What are ‘thinking skills’, and how can they be nurtured in young children? Jenni Clarke provides an introduction What are thinking skills? ‘Education is not just learning knowledge and skills, but the development of children’s learning capacity. Education is the development of thinking clearly and creatively, implementing their own plans and communicating their ideas to others in a variety of ways.’

(Sue Palmer and Galina Doyle, 2004) Thinking is a complex process that involves a variety of skills that are often used together when confronted with a new and interesting situation. Sharing the process of thinking with a child in meaningful and playful situations supports the development of thinking skills. It is also a fantastic opportunity for an adult to become more aware of children’s understanding and knowledge of the world, how they make sense of what is happening around them, how they communicate their thoughts and what they can do with the ideas in their minds. Thinking skills are about how knowledge is acquired and how to use this knowledge. They include an element of knowing about thinking called ‘metacognition’. Metacognition is the knowledge of your own thinking process, evidenced by planning an approach to a learning task, monitoring your understanding and evaluating the whole process to completion. Being motivated to continue with the task, however difficult it is, is part of metacognition too. Thinking skills are related to encouraging children to learn to think for themselves, learning through real situations in a highly motivating environment. The thinking skills which constitute the generic term ‘critical thinking’ are enquiry, information processing, reasoning, evaluation, problem-solving and creative thinking (see box below). Being aware of these different thinking skills enables adults to provide safe, creative environments and play situations where thinking can be sustained.

The six critical thinking skills Enquiry skills enable the learner to ask questions, to think about the right question to ask, and to plan more questions based on the answers received. Children need opportunities to ask and answer different types of questions – the more open ended the better for encouraging thinking. As they need to hear questions and answers in a variety of contexts it is vital that adults model questioning in play situations.Information processing skills enable the learner to do something with the answers received and the information gathered. Through processing information the learner becomes able to organize and retain the most relevant information.

Children need to see and experience how different pieces of information link together; an adult thinking this process through out loud enables young children to understand how this works.

Reasoning skills enable the learner to form an opinion based on the relevant information they have gathered.

By using reasoning skills children become capable of verbalizing these thoughts and learn to explain their opinions to others. Again it is necessary for adults and older children to model this thinking process and support the explanations. As the development of reasoning skills is closely related to the development of both language and emotional and social skills all need to be developed alongside one another to avoid children becoming frustrated through not being able to express themselves clearly.

Evaluation skills enable the learner to look at the information they have and decide whether they agree with it or not.

Through the evaluation process children begin to develop criteria for judging information and analyzing their own findings. This progresses on to being aware of what they want to achieve and helps them to realize when they have achieved their objective to a satisfactory degree. These skills are again linked with social, emotional and language ability and need to be modelled and supported in an empathetic manner.

Problem-solving skills give the learner the ability to recognize that things can be changed and that this will make a difference to the end product or ideas.

By using problem-solving skills children develop the ability to recognize a problem as something to be solved rather than as an indication of someone’s failure. In order to do this they need plenty of problem-solving experiences through their play and general everyday life situations.

Creative thinking is the ability to use the imagination to invent something new or to generate new ideas. Creative thinking skills enable the learner to look for alternatives, to look beyond the obvious.

By being encouraged to think creatively children develop the confidence to try out ideas and new methods and to experiment without the fear of being wrong or making a mistake. They need to know that trial and error, and making mistakes are vital for learning and the adults around them need to demonstrate these skills and encourage children to think again, try again, and find a new solution. There is no hierarchical order for these six thinking skills, instead they interrelate and complement one other. These skills need to be nurtured and developed alongside each other in practical, meaningful ways.

The development of all these skills begins at birth. Babies are constantly asking questions, processing information they receive through their senses, making decisions based on experience, evaluating situations depending on their comfort levels, problem solving in order to make sense of all the experiences they have and being creative in their exploration and expression of the world.

Key theories about thinking skills

In the last few years theories about thinking skills have led to different methods for actively teaching thinking skills when working with children in Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum or above.

Instrumental Enrichment (Reuven Feuerstein)

Learning how to learn through discussion and group work, not rote learning and reproduction of the ideas of others. Reuven Feuerstein’s work involved with young immigrants in England after world war two. Because of the traumas these children had suffered they had very low IQs and were labelled ‘uneducable’. Feuerstein worked on discovering what cognitive abilities the young people lacked and then used ‘instrumental enrichment’ techniques based on learning how to learn. This approach helps students to see problems, make connections, motivate themselves and improve their learning.

Philosophy for Children – Thinking through stories (Matthew Lipman)

Providing children with stories that promote thinking gives them the opportunities and freedom to think for themselves. Lipman talks about children as born philosophers because of the natural curiosity they have for the world. He believed that education taught facts, people in authority taught opinions, but no one was teaching children to think. His approach was to use stories to provide a starting point for children’s enquiries; these stories promote questioning and discussion and are used in many countries of the world to support the development of reasoning skills.

Thinking Hats (Edward De Bono)

By learning to understand how emotions affect their thought process, children can develop their creative and logical thinking.

De Bono is well known for his theories on thinking; this method uses color-coded ‘hats’ for children to wear physically and mentally. There are six hats: white for information gathering, red for feelings, black for negative feelings, yellow for positive points, green for creativity, blue for organization and planning. Children work in a small group on a problem, and are encouraged to use one ‘hat’ at a time to understand the different ways they can tackle the problem. When they are familiar with the method they can apply it to working alone as well as in group work. This method is generally used with children aged five and over as it is essential to be able to understand their own and other’s feelings while problem solving.

Thinking Actively in a Social Context (TASC) (Wallace and Adams)

This approach focuses on problem solving, breaking a problem down into pre-assigned stages in order to work through it to a solution. The stages in the TASC process are: gather and organize what is already known; identify the problem; generate loads of ideas; decide which idea may work best; implement the idea; evaluate the results; decide on the best way to communicate what happened to others. It is a social learning process and involves small groups of children working together.

Thinking through Primary Teaching (Steve Higgins)

Instigated the notion of developing subject-specific thinking skills so that teachers can integrate them into lessons. Higgins monitored and evaluated several methods for teaching thinking skills and devised subject-specific skills for teachers to integrate into their lessons.

Activating Children’s Thinking Skills (ACTS) (Carol McGuinness)

A cross-curricular model, involving whole-school changes in order to promote thinking skills as part of everyday learning. This project was aimed at increasing the thinking skills of Key Stage 2 children. As it first developed a shift in perception occurred when it was realized that establishing ‘thinking classrooms’ would be more beneficial. The focus changed to encouraging thinking about thinking – metacognition – as a part of the whole day rather than just teaching thinking skills. McGuiness emphasizes that it is very important for teachers to understand the importance of thinking before establishing a ‘thinking classroom’.

Researching thinking skills

There have also been a number of research projects related to young children and learning carried out or started in the last few years. They have all highlighted ‘sustained shared thinking’ as a major contributory factor to high-quality provision and high-quality learning for young children in early years settings.

Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY)

One of the key findings of this report concerns the development of thinking skills:

  • Good outcomes for children were found to be linked to adult-child interactions that included ‘sustained shared thinking’ and open-ended questioning to extend children’s thinking.
  • Adult ‘modelling’ is often combined with sustained periods of shared thinking.
  • Freely chosen play activities often provided the best opportunities for adults to extend children’s thinking.’

Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE)

In the research for the EPPE project ‘sustained shared thinking’ is identified as one of the key features of high-quality provision, and is described as: ‘Where two or more individuals “work together” in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity or extend a narrative. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend their understanding. The research found that the most effective settings encourage ‘sustained shared thinking’, which was most likely to occur when children were interacting one on one with an adult or with a single peer partner. It would appear that periods of ‘sustained shared thinking’ are a necessary pre- requisite for the most effective early years practice.

Primary Review

The Primary Review is a wide-ranging and independent enquiry into the condition and future of primary education in England. The review began in October 2006 and will continue for two years (see EYU 53). An interim report published in December 2007 on children’s learning emphasizes the importance of thinking skills:

‘Children think and reason largely in the same ways as adults, but they lack experience, and are still developing the ability to think about their own thinking and learning (metacognition). They need diverse experiences in the classroom to help them develop these skills. Learning in classrooms can be enhanced by developing meta-cognitive strategies.’ The early years are so important because of the large amount of brain growth that occurs in the first six years of life. It is vital that thinking skills are nurtured and developed in the early years to support more comprehensive learning when children are older. Teaching ‘thinking skills’ to older children is fine, but helping young children to develop these skills as they play is even more effective.

Thinking skills and the EYFS

Within the EYFS Practice Guidance shared thinking is described as: ‘Sustained shared thinking involves the adult being aware of the children’s interests and understandings and the adult and children working together to develop an idea or skill. Sustained shared thinking can only happen when there are responsive trusting relationships between adults and children. The adult shows genuine interest, offers encouragement, clarifies ideas and asks open questions. This supports and extends the children’s thinking and helps children to make connections in learning.’ Throughout the EYFS there is reference to thinking skills and opportunities for developing these skills through adult support and modelling, creating an effective learning environment and giving children enough time to develop their ideas. Within the Learning and Development theme, two key principles, Active Learning and Creativity and Critical thinking support the notion of sustained shared thinking.

  • Active Learning ‘involves other people, objects, ideas and events that engage and involve children for sustained periods.’ It is through sustained play with another, and in the early years with an adult, that shared thinking can really flourish. The thinking process takes time to develop.
  • Creativity and Critical thinking ‘When children have opportunities to play with ideas in different situations and with a variety of resources, they discover connections and come to new and better understandings and ways of doing things. Adult support in this process enhances their ability to think critically and ask questions.’

These thinking processes occur in all areas of Learning and Development. Specifically they can be found within:

  • PSED: Dispositions and Attitudes – ‘how children become interested, excited and motivated about their learning.’
  • CLL: Language for Thinking – ‘how children learn to use language to imagine and recreate roles and experiences and how they use talk to clarify their thinking and ideas or to refer to events they have observed or are curious about.’
  • PSRN: Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy –‘children use their knowledge and skills in these areas to solve problems, generate new questions and make connections across other areas of Learning and Development.’
  • KUW: Exploration and Investigation – ‘how children investigate objects and materials and their properties, learn about change and patterns, similarities and differences, and question how and why things work. Children should be involved in the practical application of their knowledge and skills, which will promote self-esteem through allowing them to make decisions about what to investigate and how to do it.’
  • CD: Being Creative – Responding to Experiences, Expressing and Communicating Ideas – ‘how children respond in a variety of ways to what they see, hear, smell, touch or feel and how, as a result of these encounters, they express and communicate their own ideas, thoughts and feelings.’

Opportunities to promote the development of thinking skills within the EYFS are plentiful. In the key messages of effective practice – ‘Play and Exploration’– it states that: ‘children need to experience making mistakes in a safe environment, they need opportunities to test their ideas, to learn through play situations that they have chosen to explore… [In play] they share experiences and understandings, talk and thinking with the other children and the adults who join in the play and explorations.’

Open-ended questions

These are questions to which there are many answers, with no one answer in particular being the ‘correct’ one. Open-ended questions encourage children to think rather than recite a fact. They are an integral part of thinking skills as they develop creative thinking, problem solving and cognitive growth. Open-ended questions allow children to use the knowledge they have to come up with an answer rather than worrying about getting the right answer. They encourage talk and discussion as opposed to a one-word answer to a closed question. An answer to an open-ended question reveals more about a child’s knowledge and concepts than a learned fact. Children know that you know the answer to a closed question; an open question, however, is more intriguing, motivating, challenging and engaging. Open-ended questions use wording such as:

  • I wonder if…?
  • What could we do…?
  • Can you find a way to …?
  • What would happen if…?
  • What do you think that happened…?
  • What did you notice about…?
  • Tell me about…?

When asking a question stop and think:

  • Why am I asking this question?
  • Is it to check on memory or a fact, or is it to encourage a child to draw upon previous knowledge in order to develop his or her  thinking?

Sustaining Shared Thinking, Jenni Clarke (2007)
Featherstone Educational Ltd