer understanding
As the conversation about thinking skills swung back and forth in our small band of scientists, psychologists, historians, musicians and literature specialists I realised that all this time I’d been blithely following Leat’s lead. How had I believed I was true disciple, when I had, in fact, barely scraped the surface and in the process sold myself and my learners short?

Three meetings and some individual research later, our working party has achieved a clearer understanding of the term ‘thinking skills’. We have deliberately avoided saying ‘a clear’ understanding because it became apparent that the more we delved into the issue, the more diverse the interpretations became.

Thinking skills, for us, heralds a time to focus on how pupils learn in lessons, rather than simply what they learn. The writers Feuerstein and Lipman, though from very different starting points, hold a similar belief in children’s abilities. They consider that through thinking exercises and activities learners can exceed the predicted level of competence, which psychometric or school-based tests may have suggested is their limit. (See the ‘History of thinking skills development’ section of the Standards website link given below for more details of these authors.) What thinking skills offers is the chance for our pupils to become independent learners with the potential to improve their understanding of how to achieve. This is then transferred from subject to subject and ultimately prepares them for a world which is ever changing and where companies are increasingly expecting their employees to learn (Ginnis 2002).

The group has concluded that the essence of thinking skills requires pupils not only to think but to talk. John Locke said ‘There is more to be learned from the unexpected questions of children than the discourses of me,’ and when we consider that, as Barry Hymer claims, only 1% of pupils ask questions in school, we can be pretty sure that we might be missing a trick or two in our day-to-day teaching! After activities, such as the ones some of us have to come to know so well, we could be asking:

  • How did you organise the group like that?
  • What do you think the purpose of this activity might be?
  • What have you learned from this activity about working together?

The questions should be deliberately open and pupils should be given plenty of time to think about their answers. This kind of work can work well with assessment for learning too; I get pupils to work in pairs and talk in pairs, but then to find a new partner to find out how they approached the activity. This can lead to an opportunity for pupils to reflect on how to approach a similar task in a more successful manner, using what they have learned from their peers.

What are Mysteries?
When designing a Mystery, I usually begin with setting the class a question. This will hopefully stir up some curiosity and anticipation. Typically I write this question on the board and on envelopes, enough to share one between two pupils. Within the envelope I place information; perhaps pictures, statements, you could even include objects! The pupils are then given a set amount of time to try and solve the mystery, using the objects within the envelope. Sometimes, with the less able I will have to direct them to perhaps classify the information, or group them in a particular way. Pupils have to deal with the ambiguity of the question as well as try and determine what information is relevant!

Once they think they have the answer, you can use writing frames, or tables for them to record their ideas. But remember, the discussion of how they solved the mystery is just, if nor even more important as solving the mystery itself.

Spreading the wordHaving secured a better understanding of what thinking skills was about, we were keen to spread the word across the school. We knew we could perhaps coach and demonstrate a few of the techniques to staff in general, but there was concern that they might fall into the same trap as I did – that they would use the techniques successfully but devalue the tasks by not emphasising the ‘how were you thinking?’ part.

Our solution was that we should disseminate an adaptation of Bloom’s Taxonomy across the school. Bloom’s Taxonomy clearly shows the different levels of thinking from lower to higher order. We turned it into a ladder to help pupils envision the need to climb the rungs and as a result access higher levels of thinking. We picture pupils performing a thinking skills activity and then staff referring our ladder in the form of a poster on the wall or an image on the interactive whiteboard.

What is Odd One Out?
Odd One Out prompts the pupils to think about the characteristics of items and what connections may exist between them. I usually write a list of three words and get the pupils to choose the odd one out. I often find that the pupils have very different ideas of what word is odd, and listening to them justify and explain their reasoning is highly enlightening!

It is likely that each rung will need some more words to clarify what is meant by ‘Analyse’ or ‘Create’, but the basic idea will be for pupils to recognise what level or rung that they have been using. If this was a whole-school approach it might be the case that pupils will come to pre-empt the teachers’ questions and attempt to access higher levels of thinking during activities in the classroom. That might be somewhere in the future; there’s plenty of work to do first, but as a group I certainly feel that we have breathed some life into thinking skills. Initially that breath might simply be stimulating improvement in our own teaching, but with plans to disseminate and an opportunity to talk with our colleagues I am sure that this will empower our pupils and enable them to become more independent and interdependent learners. It’s also taught me that it doesn’t hurt to revisit ideas and techniques from my younger years and that your personal journey as a teacher is never ended, and can actually be quite interesting too. But just don’t tell everyone that I said that.

What are Diamond Nines?
One of the simplest thinking skills activities, Diamond Nine involves pupils having nine key words, or key terms on nine cards. The pupils might have thought of them themselves, or they may be given. The pupils then place the cards in order, or importance, or value, etc, in this sort of shape:

Following this activity it is useful for pupils to compare their ideas and reasoning for their formations, and the discussions that this activity generates can be highly advanced
and diverse. 

Anne-Louise Gibbon is a geography teacher from St Leonard’s Catholic High School