Approaches to thinking in the classroom

Author: Sue Cowley
Published: 11/08/2020

The question of what students think about in class is a fascinating one, because you cannot see the thinking that is going on inside their heads. You might assess your students to see what they have remembered, look at their books, or ask them questions, but this is only ever a proxy for what is really happening in their minds. When you spot a child staring off into space, are they pondering the wonders of the curriculum, coming up with a fantastic new idea for a story, or thinking about what they are going to have for lunch?

Every teacher wants their students to think hard in lessons, because this will help them to learn. But how exactly do we go about ensuring that this happens? What techniques can we use to encourage thinking, and to try and get our students to map out what is going on in their minds, so that we can gain a better insight?

One of the key words that you will hear people talk about in relation to thinking in the classroom is metacognition. Put simply, metacognition means thinking about your own thinking. This might include analysing what goes on in your mind when you are asked a question, or considering the best strategies to approach a particular aspect of learning. Metacognition describes a kind of heightened awareness of your own thought processes. It is very helpful for students if the teacher ‘thought tracks’ their own thinking when they are modelling something to the class. As you make notes on a text, or explain a process, speak the thoughts that are going on in your mind out loud. Encourage your students to mind map their ideas, so that you can see for yourself the kind of connections they are making between different parts of a subject. Mapping our thinking visually is a great way to explore and widen it.

Curiosity is also a powerful tool. One useful technique to encourage curiosity is to start your lesson with a big question rather than a learning objective. Rephrase your ‘We are going to’ objective with a curiosity-enhancing ‘What can we find out about this?’ question. For instance, a science lesson on light, wavelength and colours might begin with the question: ‘Why is the sky blue?’ Another useful technique is to start your lesson with a puzzle or a dilemma – this is sometimes referred to as a ‘provocation’ because it provokes thinking in the students. ‘How do I solve this?’ or ‘What is going on here?’ are powerful prompts to encourage your students to examine a situation and generate new ideas.

Philosophy for Children offers a great way to get your students thinking about philosophical questions, and it can lead to some surprisingly complex discussions among even the very youngest children. The questions asked in Philosophy for Children are open-ended – there is no right or wrong, only various ideas to be explored. One of the keys to higher order thinking is open-endedness – removing the fear of ‘getting the wrong answer’ and freeing students up to explore their personal reactions and feelings. In a busy curriculum, it can be hard to find time to explore thinking in this way. Allowing students to ‘play around’ with ideas can seem like a poor use of limited time. But in reality, thinking is at the heart of all learning, and the strategies in the accompanying resource below will help your students understand the subjects you teach.

Download Sue Cowley's resource for teachers, Getting the most out of group work.

Sue Cowley

Sue Cowley is a teacher, presenter and author of international CPD bestsellers including 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' and 'How to Survive in Your First Year of Teaching'.