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Developing our learners into thinkers

Being a thinker is a quality we all aspire to.

Teacher 1

Indeed, by making it a Personal Learning Goal, the IPC places this attribute at the very heart of its programme. So, what does being a thinker really mean, and how can we apply this in our school context?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a thinker is someone who ‘thinks deeply and seriously’. It is surely a noble goal for our students to leave school ready to think deeply and seriously about the world and the issues facing it. As educators, this noble goal becomes an important responsibility – how can we ensure that our students are developing as thinkers?

Educational psychologist John Sweller formulated ‘cognitive load theory’, which has been described by education researcher Dylan William as the ‘single most important thing for teachers to know’. This theory holds that we have both long term and working memories. Our working memory is what we are able to be conscious of at any given moment, whether that be a podcast, a conversation, or a refreshing ice cream. Our working memories can hold just three to five items at any one time – any more stimulation, and we experience cognitive overload; our ability to learn is compromised. Our ability to think is stymied.

On the other hand, our long term memories are limitless – they can hold an infinite number of concepts, ideas, facts and connections. The more we think deeply and seriously about an idea or concept, the more likely it is to move from our working memory to our long term memory. When it is in long term memory, it can easily be retrieved to support our thinking in complex and new problems. For instance, when children begin to learn mathematics in school, they focus on one-to-one correspondence (being able to accurately count a set of objects). When they have been able to master this, they can use this understanding to solve simple problems involving halving and doubling. Once they have mastered this, they are able to progress onto solving more complex, multi-step problems. Without all the learning that came before, which has moved into long-term memory, thinking at an advanced level would be impossible.

This holds true in the classroom. As educators, we must make sure that learning is correctly designed, in order to allow our students to learn. This means minimizing not just external distractions which can compromise working memory, such as unnecessary noise, but also the intrinsic load (i.e. inherent difficult) of the task. When learners are faced with something that is too difficult (i.e. its intrinsic load is too high), they stop learning. In the earlier years, avoiding cognitive overload is crucial for children to master the essential skills of reading and writing. As students move through the school, they are able to use the knowledge and skills they have acquired to think deeply in a more critical and analytical form, for example through essays or debates.

In Year 1, we have embraced cognitive load theory. One of the essential skills that children need to master in Year 1 is writing. Writing is the most complex skill demanded of young children and they must be supported through various stages before they can become confident writers. The skill of writing has two components: composition (thinking about what to write) and transcription (thinking about how to write it). We have all experienced the wonderful storytelling of young children (composition), even when they are unable to write these down. Asking children to focus on both the storytelling and the writing is too challenging at this stage. This is why, in Year 1, we have told and re-told the story of Peace at Last. By memorizing the story, using actions to support memory, we remove the challenge of composition. The children’s focus is now on transcribing – forming letters, using phonics and remembering punctuation. Transcribing alone requires deep thinking!

Over time, children will become more confident with transcribing, and will be able to become more creative in their writing. But skipping this initial step would be doing a disservice to so many budding writers.

To achieve the noble goal of developing our students into thinkers, it is essential to allow them the space to think deeply about what they are learning, step by step. In this way, children become confident learners who are able to analyse, discern and think deeply and seriously about the world. Over time and step by step, they become thinkers.

Zuzanna McClintock 

Year 1 Teacher