G&T coordinator Peter Leyland explains how one Luton primary school has found that this thinking technique benefits everybody – students, more-able students and even staff.

Sometimes amazing things happen in schools that remind you why you became a teacher in the first place. This is how I felt after I had visited Chantry Primary School in Luton on a ‘learning walk’.

The learning walk

The learning walk is the name given to a programme that invites teachers into Chantry Primary School so that staff can share with them what they are doing for a morning.

The teachers follow the pupils and classes round, starting with their ‘morning rituals’. For this, they might be set a thinking challenge, for example, if a spoon could talk, what questions would you ask it? The children I was with were asked: what would I do if I were the prime minister? Groups of teachers tour the school escorted by two Year 6 pupils. They then sit in on a lesson that is using a number of thinking skills techniques, such as a mind map. Finally there is a plenary where teachers can discuss what they have seen with members of the staff.

The school serves a fairly deprived area of Luton and has 462 pupils, of whom 38.8% are from ethnic minorities; 41% are entitled to free school meals; and 26% of pupils are on the SEN register.

I had heard about the school’s work at the Eastern Region G&T conference in March. Bill Rowe (deputy head) and Richard Jenkins (assistant head) gave a dynamic presentation entitled ‘An introduction to six-hat thinking’ that literally took my breath away. I had to see it in action.

What I saw was a really good example of how theory can inform classroom practice. The school had been developing thinking skills using a mixture of ideas from David Hyerle’s thinking maps, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats.

The ideas of Hyerle, Bloom and de Bono

  • Hyerle’s work uses circle maps, bubble maps and multi-flow maps, all of which can be found in his excellent book on the subject.
  • Bloom describes six levels of cognitive processing, known as Bloom’s Taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
  • De Bono offers six different ways of managing the thinking process. The blue hat is the control mechanism; the red hat signifies feeling and the expression of emotion; the white hat is about information; the black hat is judgement, or ‘the staffroom cynic’ as Bill quipped during his introduction. Finally the yellow hat symbolises brightness and optimism and the green hat focuses on creativity.

A six-hat lesson

In every classroom at Chantry Primary there are six coloured baseball caps hanging up on the wall. These are used for their thinking lessons and as part of the learning walk I was invited to sit in with a Year 6 class. They were having a lesson about recognising risk and behaving responsibly.

The children were organised in four groups, each with a coloured hat placed on the table – black, yellow, red and green. The teacher spoke to them about risk situations; for example, how to behave if you suspected someone was drowning.

She then showed a video clip of a boy of five helping his diabetic mother who had collapsed. He went outside on his own to get help. He could have hurt himself or been abducted by a stranger but he saved his mother’s life. ‘What was the risk?’ the teacher asked.

A lively discussion followed: the black hat group responded by outlining the problems and difficulties; the yellow hats were more positive. The teacher showed the class how to use these two opposing responses for a balanced debate. The red group spoke of feelings and hunches while the greens suggested creative alternatives for what the boy could have done.

In the next part of the lesson the individual groups were asked to think of a risk situation and discuss responses from their particular perspective. I sat with the red hat group. This consisted of five girls: they were asked to use a circle map to respond to an imagined risky situation.

They came up with the idea of witnessing a fight between adults and they discussed and annotated on their map the emotional responses to this. Words like ‘shocked’, ‘angry’, ‘upset’ and ‘worried’ were used: shocked that children might copy the actions, upset because fighting does not solve the problem.

I was impressed by the level of engagement involved in the discussion. Jasmine was particularly loud and dominant. Sarinder was methodical and produced a circle map. During it the teacher came over and intervened to enable the quieter girls, Sara and Rebecca, to contribute.
The lesson ended with each group feeding back their responses to the class from their own perspective. The green hats, for example, in keeping with their colour, had produced a poem.


One feature of the morning that struck both myself and the other visitors, was the confidence shown by the pupils. A number of the older ones had been asked to show us round the school and chatted away as they did so. Charlie explained that he was a mentor who helped with other pupils’ problems. Jaswinder told me all about the house system and how it worked. The four houses were Earth, Water, Fire and Air and Jaswinder knew that these were the original four elements.

The school had not achieved this overnight. When I worked there as an advisory teacher, Chantry consisted of a lively infant school and a struggling junior. The two had amalgamated in September 1999 and had then moved onto one site in September 2000. This had begun a new era for Chantry. Showing the school’s ‘learning walk’ to a wide variety of teachers showed that Chantry had reached a very confident stage in its development.

It required considerable skill and organisation on the part of the head and staff to be able to play host to the 20 teachers who attended the learning walk that morning. In his introduction to the morning Bill Rowe told us that in 2004 the SLT (strategic leadership team) at the school had started with a question: what can we do to support and equip our young learners with the skills necessary to become lifelong learners and to become productive citizens of the wider community? The team saw the key to success as encouraging pupils to be effective communicators.

Effective communication could take the form of speaking and listening, writing, sharing emotions and empathising with others. It was agreed by the staff that thinking skills needed to be developed to achieve this. They had used the Primary Strategy to develop learning how to learn, focusing on key aspects from the strategy. These were problem solving, creative thinking, information processing, reasoning, evaluation, and communication.

The lead practitioner, Richard Jenkins, attended both EAZ (education action zone) meetings and funded courses on thinking skills. Six staff visited Two Waters Primary in Hemel Hempstead – an accredited thinking school in Hertfordshire that was using thinking skills. The SLT consisted of the headteacher, Cori Fisher, Richard and Bill. They then ran school Inset sessions on how to create the right learning environment, rituals for learning, the development of thinking skills, and emotional intelligence. This led to whole-school agreement on the strategies to be used.

Six-hat thinking was trialled by staff in classrooms with G&T pupils playing a key role. To introduce the six-hat thinking, staff worked with six more-able pupils in each year group, one for each colour hat. They taught them the six-hat thinking technique. These pupils were then experts and also peer tutors. When the teacher was giving her thinking lesson, she would use those six to support it. They helped to give the teacher confidence. It was recognised that these pupils possessed excellent leadership qualities when compared to other pupils their age. The staff had decided that this group would be key players in developing six-hat thinking across the school.

The staff used explicitly taught non-curricular settings for six-hat thinking like the example about risk referred to earlier. Buzan’s mind mapping techniques and Hyerle’s thinking maps were linked to this, as well. Six-hat thinking was also used in staff meetings and assemblies.

Its impact was considerable: children were motivated and engaged in lessons to a greater extent. There was potential for improving their writing standards, and their understanding of thinking processes and strategies was enhanced. The writing skills of the more able pupils really improved. They were more confident and more methodical in their approach to writing. They were able to take a perspective on an issue and explain both sides. The school found that there were more level 5s at Key Stage 2 English this year as a direct result. In addition, all children developed a greater degree of independence in their learning: they could choose and decide what the best way of thinking about a problem was in order to solve it.

Finally, teachers’ levels of enjoyment of lessons increased, and staff meetings began to be more productive when six-hat thinking techniques were used. Criticism, for example, was recognised as black hat thinking, which could be addressed and discussed on its own terms before allowing the meeting to move on.

What next?

In the future, staff plan to audit thinking skills across and within the curriculum, and to analyse KS1 and KS2 SATs results in order to assess the impact of thinking skills on these. They intend to do further work on thinking maps in order to improve standards of writing. They also intend to further develop links across EAZ and the Borough of Luton to raise standards.

I came away from the learning walk deeply impressed by a school that had the confidence to open its doors and say this is what we are doing to raise standards, not only for our G&T pupils but for all pupils. It gave increased power to the argument that should be an incentive to G&T coordinators everywhere: the help given to gifted and talented pupils benefits all pupils in a school. As Renzulli once put it – a rising tide lifts all ships.

Further information  

Bloom, B, and Mackay, D, (1956) A Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Longman
De Bono, E (1985), Six Thinking Hats, Little Brown and Co
Hyerle, D (ed) (2004), Student Successes with Thinking Maps, School Based Research, Corwin Press

Peter Leyland has over 30 years’ teaching experience and also works as a G&T coordinator and lecturer on G&T issues. He has recently been awarded a research grant from NAGTY to investigate the provision of sufficient challenge for more able pupils in mixed ability groupings.

First published in Primary G&T Update, September 2006