What if we all looked the same? This was just one of the topics used to get pupils thinking at a competitive event organised by Luton LEA and attended by Peter Leyland

In Flora Thompson’s novel Lark Rise to Candleford a school inspector asks why a boy is ‘idling’. ‘I was only thinking what to say,’ is the boy’s reply. Thinking might have been seen as idleness in late Victorian England, when this scene is set, but we now know that it is a skill that can be developed, and supporting this process has become a major part of the teaching strategy in many UK schools. This article looks at exercises based on some of the Cognitive Research Trust (CoRT) thinking ‘tools’. These were devised by Edward de Bono to help people see beyond the obvious and immediate and have been used all over the world with children of all abilities. The tools featured in this article are:

  • PMI (Plus, minus, interesting), a tool for considering new ideas
  • OPV (Other people’s views), a tool for considering how others may see things
  • CAF/FIP (Consider all factors/First important priorities), tools for exploring all the factors in a situation and how to prioritise.

The idea

In October 2006, developing speaking and listening, and thinking skills was a focus for all primary, junior and infant schools in Luton, and the EiC (Excellence in Cities) group decided to make this a priority. They assessed the speaking and listening skills of their Year 1 and Year 4 pupils and in January held a joint session for Year 1 and 4 teachers, led by a trainer from the Edward de Bono Foundation. Over 50 teachers were introduced to a range of thinking tools that would extend pupil learning by focusing their thinking. Following the training the teachers were given a pack which they used to practise thinking skills with pupils in their schools. As a follow-up to the original training Helen Wratten, Julie Harper (assistant head at Leagrave Primary) and Bill Rowe (assistant head at Chantry Primary) decided to create the Thinkathon.This was an event based on the CoRT skills for the more creative thinking pupils to come together and demonstrate what they had learned. I had already visited a number of Luton schools involved in EiC (Chantry Primary featured in Primary G&T Update, September 2006, in an article about De Bono’s ideas on six-hat thinking). I therefore accepted eagerly an invitation by Helen Wratten, gifted and talented consultant for Luton, to help judge the Thinkathon. It resulted in an exciting day for me as well as for the pupils and their teachers from 11 primary schools.

The day

The planned event was a series of challenges for teams from the 11 schools. Many of these schools were in relatively deprived areas of Luton where language particularly, was a development priority. Each of the teams was made up of four pupils from Year 4, two girls and two boys. They had to work on the challenges collaboratively using their CoRT skills and points would be awarded by the judges for each challenge. The event was held at Leagrave Primary School. It started when the prospective challengers, accompanied by their teachers, entered the hall where the contest was to be staged. Displays around the walls and behind the stage contained positive messages such as ‘It’s good to be me’. The hall was soon buzzing with excitement as the children found their tables. The headteacher and Chris Spruce (chief LA adviser) introduced and endorsed the day (‘this will be a day you will remember when you’re older’) before Bill Rowe explained that this was an opportunity for the children to demonstrate their thinking skills: they should work everything out on their own, and although their teachers were there in support, they couldn’t receive help from them.

Collective memory

The starter challenge was about collective memory. The first child in the team went behind a screen and looked at an image for 20 seconds. This was a series of flags from a KS3 geography text. The child then returned to their group and described it to the team who had to transfer the image to a prepared blank template of the flags. They could only communicate with their team using language, there could be no hand signals and they couldn’t draw it themselves. After two minutes the second team member went behind the screen, returned and repeated the process, and so on until the flag template was filled or until the allotted time ran out. In this challenge, Ramridge Junior was a good example of how success can be achieved by prioritising language development. Their team contained three pupils for whom English was a second language: two boys whose first language was Bengali (they also presented challenging behaviour) and one girl who spoke Urdu at home. The team completed their 16 flags successfully. The collective memory task was followed by CoRT skills as outlined in the boxes below.

Plus, minus, interesting (PMI) What if all boys looked the same and all girls looked the same? Denbigh Junior said: P: You can’t bully each other for how you look M: You will lose your identity I: Will the past be the same as the future? Maidenhall Junior said: P: Everybody will be equal M: The wrong person would be punished I: People might marry the wrong person Waulud Primary said: P: We’d all have the same qualities M: Parents won’t recognise their child I: What if you got chosen for something and were mixed up?

More PMI examples

What if…

  • trees were made of chocolate
  • toys could come to life
  • television had never been invented
  • your hands were feet and your feet were hands.
Other people’s views (OPV) Should pupils with dogs be allowed to bring them to school? Pupils had to present a range of opinions from teachers, parents, site agents, and two others.

  • Leagrave Primary thought parents would realise they had to teach their children to control their dogs.
  • Farley Junior thought that teachers would be annoyed because of the barking.
  • Whitefield Junior gave the dogs’ point of view: ‘they wouldn’t have to stay at home and get bored’.
  • Denbigh Junior gave the inspectors’ point of view and said that it would be a bad, unhygienic school and they would fail the inspection.

More OPV examples

  • The fair is coming to your town: local residents, police, local shop owners, parents, children.
  • A retail park is being built opposite your school: builders, local shop owners, parents, local residents, new shop owners, pupils.
Consider all factors (CAF)/first important priorities (FIP) Teams were told that they were responsible for organising the school sports day and they had to consider all factors and give the first important priorities.

  • Beech Hill Primary for CAF wondered what they would do when it started raining, and for FIP what activities there would be ‘because if there are no activities to do there’s no point having a sports day.’
  • Waulud Primary’s CAF was concerned about the cost of equipment and their FIP was how to organise first aid for severe injuries.
  • Chantry Primary included a parents’ race in CAF, and their FIP was prizes for the contestants ‘so they don’t feel upset’ about not winning.
  • Farley Junior in CAF produced a detailed planning list, including advertisements and letters, organising the teachers, medals and awards, and boiled eggs for the egg and spoon race. An FIP was to organise the teams to stop everyone getting mixed up.

More CAF/FIP examples

  • Making a film or playstation game to appeal to children.
  • Choosing a new uniform for the school.

A successful event

The Thinkathon was of course, a competition and the judges had to total up points to find a winning school, but the event had been such good fun that the enjoyment itself overshadowed winning. At the end, each school team came to the front and each pupil was given a medal by the headteacher of Leagrave Primary. She then awarded a shield to Denbigh Junior who had succeeded as overall winners. During the event I talked to the teachers involved: over lunch, Richard Luscombe from Dallow Primary said how  very pleased he was with how the day had helped the second language learners in his team. I also talked to Nigel Newman, master trainer from the de Bono Foundation, who had undertaken the original training with the Luton schools teachers. He said to me that it was ‘pretty advanced for the UK to have so many schools in such a competition’. Nigel later sent Bill Rowe and Helen Wratten an email praising the event, from which it is worth quoting:

‘I was truly impressed with the whole event – that you’d got 11 schools together with their representative teams must be a first for the UK… Your organisation and coordination of the event was impressive and so professional. Your pre-activity briefing and post-activity reflection was a model of “best practice”. I felt privileged to be involved and sharing in your day.’ He also said that having taught thinking skills for many years, ‘It was wonderful to see the children engaged so competitively in their tasks.’ The teachers, he said, were committed to developing and using thinking skills in their schools. For him, it reinforced the importance of teaching children to think so that they could manage their own minds and not just ‘go with the flow’ in society.

As a conclusion to the Thinking Skills project Helen hopes that Year 4 pupils from the EiC Schools will be assessed in speaking and listening again next year to see what the impact of the project has been. Also, she hopes that CoRT skills will be taught to other year groups so that more children can develop them. In addition Luton LA has produced a very accessible book for teachers, Guidance for Thinking Skills, Foundation Stage to KS2. This contains ideas on information processing, reasoning, enquiry, creative thinking, and evaluation and the use of tools such as collective memory, PMI, bubble maps and mind maps to support the development of these thinking processes. As for the boy in Lark Rise to Candleford, surely the inspector ‘must have known well that pen, ink and paper were no good without at least a little thinking.’


  • Leyland, P (2006) ‘Six-hat thinking’, Primary G&T Update, Issue 6, September 2006
  • Luton Borough Council (2006) Luton Guidance for Thinking Skills, Foundation Stage to Key Stage 2
  • Thompson, F (1939) Lark Rise to Candleford, Penguin
  • www.edwarddebono.com/concept1.htm
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