Developing pupils’ thinking skills

Written by Stuart Twiss

Imagine being in the thick of teaching a Let’s Think lesson.  Now imagine you could press pause and invite some world leading academics into your classroom to give their insights?   What if you had on hand Professors Neil Mercer, Patricia Alexander or Lauren Resnick to help you consider the development of thinking through talk.  What if you had Piaget available to point you to features of thinking indicative of the student’s development?

Because you had paused those moments of teaching, each distinguished researcher would offer a different ‘lens’ through which you could reflect on the development of thinking.  What indicators might they point you to?  You could discuss with them why they, above other noticeable features, are worthy of note.   Might the new ‘lens’ they offer have implications for the moves you go on to make as a teacher to promote the development of thinking?

The Let’s Think Forum has been involved in a trans-national partnership to help teachers with insights into the development of thinking.  Where it has proven especially useful to UK teachers is the bridge the project has created between distinguished researchers, their sometimes obscure research literature and assessment tools that have use in the classroom.  We have been able to provide well-researched ‘lenses’ that have helped teachers see their classrooms anew, providing real time insights into the hidden events in their classroom.

The project, ACTS: Assessment Companion for Thinking Skills will be published later next year. It has involved a two year development and trial of the ‘lenses’ or assessment tools as we call them within the project.

What teachers have said about their use of the assessment tools and their engagement in the project suggests that the tools have value and even a wider use…..

To see their classrooms through new lenses:

“The tools help us to see differently, and in detail to help form observations based on deeper theories of education, thinking and learning

“ACTS is a teacher’s journey through a different thinking process.”

It is really interesting how many of us used the tools to help move on our students! Helping our understanding of what they think and how they think.”

“The extra reading (about the research background) supported the understanding of the tool.”

To go beyond the use of the tool with Let’s Think:

“The tools are flexible so they can be widened or sharpened to suit the school need/context.”

“It (the use of the assessment tool) developed from a Let’s Think lesson to be applied to other lessons.”

To recognise that the project had impacted their general practice:

 “ACTS is really a CPD package to help teachers gain an insight into thinking in a classroom.”

 “I found the ACTS CPD a more worthwhile CPD as it really allowed review of own practice and the tools were easily adaptable.”

The range of assessment tools the Let’s Think Forum team have created have been helping teachers discriminate between useful discourse and less helpful interactions.  They have shown teachers the value of creating the conditions for ‘productive failure’ in a way that helps develop pupil reasoning. They have provided the progress prompts that move students from relational thinking to relational reasoning and helped teachers see the significance of their actions in planning for these events.   They have also supported teachers understand development in terms of Piaget, an accomplished piece of wisdom for any teacher, and in relation to the complexity of reasoning in a task using SOLO taxonomy.

A starting point for many teachers in the project has been the use of tools that analyse discourse. For teachers unused to the level of detail that discourse analysis can require, a good place to start was looking at the open or closed nature of dialogue using the Open or Closed assessment tool.  The following excerpt from the Open or Closed assessment tool gives a flavor of the material:

Closed: defensive or presentational Learners…  
  • Present ideas as closed and final
  • Defend a position to self-protect
  • See discourse as competition
  • Agree with others in order to protect them
  • Agree with others to avoid thinking or to avoid conflict
Open: exploratory Learners…
  • Offer ideas to the group for discussion
  • Give reasons and evidence
  • Consider alternatives
  • Rehearse and play with the ideas of others to make sense of them
  • Build on the ideas of others


 Observing a lesson, watching a video or reading a transcript of a lesson, discuss:

  • Do the teacher and learners have an open or closed orientation to each other?
  • Does this shift according to phases in the lesson or according to who is speaking?
  • What are some of the indicators that suggest the culture of talk in this classroom?

Working as part of a strategic trans-national partnership

Thanks to Erasmus Plus EU funding, the project enabled the UK team to work alongside colleagues from Finland and Latvia, who brought different perspectives to the project coming from their own education traditions.

We believe we have some refreshing and helpful assessment tools whose use will be illustrated by examples of classroom practice that we hope to be able to share at the beginning of next year when we have concluded the trials and the project.  If you would like to sample an assessment tool then please contact us.

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