Fostering thinking skills.

Adults and in particular teachers, play a crucial role in providing opportunities and experiences that enable children to develop their thinking skills. Teachers need to teach, explain, demonstrate model, scaffold and support.They need to give students the time and space to experiment with the knowledge and skills they learned and experienced, to discover for  themselves. Students need to feel secure enough to make mistakes. Mistakes made should be seen as a means of discovery or learning and not failure.

According to Jenni Clarke : “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”. (“Creativity and Critical Thinking”, EYES 2007).

Pascal and Bertram (1997) identified the following key features of adult behaviour that promote good-quality thinking, learning and development in young children:

  • Sensitivity: The adult’s ability to be aware of the children’s  feelings and emotional well being;  to empathise and to acknowledge children’s feeling of insecurity and to offer support and encouragement.
  • Stimulation: The adult’s ability to offer or introduce an activity or resource in a positive, exciting and stimulating way; offer extra information; or join in with play in a way in which extends children’s thinking or communication.
  • Autonomy: The adult’s ability to give children the freedom to experiment, support children with their decisions and judgment, encouraging expression of ideas and involving children in rule making for everyone’s safety and well being.

Teachers need to model appropriate language and encourage the development of thinking vocabulary. According to Macro & McFall (2004), “A  classroom where a questions are celebrated and modeled will create an ethos of creative and critical thinking.”

As teachers we should think about the followings:

  • making time to listen carefully to student’s ideas, and to show that their ideas are valued;
  • offer student the opportunity to explore and experiment with words, ideas and concepts that they are forming in their thinking by frequently asking open questions. This will allow the teachers to gain deeper understanding of the student’s understanding and develop thinking skills;
  • giving constructive feedback (praise) encourages thinking, and praise need to be specific. Students will then learn what they did well and what they can think about for the next time;
  • displaying new words to encourage their use – thinking aloud;
  • telling stories as well as reading from a book;
  • using puppets to ask questions and suggest solutions to problems, using appropriate language.

Teachers should also create a rich environment that invite students to discuss, ask questions, find their own learning journey, share their discoveries in different ways to different audiences. According to Thornton & Brunton, (2005) : “Children have a right to a rich, complex environment – one that provides a wealth of sensory experiences”.

Teachers need to have learning corners in the classroom, so that students know where to go when they want to plan, discover, answer questions or gather information. Such corners may be play-based – eg role play, creative workshop explore and investigate, think and reflect; curriculum based - eg writing, science, mathematics, book corner, art and craft, etc.

The outdoors activities should be seen as an extension of the classroom activities rather than a separate place to go at set times. Some students need to be outside in order to think creatively. An outdoor environment should reflects the indoor one – encourage different types of thinking and learning right across the curriculum. There should be space to run, spaces to be still; and quiet and secret spaces for reflection and talk; to think and work together on large-scale projects or problems.

Teachers also need to reflect on what they use displays for. Displays should support thinking in a variety of ways such as:

  • stimulating memory and discussion -such as a photo dairy of a student’s journey through a task;
  • problem-solving – involving the students in making their own displays;
  • discussion and questions – a project or questions that students want to answer;
  • being interactive – involving hands-on sensory experience, with speech bubbles in which students’ comments can be written.
  • conveying messages – a space for anyone who enters to write daily information, such as, “I am 13 today”.

Resources provided should be stimulating, of good quality, attractively presented and interesting. This will ensure that students will use them with care and respect. Thus your resources should:

  • the best quality you can afford. It is better to have a few resources of high quality than vast quantities of cheap resources that wear out or break easily;
  • made up of a variety of manufactured, recycled and natural materials – this will encourage students to think, create, make decisions and problem-solve;
  • attractively presented. Display collections of similar objects in a beautiful basket, treasure casket or in a material – covered box;
  • easily accessible. Students need to know that they can move resources around, and return them later;
  • labeled. It is important that students know where to find a resource, without the teacher’s help.
  • teachers should regularly checked and assessed the quality and cleanness of resources - broken objects are removed, etc.

According to Epstein (2003), teachers need to give children time to think: “Engaging children in planning and reflection makes them more than good actors following prescribed roles. It turns them into artist and scientists who make things happen and create meaning for themselves and others”. This is because thinking takes time, concentration and perseverance. Thus children need to be motivated; have choice and control. Student-initiated learning creates the right motivation and opportunity for developing thinking skills as it incorporates the key elements of time, choice, value, opportunities to think about “what, how, when, why and next time” along with teacher’ support and guidance. Thus is the ideal time for the teacher to find out what the student know, how they use their knowledge and what might be needed to encourage more thinking.

Teacher-initiated challenges can be useful as starting points for some students. It can be an extension to something the students have been investigating. However, if the students are doing their own thinking, setting their own challenges and problems, then these are not needed. But if teachers do initiate any projects, make them as open-ended as possible and encourage thinking and decision-making. Challenges can be very simple – such as adding a variety of different spoons to the sand can spark new thinking. Challenges need to arise from the children’s interest and play, manageable,  meaningful and fun.

Thus teachers’ role in supporting students learning is to:

  • organise the environment and resources;
  • support students to make choices;
  • observe and listen;
  • play in a role;
  • play alongside;
  • model/demonstrate language and thinking;
  • provide support and guidance through a problem;
  • help children to cope with conflicts;
  • be flexible with time.

Further Readings:

  • Epstein, Ann S (2003) “How Planning and Reflection Develop Young Children’s Thinking Skills”, Beyond the Journal, Young Children on the Web. September 2003
  • The Early Years Foundation Stage (2007) DFES Publications
  • Macro, C & Mc Fall, D (2004) ” Questions and Questioning: Working with Young Children”, Primary Science Review 83, May/June 2004.
  • Pascal, C & Bertram, A(1997) Effective Early Learning: Case Studies for Improvement. Hodder & Stoughton
  • Thornton, L & Brunton, P (2005)  Understanding the Reggio Approach. David Fulton Publishers


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