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Thinking outside the box – developing deeper thinking in schools

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Authored by John Snell, Open Minds Education Expert, & UK Head Teacher and Education Specialist

From my experience as a school leader, it is very easy to get caught up in the drive to improve educational standards, with the result that students actually never really get the opportunity to think for themselves. The amount to teach means that discussion and opinions often get pushed out of the (classroom) door. In England, there is a comprehensive National Curriculum that schools are required to teach. In my primary school, as in others across the country, this consists of eleven subject areas to be taught to children aged 4-11. With only around six hours a day, not including break and lunchtimes, it is clear that the pressure is on. There is such an emphasis on knowledge acquisition, with a greater focus on children having to remember everything that they have learned in order to make connections with future learning, that teachers are under an intense pressure to cover everything that’s needed.

The problem with this model of education is that learning then becomes a passive task for the learner. The relentless pace and amount of coverage can result in lessons that are simply another opportunity for teachers to pour more knowledge into a child’s head. And the danger with this passivity is that students then see little or no value in what they are learning – have no meaningful purpose to actually think. In my school, we know that this is not acceptable. We find ways to develop opportunities for children to think throughout the school day. And in particular, providing them with opportunities to think about how. Firstly, and perhaps most powerfully, when learning new content, we always ask the children ‘How do you/we know?’. Everest is the highest mountain – how do we know? The Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane – how do we know? The angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees – how do we know?

But even as we ask this question, we don’t rely on children putting their hands up to answer. We know that only asking children with their hands up discounts others from actually having to contribute, or think, at all. Which is why in each classroom, we have lolly sticks with all children’s names on. We ask a question, pull out a random lolly stick (admittedly, sometimes not so random!) and ask that child for an answer. And we value what everyone says. There is no such thing as a daft answer. If a child is really stuck, they can ask a friend. We then employ a ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce’ approach as explained by Dylan Williams. Williams is a leading expert in formative assessment, and a long-time critic of typical questioning in schools, which is often referred to as the Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE) model, whereby teachers repeatedly ask a question, get an answer and then respond themselves. He explains:

“Pose-Pause-Pounce-Bounce is a questioning sequence which is much more suited to elicit deep thinking. The teacher poses a question; pauses to allow suitable thinking time; pounces on one student for an initial answer; and finally bounces the answer to another student who builds on the response. If I-R-E is the ‘table tennis’ of questioning, think of P-P-P-B as ‘basketball questioning’. This improves participation, engagement and understanding.’

The result of this approach is nothing short of astonishing. In the space of a few minutes, a greater number of children are engaged. There is a tangible buzz within the room and learning feels real. It is also joyful and non- threatening. And most importantly, children are thinking deeper, are making connections for themselves, and are remembering what they have learnt.

But this is all very well within the classroom. How do we develop critical/deep thinking outside of lessons? Well, quite simply, one of the most successful strategies we employ is when children are entering the main hall for a whole school assembly or event, and are waiting for the session to start. In most schools, it takes quite a few minutes to get all children into one space and sitting ready. I currently have 188 children in my school, but it can sometimes feel like we are herding cats as the Early Years teacher has to navigate 30 four year olds into the school hall – while the rest of the school are waiting. So this is a prime time to engage our children with critical thinking. On our school projector screen we pose a question – often nonsense, sometimes funny – but a question that requires creative ‘out of the box’ thinking (the origins of which are in itself interesting – as Norman Vincent Peale, an American Protestant clergyman, and an author best known for popularizing the concept of positive thinking demonstrated in his explanation of the nine dots puzzle).

An example of questions we might ask (one each session) from the sublime to the ridiculous, might be:

a) There is a ball stuck down a deep hole, how will we get it out?
b) A pig is stuck up a tree, how do we get it down?

The purpose of these questions is for children to consider possible answers while they wait, and then the adult in charge asks for example answers. And children are wonderfully creative in how they might solve these problems. What might you suggest? We have had a range of answers from:

a) Fill the hole with water so the ball floats up; use a long plunger to suck it up; train the worms to push it up…
b) Use a ladder; wait until Autumn; chop the tree down…

The children take real delight in trying to come up with the most ‘out of the box’ answers and by sharing with the whole school, children who are less ‘creative’ in their thoughts begin to learn to broaden and deepen their thought processes. This only takes a matter of minutes, but is immensely powerful in its impact.

My school is a joyful place. Yes, we have our challenges, but our culture is one of adding value, creativity and skills for life. I am confident that our children leave at age 11 with a real appetite for learning – and an understanding that it’s important to think differently, deeply, outside the box.