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Learning Detectives

Learning Detectives

Here’s a really nice idea from Louise Brown, the deputy head and reception teacher at Amble First School in the UK.

At the start of each day, Louise chooses two children to take the role of Learning Detectives. Their task is to record their classmates engaging in whatever the focus might be for that day/week. At the beginning of the academic year, Louise tends to focus the children’s attention on social language and social skills (for example, listening to each other, working together, agreeing and disagreeing). She then moves them on to thinking about the skills of learning (for example, asking questions, giving reasons, making links and decisions)

At the end of the lesson or day, Louise asks the 2 Learning Detectives to feed back to the other children when and where they witnessed the particular skill in action. This feedback comes in the form of written notes, digital pictures or diagrams that are drawn on the interactive whiteboard. All are used as part of the plenary session during which Louise encourages them to reflect on their thinking and learning throughout the day.

How Much Challenge?

Ava and AniMatch

Getting children to play pairs (matching one card to another) is a great way of improving their memory skills and strategic thinking. But how many cards should you start with when playing the game with nursery children? Most foundation stage teachers tell me 8 cards (4 pairs) or thereabouts.

So, what about starting with 20 cards and playing the game with 3-year-olds? Way too many, I hear you say and last week I would’ve agreed with you. But not now: during half-term, my 2 ½ year old daughter and I downloaded Animatch, a game of pairs for the iPhone that comes with 20 cards as standard. Thinking this is too many for Ava to deal with, we simply listened to the sounds that each animal makes and named the creatures as we went along.

However, within 10 minutes of playing around with the programme, Ava had worked out the object of the game and was merrily matching the cards to their pairs. Her initial strategy was to pick one animal and then keep going until she’d found it’s pair before moving onto another animal. She soon realised that this is an inefficient strategy and so moved on to working out what was under each card and matching as she went along. It now takes her 90 seconds to complete the game without the need of any guidance or encouragement.

I wonder where I can find a game with 40 cards to match …?!

The Learning Pit

One of the frameworks I regularly share with teachers is that of the Learning Pit, a model that explains how and why challenge is necessary for learning. Having first heard Dr John Edwards in 2001 using a “pit” to explain how organisational growth more often than not involves getting worse before getting better, I thought that the metaphor was an ideal way to explain to my students why I was consistently making things more difficult for them. Since then I have developed the idea into the following four-stage lesson plan:

The learning pit always begins with an important concept, since it is through conceptual analysis that students gain an understanding of their world. Example concepts include: art, bullying, culture, democracy, existence, growth, indentity, justice, knowledge, language, music, number, originality, poetry, questions, reality tv, science, tourism, and so on.

In July 2008, Professor John Hattie began an address on behalf of his Visible Learning Laboratory in Auckland with: “The major message from my work with 240m students, 800+ meta-analyses, 50,000+ studies is… Challenge Challenge Challenge Challenge Challenge”. Stage two of the learning pit is concerned with just that: challenging students to think more deeply, purposefully, critically and creatively.

This is the point at which students co-construct an undersanding of the key concepts through continued dialogue and study with each other. According to many notable educational theorists such as Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget and John Dewey, there is no such thing as knowledge “out there” independent of the knower, but only knowledge we construct for ourselves as we learn. Stage three recognises this by creating the conditions necessary for meaningful dialogue.

If you reflect on anything you have learned, you soon realise that it is the product of repeated exposure and thought. Thus, stage four is concerned with students revisiting and reflecting upon their learning journey.


  • The Learning Pit will be published in my new book, Challenging Learning, this autumn. To reserve your copy, please click here
  • For an article covering the background, lesson ideas and outcomes of the Learning Pit, click here
  • The photo attached to this posting comes from Lacey McCarthy,whose Year 2 students at Douglas Park School in Masterton, New Zealand have been using the Learning Pit to deepen their learning

Teaching the ASK Model

Two of the schools I’m working with, one in Doncaster (UK) and the other in Cambewarra (Australia), are trying a new approach to their curriculum that places an emphasis on Attitudes and Skills, as well as Knowledge (ASK). In a previous blog, (see Teaching Attitudes on 18 March 2009) I shared the Attitudes work of Sandringham Primary School. Now, here’s an insight into the Skills work that Cambewarra Primary School are doing.

Selecting five key thinking skills, Processing information, Reasoning, Inquiry, Creativity and Evaluation, Trent Burns and his colleagues are ensuring that at least one of these skills is at the heart of each lesson. For example, when studying the environmental impact of technologies, the children would be asked to “paraphrase” the contributions of another, and then to add a “reason” to that opinion or argument.

Of course, since the children would have to use their thinking skills in order to answer a question or complete a task, some might say the deliberate focus on a particular type of thinking is unnecessary. And yet to improve any skill, expert practice concerns itself with breaking the skill down into parts. For example, in addition to swimming from one side of the pool to the other, a swimmer wishing to improve his/her skills would be well advised to at times focus almost exclusively on head position, then perhaps on the timing of his/her arm strokes and maybe another time on the frequency of kicks. And so it is with thinking – breaking the whole skill down into parts so that the whole might be improved bit by bit.

Furthermore, Trent’s students enjoy the added dimension that a focus on thinking skills brings to their lessons, referring frequently to the PRICE model either by identifying the skill they believe they are using to solve a task, or setting out to improve a particular skill by finding opportunities to practise it.

Look out for an update on their progress after my visit there in June.

Enigma Table

The “Enigma Table” is a really nice idea that Kate McIntyre uses with her class of 4 and 5 year olds at Newport School in Middlesbrough, UK. As Kate explains:

The ‘Enigma Table’ stands alone in our Classroom and at the beginning of the week I put an interesting but not immediately indentifiable object (see photo). During the week the children come up to the table (independently) and have lots of interesting discussions about what the object could be. There is a pencil pot and post it notes available for them to write their ideas down (great for monitoring their writing and honic skills).

At the end of the week, we have a class circle time where we talk about our ideas. At this point, the children usually challenge each others’ ideas about why it ‘can’t be’. We finish off by showing them what the object is for, usually followed by cries of “that’s what I was going to say”!

If you have any ideas what the object in the phot is then post your answers here:

Variation on the Hot Air Balloon

Following on from the 3 Apples experiment, here’s another contribution from Ian McKenzie at Viscount School in Auckland. He’s been working with a class of 12-year-olds on values, using a variation of the hot air balloon scenario (a balloon’s going to crash unless a few people are ejected from the basket). As Ian explains:

We began with a discussion about where ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ come from, and how these 12-year-olds had picked up values without ever thinking about them (this was their realisation rather than something I told them). We then decided to explore their values a bit more using the old hot air balloon debate. We seated ourselves in a pentagonal, with a chair in front of each bench. The students on chairs were nominated as the talkers, though anyone could give them a suggestion, and those on the benches were the listeners. Whenever someone was persuaded by an alternative view from someone else, then they were encouraged to move seats to show they had changed their mind, or at least were wondering whether this counter-argument might be worth considering more.

In this variation, the groups were asked to represent drug addicts, teenage mums, homeless people, ex-convicts, disabled people and so on. The students then challenged each other’s assumptions about those people, as is the case with most debates, but the physical fluidity of students literally moving their positions helped to challenge stereotypes and lazy assumptions. And, as the dynamics of the groups changed, so too did the dynamics of the inquiry.

Mostly, I find this an excellent vehicle for students to have to use some ALTERNATIVE thinking. What always seems to happen though is that kids get stumped when someone has the courage to ask them WHY they have a certain value or assumption. The real thinking begins then!

Primary Twitching

I heard a great suggestion from the owner of Alnmouth Grocers, Alan Tilmouth, recently: twitching for children (taking children out regularly to spot birds!) As he says, “Bird-watching should be compulsory in every primary syllabus. It is a great activity for kids; it improves listening, observation, memory, counting, colour recognition and gets them outdoors more.”

Alan is of course biased. Not only is he a father of 3 young children, but he is the co-author of Birds in Northumbria and Editor of a regional weblog Bird North East. That said, he makes a good point! This, I’m guessing, would also be an activity of which, Reuven Feuerstein, recognised as one of the leading psychologists of his generation, would approve highly of.

Feuerstein’s programme of intervention, Instrumental Enrichment, upon which so many of the world’s curricula for children are based, theorises that the skills of thinking and learning are best developed by children when an adult encourages them to focus upon events, patterns, characteristics or notions that the child wouldn’t otherwise notice. So when a young child is building a tower with Lego bricks, we might draw their attention to the colours of the blocks, or prompt them to create different patterns with the tower. Or when teaching a child to swim, we’d encourage them to notice their head position and not just to focus on their arm movements. This mediation is at the core of teaching and learning, and indeed helps to distinguish between outstanding and average practice. And so it would be with bird watching: focussing children’s attention on birds’ colours, size, flight patterns and so on.

So why not give it a try? The RSPB site gives a lot of ideas and resources. Or, if you’re in Northumberland or the North East, I’m sure Alan would be only too happy to advise or support you. There’s also a retired police officer turned twitcher, Per Eidsten in Tonsberg, Norway, who I know would be the perfect guide for a spot of twitching!