Thinking skills and thinking programmes

Various ‘thinking programmes’, and even the English National Curriculum, offer descriptions of different aspects of thinking such as Information Processing, Reasoning, Enquiring, Creative Thinking and Evaluation. Our argument is that these are not entirely independent of one another. Rather, they are different manifestations of general intellect and we can help our children develop these thinking skills by attending both to the general underlying thinking and to these particular forms of thinking.
The Let’s Think! Handbook will focus on an approach to the stimulation of thinking which we call cognitive acceleration (not to be confused with accelerated learning, a different thing altogether). We have been working with this model since the 1980s and using it in primary schools since the mid-1990s.
We chose cognitive acceleration as the basis of this guide to thinking in primary classrooms because:
• it has a sound foundation in cognitive psychology; in other words there are good theoretical reasons why it should work
• over the years we have collected solid evidence of the positive effect that, competently implemented, this model has on children’s measured cognitive ability and on their examination grades, for example SATs and GCSEs
• the curriculum materials which incorporate the methods of cognitive acceleration, such as
the Let’s Think! series and PCAME, are becoming increasingly well known in schools.
Of course we are not claiming that cognitive acceleration is the only approach to the development of thinking in primary schools. Philosophy for Children (P4C), for instance, is a programme in which children are encouraged to read together a story which presents some moral dilemma and then they learn how to argue in a reasonable way for one position or another, giving justifications and paying attention to others’ arguments. As with cognitive acceleration, P4C makes quite heavy demands on the teachers’ expertise but, also like cognitive acceleration, it has produced some evidence for its effect on reasoning and language skills (Lipman, Sharp & Oscanyan, 1980; Topping & Trickey, 2007). We will say more about P4C in Chapter 9.
Critical thinking is a more generic approach which has perhaps been best developed for more mature pupils approaching university entrance. In one of its best guises (Fisher, 2001) it offers a series of ‘thinking maps’ which encourage pupils to question an argument critically in terms, for instance, of its logic, its assumptions and whether the person making the argument might have a special interest. There are some American examples of the application of critical thinking in primary schools, but we are unaware of their use in the UK. In Germany there is a movement for the teaching of inductive reasoning (seeing patterns in data, predicting the next item of a series) which has produced excellent results, especially with children with learning difficulties (Klauer & Phye, 1994). There are others also, but it has to be said that some of them (including some very popular ones) consist of little but an apparently good idea, with no underlying theory and no evidence at all of any effects on children. (We take a scientific approach to ‘evidence’; anecdotes from schools which report the effects of a programme in general glowing terms don’t cut much ice with us unless accompanied by some numbers and preferably with a control group — see Chapter 10.)
While recognising the value of each of the named programmes above, we will concentrate on the cognitive acceleration family of materials and methods as being perhaps the best operationalised schemes available to UK primary schools and those with the best evidence for effects on children’s learning (described in Chapter 10).

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