Ready to furnish tools of thought

September 28, 2007

You should not assume that your students know how to think, says Harriet Swain, but you can help them to develop those skills by adopting techniques designed to expand their minds - and yours

Students need more than knowledge - they also need to know how to think. The question for anyone in a teaching role is: how do you make them do it?

Teaching thinking skills is something you and your students need to think about, says Nigel Newman, a master trainer in Edward De Bono's techniques for promoting creative thinking. He argues that thinking is not something that comes naturally. Instead the thinker must consciously want to do it, be prepared to spend time working on how to do it and accept that it might not be easy.

Stella Cottrell, author of a book on critical thinking, says there is no one definition for thinking skills. You have to consider what you want students to think about, for what purpose, and at what level.

You also need to know where the gaps are in your students' thinking abilities and why they are there. It could be that their knowledge base is not strong enough to allow them to think, or that they have poor reading skills or vocabulary, which would make it difficult to present a line of argument.

"Like any other study skill it makes most sense for the student if it is contextualised," she says. You should be structuring your teaching to reflect the thinking processes that students should be following. The way you present information and set exercises should all be helping them along this road.

In doing this, you need to guard against assuming that students have learnt certain skills at school, or that they understand concepts such as analysis, argument and critical approaches in the same way as you. You need to explain such concepts and, as part of your explanations, give good, mediocre and exceptional examples of how they can be employed so the students have something to follow.

Once students have realised what it is to think and decided they want to do it, Newman argues, you must give them particular tools to help them.

For him, this means introducing methods advocated by De Bono and others, and using these in your teaching. He argues that you should direct students to De Bono's six different types of thinking (the Six Hats strategy); mind-mapping; Swot (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis; PMI (which considers not only the Pluses and Minuses of an issue but its Interesting aspects), and other techniques, while encouraging them to use these to broaden the way they think.

Newman advocates provoking the brain into different ways of thinking - encouraging scenarios in which the thinker imagines what would happen if he or she were Prime Minister, if wheels were square, if trains ran backwards and so on, so they are forced to go beyond their general assumptions.

"I find academics get very bogged down with information overload," he says. "These tools can help you sort and manage information."

Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays , says you should try to take a back seat, encouraging students to organise their thoughts but not doing everything for them.

"Remember, our task is to teach students how to think, rather than what to think," he says.

When you are trying to get students to analyse a concept or criticise an argument, you need to start from their examples and experiences. Otherwise, says Greetham, you could "fail to graft these methods on to their pattern of study".

Guy Claxton, professor of the learning sciences at Bristol University, says that, rather than making thinking skills a distinct topic, you need to transmit your subject in a way that provokes students to think automatically, in the way that a real bioscientist, mathematician or historian would think.

Rather than transmit knowledge, he argues, you must involve students in the knowledge-making process, and the kind of language you use can be crucial. So you should talk in terms of "some people say that..." or "there are a number of ways of looking at this, and they are...", stressing the "could be" rather than "is" aspects of the statements you are making.

"You need to build into the language the fact that you haven't got it finished yet, and that it's still up for discussion," he says.

Claxton suggests getting students to monitor your language to make sure you are not making sloppy assumptions. Perhaps you could start a series of lectures by explaining that you have been an academic for years, have given that particular introductory lecture for years and, as a normal human being, you are probably trying to pass off as cut and dried something that is still up for debate. Urge them to point out when this is happening.

"The more you do that, the more you get buy-in from students. It gives them some authority and helps them to develop their own thoughtfulness," says Claxton.

The way you give feedback on students' work is also important, he says. You need to show when they have confused fact with opinion, and when they have written something that is not accurate but is nevertheless interesting.

"Be more sophisticated in the way you give feedback on written work," he suggests.

Greetham says any work on thinking skills needs to be backed up by a form of assessment that can check what has been achieved. He argues that it is possible to separate assessment of students' understanding of particular subject matter from how their thinking skills have developed. Ideally, he says, all degree programmes should have a separate examination to test these higher cognitive skills.

More information

Edward de Bono Foundation, a charity sponsoring innovation in human thinking,

Stella Cottrell, Critical Thinking Skills , Palgrave Macmillan, 2005

Bryan Greetham, How to Write Better Essays , Palgrave Study Guides, 2001

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