A rough guide to teaching a `thinking skills` style lesson

A rough guide to teaching a 'thinking skills' style lesson
The stages in a thinking skills lesson
A 'thinking skills lesson has a definite 'shape' based on the series of distinctive activities of
which it is comprised.
1. A cognitive ice-breaker
This is important and should relate to the rest of the T.S. lesson, establish attention and
some intentions, and provide clues as to what is going to happen next.
2. Introduction to the activity
Explicit reference here to ideas and experiences talked about before and seeing the
connection of those with what is going to happen next.
3. Task definition/clarification/exploration
Students become clear what they will be doing in groups and how. This clarity may take 1015 minutes to emerge through the 'noise' of other ideas and notions.
4. The group activity
Teacher support here should focus mainly on supporting group dynamics – e.g. if necessary,
promoting sufficient ambiguity and enabling space for competing thoughts to be articulated,
enabling active roles for students (i.e. are all listening? asking each other questions? offering
opinions? suggesting explanations?) or setting up more specific intra-group roles of
challenger (with reasons), scribe, observer, etc. Investigating time in getting groups to work
well pays real dividends in the medium and long terms. The other main teacher role is simply
to listen to what groups are saying, with a view to the next stage.
5. Summary discussion
This is stage-managed by the teacher, who circulated the groups earlier for critical issues, is
well-informed as to where each one will be coming from and has considered how to make
best use of group outcomes. At this stage it is important to accept contributions in an open
manner, the teacher manages the process and people, feeding in different people's views
and steers the discussion to achieve the best/highest level of consensus. Inevitably at this
stage, the student's contributions will focus upon matters of content.
6. De-briefing
This is very important and must not be squeezed out by time pressures. The purpose of this
stage is to ask the groups to reflect upon how they went about the task. What strategies did
the students deploy? How effective did their own learning appear to be?
7. Bridging/transfer
Bridging offers the opportunity for the students to transfer their specific learning to more
general, comparable or analogous situations. This may be in terms of related skills, concepts,
attitudes or values across the temporal scale. By doing so, valuable opportunities to makes
links and connections to other subjects and the wider world often arise.
Debriefing: A vital skill to develop
Debriefing is the part of teaching thinking lessons that teachers most often find difficult and
therefore leave out. I think this is because the debriefing (frequently referred to as 'the talk at
the end of the lesson' by the uninitiated) can be very different from what goes on in a lot of
classrooms. The activities themselves can make good but to really develop students' thinking
and cognitive development the debriefing is crucial. It is in the debriefing session that
students consolidate their learning and transfer it to other contexts.
The following list is by no means exhaustive but four possible strands to debriefing include:
 getting students to explain their answer or solution at length;
 asking students about their mental processes as they did a task or tackled a problem;
 asking students about the patterns in reasoning that they employed, or which emerged in
discussion (these two constitute thinking about thinking or metacognition);
 draw the attention of students to other contexts where the same reasoning is valuable.
These may be to other topics in geography, in other subjects or in their everyday lives.
This is termed 'bridging' and the intention is to get them to transfer their learning from the
geography lesson to other contexts (Leat, 1998).
The following is a summary of the TTA research project Debriefing: Pupils' learning and
teacher planning. In this project four geography teachers made reciprocal visits in which
debriefed lessons were videotaped. A group of students were interviews after the lesson.
Distinctive characteristics of the debriefing process
 High numbers of open and pseudo open questions asked by the teacher;
 Teacher making frequent reference to learning skills and overarching concepts;
 Students giving lengthy responses to teacher questions (studies have shown that the
average answer length given by students is under two seconds);
 Connections made by teacher and sometimes by students between the learning
outcomes and other (transfer) contexts;
 Teacher use of analogies or parallels to facilitate understanding and help bridging;
 Students receive evaluative feedback on their reasoning both from the teacher and other
 Teacher summarising discussion and learning for students;
 Animated discussion; and
 Thinking, learning, transfer and purpose discussed.
What did students learn from the debriefing process?
 Geography: All groups said that they had learned either geographical content or skills in
the lessons.
 Learning skills: Students made reference to improving their ability to take in, handle and
process information in the pursuit of problem solving.
 Social skills: In some lessons students reported improved social and co-operative skills.
 Literacy: In several instances in interviews students pinpointed that the debriefing
episodes had informed either their writing in that lesson or their approach to writing.
 Wider learning: Some students identified wider transferable significance in what they
had learned. (this has developed over time.)
What the teacher did that helped students learn
 Stimulating teaching. The use of challenging and stimulating teaching thinking activities
underpinned the debriefing process. These were a prerequisite because they gave
students a focus fir discussion.
 Managing discussion. Students explicitly emphasised the value of discussion, both in
small groups and in the whole class debriefing episodes.
 Facilitating feedback. A particular feature of discussion is the extent to which it provides
feedback to individuals, on their thoughts and explanations. They value this for helping to
improve their work.
 Caring for groups and individuals. The debriefing process is an integral part of the
lesson and its success depends on the attention the teacher gives to the groups and
individuals throughout the lesson. This care helps to persuade the students that the
purpose of the lesson is to encourage them to think and to share that thinking. It provides
them with confidence.
Explaining oneself. Many students mentioned that they were asked to expand in their
first few words, to explain themselves fully or say 'a bit more'. This process helped them
to clarify and articulate their thinking.
Making connections. This is potentially one of the most powerful tools of the debriefing.
The teachers are offering analogies or parallels in the context of students' everyday lives
which help them understand the geography and its wider significance.
Communicating the purpose of learning. The debriefing helps students see the point
of the lesson. This may be in very direct terms such as examinations, or in terms of life
skills, or most generally in terms of understanding the world.
Providing learning strategies. Many of the strategies used in the lessons (such as
Mysteries, 5W, Concept Mapping or Venn diagrams <query for reference?> were
recognised by students as generic strategies that can be used in other concepts.
Making students ask questions. Students are encourages to ask questions, either of
the teacher or of other students and this was seen as helping them to develop a greater
sensitivity as to what makes a good question.
Learning from thinking
Student outcomes
'How to group things effectively. How to discover important causes.'
'We have done a lot of group work and a lot of work which didn't seem like geography to
begin with. As we did more work, however, it was easier to relate it to geography.'
'They have been more interesting and because of the way the lesson was set out it has been
easier to take in and remember information.'
'They have been more "hands on" rather than a course based around textbooks. They have
been easier to relate to and therefore easier to learn from.'
'I can talk in front of class and have found that I can work better in groups.'
'I have learned about trigger and background factors.'
'Also we have learnt how to investigate more thoroughly and see all factors in the case, so
we can appreciate both sides of the story.'
Tips for successful debriefing
Plan the debriefing process *(using a template).
Identify appropriate questions.
Include language for thinking about thinking – metacognition.
Consider both the 'big picture' and the 'chunks' in learning.
Allow students thinking time.
Allow students to talk at length – in groups.
Makes sure students see the point of the lesson (not just 'what' but 'how').
Don't over-plan – don't give them the answers.
Consider possible transfer contexts.
Pay attention to group talk – their comments provide good starting points for
Don't settle for one word answers – ask students for their reasoning.
Levels of integration/infusion of teaching thinking into a curriculum
Level of use
Level 0: No teaching thinking strategies used.
Level 1: Occasional ready-made strategies from
books, etc., used.
Level 2: Many strategies used, most of which are
ready made, some developed by dept.
Level 3: A lot of teaching thinking strategies
designed by department and integrated into
Level 4: Full consideration is given to subject
specific and generic aims of lesson and IT
activities are designed to meet these.
Possible outcomes/implications
National curriculum possible not being delivered.
Increased student interest in lessons. National
curriculum beginning to be addressed.
Students beginning to listen and respond to each
other and thinking beginning to be addressed.
Debriefing process familiar and integral to
students' learning. Activities may be suggested by
students. Concepts (subject specific and generic)
understood and transfer to other topics and
curriculum areas beginning.
Students begin to be independent learners.
Debriefing is integral to most/many lessons. A
high degree of metacognition. Improved
examination results and uptake.
Developing powerful learning environments
(What follows is based on Sullivan Palinscar, A. (1998) 'Social Constructivist Perspectives',
Annual Review of Psychology, 49, pp. 345-75.) Recent work on thinking proposes that
learning and understanding are often social rather than individual processes. In this view,
much learning and higher order thinking is dependent on talk and social interaction. For
 Students whose teachers who modelled mental processes when they had difficulty
understanding text recalled more from lessons and showed greater awareness of what
they were learning.
 Groups can draw upon a larger collective memory.
 Explaining one's thinking to another leads to deeper cognitive processing.
 Groups co-construct understanding as they question, interpret, clarify, summarise,
speculate and predict.
 One view of thought is that it is internalised discourse/talk.
Roth (1996) researched fourth and fifth grade students doing open-ended technology
problems. Facts, ways of using tools and problems spread easily through the classroom,
driven by the students, ideas/intellectual practices spread less easily and were largely driven
by the teacher.
Cobb (1991) showed that it took five months to create a climate in which students persisted
with problems, explained reasons and solutions to each other, listened to others' reasons and
tried resolve contradictions.
Taylor and Cox (1997) highlighted the importance of social relationships. O'Connor (1998), in
a study of sixth grade mathematics found that the acceptance of an idea was often
dependent on who said it (social status). Chan found with grades 9-13 that productive talk
was associated with conflicting statements being discussed rather than ignored. Webb and
Farrivar (1997) found in an experimental design that students did better where they were
prepared through:
(a) activities that ensured that they knew each other,
(b) being taught communication skills, i.e. norms for interaction,
(c) being taught how to help one another while working, and
(d) developing skills for generating explanations.
Cobb (1993) found that harmony in a group's relationship was not a good indicator of
learning experiences.