Thinking Skills to Thinking Schools: Ways to Develop Children's Thinking and Learning

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  • This article was downloaded by: [The University of Manchester Library]On: 09 October 2014, At: 10:14Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Thinking Skills to Thinking Schools:Ways to Develop Children'sThinking and LearningRobert Fisher aa Brunei UniversityPublished online: 07 Jul 2006.

    To cite this article: Robert Fisher (1999) Thinking Skills to Thinking Schools: Ways to DevelopChildren's Thinking and Learning, Early Child Development and Care, 153:1, 51-63, DOI:10.1080/0300443991530104

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  • Early Child Development and Care, 1999, Vol. 153, pp. 51-63 1999 OPA (Overseas Publishers Association) N.V.Reprints available directly from the publisher Published by license underPhotocopying permitted by license only the Gordon and Breach Publishers imprint.

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    Thinking Skills to Thinking Schools: Waysto Develop Children's Thinking and Learning

    ROBERT FISHER

    Brunei University

    (Received 20 May 1999)

    This article explores the core concepts of thinking skills and learning. It argues thatto raise children's achievement in thinking and learning we need to move from the ideaof developing the thinking child to the idea of creating powerful learning environments,thinking classrooms, thinking schools and communities. Approaches to developingthinking skills are discussed, including structured programmes and infusion approachesto teaching thinking. The article draws on research and development projects whichaim at raising achievement through teaching thinking in London and elsewhere. It showshow teachers can integrate thinking skills into their teaching and interaction withchildren, and how the findings of research might translate into practice in schools andother learning environments.

    Key words: Thinking skills, learning, schools

    INTRODUCTION

    The English would rather die than think, and very often they do. Bertrand Russell

    Thinking is what we are here for. We can all think if given the chance. Kirandeep,aged 8.

    Over the last twenty years we have seen the beginnings of a major new 'thinkingskills' movement in the UK, aimed at promoting children's intellectual develop-ment. Part of the aim of this movement is to create a 'thinking curriculum', placingintellectual and cognitive development at the heart of the educational process byemphasising that raising educational standards and preparing children for lifelonglearning is best achieved through focusing on improving the quality of their think-ing. As McGuiness says in her recent review of research: 'Raising standards requiresthat attention is directed not only on what is learned but on how children learnand how teachers intervene to achieve this' (McGuiness, 1999, p.l).

    The purpose of this paper is to analyse what is meant by 'thinking skills' and theirrole in children's learning. It will explore the notion of teaching thinking withyoung children and consider some current models for delivering a thinking skills

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  • 52 R. FISHER

    curriculum. The discussion will be seen to reflect a shift in current approaches fromthinking skills to the creation of thinking classrooms and schools as communitiesof thinking and learning.

    The basic premise of a 'thinking skills' approach to education is that the qualityof our lives and of our learning depends in large part on the quality of our thinking.If we can systematically cultivate excellence in thinking, it is argued, then we shouldsurely do so (Fisher, 1990, 1998). If thinking is making sense of experience thenbeing helped to think better should help children to learn more from what theysee, say and do. Part of the perceived need to teach thinking skills has come froma growing awareness that society has changed and skills appropriate a generationago may no longer prepare students for the world beyond school. The rate of changewithin society is accelerating so rapidly that it is difficult to assess what factualknowledge will be needed in the future, and this means that schools should be lessfocused on imparting information than on teaching children to learn and thinkfor themselves. To prepare students for the future in an unpredictable world theywill need to gain the skills which will give them the greatest control over their livesand learning, and for this they must be encouraged to think critically, creativelyand imaginatively at the highest possible levels. They need to 'learn how to think'and to 'think how to learn'. If they are to become self-directed learners, to learnfor themselves, to think flexibly and to make reasoned judgements then they mustbe taught explicitly how to do it, and it is never too early to begin this process.

    The 'Back to basics' underway in many countries, including Britain, USA andAustralia, emphasise the core skills of literacy and numeracy. But many would arguethat the three 'Rs' of reading, writing and 'rithmetic need to be supplemented bya 'Fourth R', namely Reasoning. This view argues that teaching thinking andreasoning is central to raising standards even in the most basic skills of the curricu-lum. This view is of course not new, but what is new is the growing body of researchinto practice which shows that the hope of teaching thinking can be turned intoreality. There is a clear shift in this research from earlier laboratory studies of thechild as thinker to the view that knowledge is actively created in social contexts andthrough change in mental structures and frameworks that is socially mediated.There has been a move from child as individual learner towards realising theimportance of social and cultural contexts for learning. This has also meant a focustowards research more directly relevant to school learning and classroom teaching(Chipman et al, 1985; Costa, 1991; Swartz & Parks, 1994; Perkins & Grotzer, 1997;McGuiness, 1999). It is a view that has gained some official recognition in Englandwith the DfEE's (Department for Education and Employment) new initative to raiseawareness of the contribution thinking skills can make to the raising of educationalstandards, through their sponsorship of national conferences, research reports(McGuiness, 1999) and website resources (DfEE, 1999).

    WHAT ARE THINKING SKULLS?

    As there is not yet common agreement or definitive explanation of the processesinvolved in thinking it is perhaps not surprising then that there are many conflicts

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  • THINKING SKILLS TO THINKING SCHOOLS 53

    of opinion about the nature of reasoning and intelligence, and that many remainsceptical about the idea of teaching thinking. Some writers have challenged thenotion of 'thinking-as-a-skill' (Hart, 1993). They argue that thinking is a holisticactivity, or as D.H. Lawrence put it thought is the 'wholeness' of a person, 'whollyattending' (Lawrence, 1964). Other terms to describe thinking include thinkingstrategies, higher order thinking, habits of mind, and thinking dispositions. Theo-retical distinctions can of course be drawn between each of these terms. The ideaof 'thinking skills' however continues to have widespread use. It has a theoreticaland instructional use in focusing attention on 'knowing how' rather than 'knowingthat' in the long standing philosophical discussion on ways of knowing (Ryle, 1949).

    Much of what we know of skill learning in other contexts can be applied tothinking, for example the importance of learning by observation and modelling,the need for practice and feedback to internalise responses, the value of beingexplicit about the processes of a skill, the importance of transfer of learning to awide range of relevant contexts. Thinking skills are consistent with the apprentice-ship model of learning. They express a metaphor for the mind as something thatis made up of many capacities. These capacities can be developed through expe-rience, education and training, or they can remain undeveloped. Talk of thinkingskills emphasises that the mind is not just an empty vessel to be filled, but is a setof living processes that need to be exercised and developed if they are to thrive,and that this is as true for the three year old as it is for the elderly.

    Even among experts who talk of thinking skills, definitions of what these skillsare vary greatly. Some authors have created long taxonomies of thinking skills,sometimes running to dozens of items (eg Swartz & Parks, 1994). Matthew Lipman,creator of the Philosophy for Children programme, has pointed out the difficultiesin defining thinking skills. Such a list would be endless, he suggests 'because itconsists of nothing less than an inventory of the intellectual powers of mankind'(Lipman, 1988). However certain common elements can be distinguished such asinformation-processing eg sorting, classifying, sequencing, comparing and contrasting,and analysing part/whole relationships; critical thinkingor reasoningeg giving reasonsfor beliefs, distinguishing between true/false and fact/opinion, and assessing re-liability of evidence; creative thinkingeg brainstorming, generating ideas and hypotheses(Fisher, 1990); problem solving eg posing and defining problems, planning investi-gations, testing solutions and evaluating outcomes (Fisher, 1987); and metacognitioneg developing self awareness, self monitoring and self regulation (Fisher, 1998).

    For most of the 20th century the dominant theory of intelligence was that born with intelligence was a fixed capacity which determined our capacity to thinkand learn for life. Many children too form the belief that 'either you've got it oryou haven't got it' and there's not much you can do about it if you were not bornintelligent. It is a limiting belief, and one that does not reflect reality. It is true thatthere is a limit to the information-processing capacities of intelligence, but for anychild we do not know what that limit is. The prevailing view is that 'intelligenceis not fixed' and that 'we all have a much greater potential for learning than iscommonly recognised' (Scottish CCC, 1996). Children who come to believe thatwith effort you can always do better at thinking and learning will tend to do betterat school than those who think their intelligence is fixed.

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  • 54 R. FISHER

    Another aspect of the traditional model of intelligence has been challenged overrecent years is the idea that we have a single form of general intelligence. This viewhas been largely superseded by multiple intelligence theory which argues that a child'sintelligence takes many forms (Gardner, 1993). One of the gains from this view isthat it gives substance to the notion that education should be about 'the wholechild'. It shows that the child 'as thinker' is a multi-faceted person, and that someaspects of intelligence, such as 'emotional intelligence' (Goleman, 1996) whichinvolves personal and social thinking may be just as important for cognitive reasonsas learning literacy or mathematics. Thinking skills, on this view, need to be appliedto all forms of intelligence, including linguistic, mathematical, scientific, visual,musical, physical, personal, social and philosophical intelligence (Fisher, 1999).

    Although high quality, or 'higher order', thinking may be difficult to define, asa major US research study argues its characteristics are quite easy to see in practice(Resnick, 1987). The following are some of the signs of critical, creative andimaginative thinking that would be in evidence, no matter what age the child orcontext of learning, whether in responding to reading, writing a story, solving aproblem in maths, investigating science, interpreting historical evidence, or appre-ciating art. In the diagram below elements characteristic of high quality or higherorder thinking (adapted from Resnick, 1987) are contrasted with the characteristicsof routine teaching:

    Higher order thinking Routine teaching

    Not routine/not fully known in advanceComplexYields multiple solutions/viewpointsInvolves uncertaintyInvolves process of making meaningIs effortful, requires mental work

    Routine/outcome planned in advanceClear purpose and goalYields converging outcomesSeeks certaintyInvolves process of doingIs judged by outcome rather than effort

    High quality thinking is not the necessary outcome of routine teaching. Routineteaching may be necessary for the development of many early skills, such as gettingto know phonic sounds or learning number facts, but powerful learning environ-ments which develop thinking are created only when young children are given timeand opportunity to discuss their thinking processes. Too often in school they havethe experience but miss the meaning. A 'thinking skills' approach helps them tomake meaning from their experience, it gives them the 'tools' for thinking, to beconscious of their own thinking and of the thinking of others.

    Vygotsky was one of the first to realise that conscious reflective control anddeliberate mastery were essential factors in school learning. He suggested twof...

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