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Developing Thinking Skills in the Primary Classroom

 Steve Higgins

Paper presented at the Register of Primary Research Seminar Conference ‘Raising Achievement: Developing Thinking Skills’ University College Worcester October 27 2001

Available in Occasional Paper: No 2 2002 ISBN 0-9538154-1-2 available from the Editor, 9,Humber Road, Blackheath, London SE3 7LS

Position and address
Senior Lecturer in Primary Education
Thinking Skills Research Centre
Department of Education
University of Newcastle


The aim of this paper is to provide information about the broader research background to the keynote address delivered as part of the programme of events at the Primary Research Seminar Conference in Worcester in October 2001. In that address I tried to set the work of the Thinking Skills Research Centre at Newcastle University in context and introduced some principles of teaching thinking that the group have identified from a range of thinking skills programs as being effective in changing patterns of interaction in classrooms. A major section of the talk also looked at the practical strategies which the group have used successfully in different subjects and with a wide range of ages of learners. These ‘powerful pedagogical strategies’ (Leat and Higgins) have proved to be valuable tools for working with teachers to investigate effective teaching and learning in their own classrooms, enabling them, we believe, to enact the findings of wider research through their catalytic structure. The address ended with some reflections on the processes by which teaching thinking (partly through its links with formative assessment (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Leat and McGrane, 2000) may be effective in raising achievement


The aim of this paper is to provide information about the broader research background to the keynote address delivered as part of the programme of events at the Primary Research Seminar Conference in Worcester in October 2001. In that address I tried to set the work of the Thinking Skills Research Centre at Newcastle University in context and introduced some principles of teaching thinking that the group have identified from a range of thinking skills programs as being effective in changing patterns of interaction in classrooms. A major section of the talk also looked at the practical strategies which the group have used successfully in different subjects and with a wide range of ages of learners. These ‘powerful pedagogical strategies’ (Leat and Higgins, in press) have proved to be valuable tools for working with teachers to investigate effective teaching and learning in their own classrooms, enabling them, we believe, to enact the findings of wider research through their catalytic structure. The address ended with some reflections on the processes by which teaching thinking (partly through its links with formative assessment (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Leat and McGrane, 2000) may be effective in raising achievement.

Thinking skills interventions and characteristics of teaching thinking

Thinking skills interventions tend to have a number of common features. The activities and programs are usually designed for learners to be successful, but they include a level of challenge so that this success is meaningful. Most use collaborative talk as a focus, or involve pupils in explaining and justifying their thinking. Perhaps as a result of this teachers usually report that they feel that the use of such approaches has improved the quality of social relationships in the classroom (Baumfield and Oberski, 1998). Many of the published resources also focus on key concepts and ideas and support pupils in developing connections between these ideas. As classes talk about learning they develop a vocabulary of and for learning as their awareness of learning processes and metacognitive skills become accessible (Higgins, 2001).[See p.62]

The classroom processes that this can involve have become the focus of the work of the research group. We have identified some principles in teaching thinking that we have found helpful in developing more effective teaching approaches. These principles require talking about learning to be an explicit part of the learning process and can be interpreted as being consistent with a broadly social constructivist approach to learning (see, for example Wood, 1998).

These teaching thinking principles require that pupils articulate and discuss their thinking as part of their learning activities. They also need to be aware of the learning goals in order that they can evaluate their own performance effectively. Only once these aims have been achieved can pupils discuss and evaluate their own learning and develop metacognitively.

Patterns of interaction in classroom talk

There is considerable evidence that most lessons in schools usually follow a similar discourse pattern with teacher talk dominating the interactions (Edwards and Westgate 1994). This is described variously as ‘Initiate Respond Evaluate’ (I-R-E) or I-R-F ‘Initiate Respond Feedback’ from Sinclair and Coulthard’s (1975 and 1992) descriptions of moves and acts. This pattern of teacher initiation, pupil response and teacher evaluation is a common feature of educational interaction. It has advantages particularly in terms of control and in checking for recall of information. It is less good for checking for understanding partly because of the pace, and the time allowed for pupils to respond is limited. Thinking skills lessons emphasise another style of interaction where the teacher has the opportunity to listen; tries to set up situations where there is a genuine need to listen to pupils responses in order to assess their understanding. Discussion also has other advantages - pupils start to see learning as more attainable, not something you ‘know’ but something you can learn. This is through developing a language for learning or developing metacognitive skills and vocabulary by talking about thinking and learning. Perhaps what characterises teaching thinking is a more explicit balance between the processes of learning and lesson products, particularly written outcomes, which tend to be focused on the content.

In discussing the features of group work where pupils are encouraged to explore meanings collaboratively, Edwards and Westgate (1994) and Barnes and Todd (1995) point out the clear differences in discourse structure between this and whole class instruction. The absence of the teacher means there is no authoritative figure to dominate the discourse, social relationships are more balanced so the pupils have to negotiate the terms of their interaction as they go along. As Edwards (1980) argues, turn-taking is managed locally and interactionally in such group discussion. It therefore sets up different expectations and patterns of working because speakers potentially have more equal rights and joint ownership of the interaction. The patterns of interaction are therefore strikingly different from the kinds of discourse associated with the whole-class or transmission model of teaching. There are frequent overlaps and a lack of pauses as it is usually not clear until the moment of decision who will enter and who will control the up-coming turn. Each pupil's contribution is also closely contingent on the contributions of others and necessitates close listening to what has gone before. The absence of an authoritative figure in the conversation also means that there is no clear figure to evaluate responses so pupils have to pool their responses to draw their own conclusions or refine their responses. It also allows for an interplay of alternative frames, and, because power is distributed amongst the pupils, they have a greater opportunity to initiate questions, to evaluate each other's responses, and to control the discourse for their own purposes.

In this way, as Edwards and Mercer (1987) suggest, pupils can share in and practice forms of academic discourse in the classroom normally dominated by the teacher: that is, sharing, comparing, contrasting and arguing from different perspectives, providing opportunities for 'instructional conversation' or the 'shared construction or negotiation of meaning'. Therefore pupils are given more opportunities to develop linguistically and cognitively in the discourse structure of collaborative group work (see also Bennett and Dunne, 1992). Cazden (1988) also argues that collaborative group work has a justifiable role on the grounds that it is 'The only (my italics) context in which children can reverse interactional roles with the same intellectual content, giving directions as well as following them, and asking questions as well as answering them, is with their peers'. We would partially disagree with this, arguing that the discourse in a class experienced in using a teaching thinking approach such as the ‘Community of Enquiry’ may show many of the features of collaborative group discourse but operating on a whole class scale. Further our experience of the role of the teacher as mediator in teaching thinking lessons suggests that these types of exchanges can be teacher/pupil as well as pupil/pupil.

Thinking skills in the National Curriculum 2000

It is encouraging that thinking skills are explicit in the current version of the National Curriculum.

Geography provides opportunities to promote thinking skills through emphasis on the process of geographical enquiry and helping pupils to evaluate information and reflect of their own work.

(DfES, 1999: p9)

By using thinking skills pupils can focus on ‘knowing how’ as well as ‘knowing what’ and begin to learn how to learn. The following thinking skills are described as ‘complementing’ the key skills and ‘embedded’ in the National Curriculum.

Recent developments at Newcastle University

Work in on thinking skills at Newcastle University started in the early 1990s when staff involved in initial teacher education programmes offering a Post-graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) at Newcastle University started gathering and generating generic, flexible and creative strategies for making lessons more challenging. David Leat’s pioneering work in secondary geography is now widely known (see for example SCAA, 1996; Leat, 1998).

The use of these strategies as support for changing patterns of interaction in classrooms was refined in the light of our emerging familiarity with concepts derived from cognitive acceleration (Adey and Shayer, 1994), Instrumental Enrichment (Feuerstein, 1980), Philosophy for Children (Lipman, 1994,; Murris, 1992), ‘probes’ for understanding (White and Gunstone, 1992) reciprocal teaching (Palincsar and Brown, 1984), scaffolding (Wood and Wood, 1996), research on talk (Edwards and Westgate, 1987), social constructivism, self-theories (Dweck, 1999) and collaborative group work (Webb and Farrivar, 1994).

This work became a significant part of a course on teaching thinking open to all PGCE students and valued by PGCE staff as a means by which students could put into practice or ‘enact’ findings from educational research (Higgins and Moseley, 2001).

As these students took up posts in local schools they continued using these strategies. Some of these newly qualified teachers sparked interest in their schools and departments which was sometimes reinforced by subsequent trainee students on teaching placements.

In parallel, the university started offering masters course modules and responding to a demand from across the country for local education authority based courses in TT, the centre piece of which were the teaching thinking strategies. Some schools also sought this INSET for their whole staff. Both the demand for and the provision of courses also grew in the primary sector (Higgins, 2001).

There has been a further phase of this activity that might be described as the development of school and education authority (LEA) networks. A group of six secondary schools in partnership with Newcastle University and their three education authorities were funded by the Teacher Training Agency as the North East School Based Research Consortium (NESBRC). One LEA, Northumberland, set up its own Thinking Skills in the Humanities Network and organised an outposted masters course. Two more LEAs have followed this pattern and one of the local Education Action Zones has made this approach to teaching thinking one of their themes. This activity has meshed with published interventions such as Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) and the mathematics equivalent (CAME), both at authority and school level. The National Union of Teachers committed funding to a series of successful teacher research scholarships in teaching thinking supported by Newcastle University (see, for example, Tough and Brunger, 2001) and a significant number of successful applications have been made to the Department for Education and Employment’s Best Practice Research Scholarship scheme using teaching thinking strategies as their focus, again supported by Newcastle staff. The strategies are now being tried in Norway and Hong Kong, as part of projects to develop metacognitive approaches by pupils thereby indicating an international potential.

Projects in primary schools

In terms of work in primary schools, there have been a number of strands of activity. One early project looked at how pupils questioning (and hypothesis generation) could be developed using Top Ten Thinking Tactics (Lake and Needham, 199 and Philosophy with Picture Books (Murris, 1992; Murris and Haynes, 2001).

Another group of schools used the community of enquiry to develop questioning and comprehension in literacy. This same group of schools moved on to developing pupils’ articulation of their mental calculation strategies in maths lessons and have looked at using ICT to support the use of the strategies. Other teachers, particularly as a result of the support of advisers in Sunderland and Northumberland, have developed an extensive bank of tried and tested resources which support the use of the strategies in teaching.

The development of networks at LEA level have spread these ideas widely across primary schools in the North East. The University’s involvement in a locally based NOF ICT Training Consortium, GridREF 2000 has led to the development of a teaching thinking version of NOF training which has promoted wider use of the strategies and approaches.

Strategy 1: Odd one out

One example of such a strategy is Odd One Out. Teachers present pupils with three ideas either as words, pictures or symbols, such as a picture of a hen, a frog and a duck. Pupils then choose an ‘odd one out’ and give a reason. A typical response might be that the frog is the odd one out because it does not have feathers, or is not a bird, or is an amphibian depending on their knowledge and understanding of classification in science (for further details of the application of this strategy in secondary geography see Leat (1998) or, for its application in primary mathematics and science see Higgins (2001). It supports the development of classification skills (the information processing strand of the NC) and the clarification of concepts by creating examples and counter-examples. It also provides a way to help children make connections between ideas to help more accurate definitions of concepts. In geography it can be used effectively with picture of landscapes for example, as well as using place names or geographical vocabulary.

It is a straightforward idea, easily grasped by young children, but powerful even for adults. It can also be used in more or less any curriculum subject. When children talk about the connections between ideas it offers a window into their thinking. This can be a powerful formative assessment tool. In addition it is usually fun!

Strategies 2 and 3: Living graphs and living maps

There are a range of related thinking skills strategies which help pupils to understand the tasks that they are given and relate these to their own experience. The usual procedure is that pupils are given a set of statements which they relate to a central question (for Mysteries) as developed by David Leat (SCAA, 1996; Leat, 1998, Nichols and Kinninment, 2001)) or to a mathematical chart (for the Living Graph) (Higgins, 2001) or a more general diagram in the case of Fortune Lines (White and Gunstone, 1992).

These approaches encourage pupils to engage with the text more deeply and to relate pieces of information to each other and to their own experience. The value of this is that it exposes their thinking to each other through discussion. It also gives the teacher a chance to observe and understand where there are misconceptions, or how to move pupils’ thinking on.

Two of these strategies are worth considering in more detail in the context of teaching geography in primary schools. They are particularly appropriate across a wider age range than mysteries, for example, which demand higher levels of literacy and collaboration. Another advantages of these two approaches are that they are more visual and interactive which can help to engage learners more effectively. Both strategies are designed to encourage pupils to consider more than one aspect of the information presented. Both of them use short chunks of text – perhaps a statement about a person or people which the pupils can interpret in human terms – which need to be related to a graph or map. The idea is that the pupils work out where the statement best fits on the graph or map. In the process pupil have to practise and develop crucial skills: (e.g. interpreting information; sequencing; making links between different pieces of information; organising information; checking and refining; explaining). Some of the statements can usually be placed relatively easily, others require more thought and reasoning.

The strategies aim to get pupils engaged with text more deeply than by reading a page and answering comprehension questions. It is also challenging in that pupils have to make decisions about the relevance and weight they give to different pieces of information. It is an essential aspect of this strategy that the information is given to them in chunks on separate pieces of paper which they can move around on the graph or map in front of them, and that they work collaboratively to discuss their interpretation and reasoning.

Strategy 4: Taboo

Taboo may be familiar as a party game. The idea is that you have to give a definition of a given key word but certain terms are banned or ‘taboo’ in explaining the idea to the your team mates (or the rest of the class) who have to guess the keyword. When used in a curriculum context, such as geography, it can support the development of geographical vocabulary and understanding as well as contributing to one of the goals of the National Literacy Strategy in supporting a growing general vocabulary and interest in words and their meanings. It can also be a powerful tool for formative assessment. If pupils are asked to make up their own list of words which should be banned to create new game cards for target vocabulary, their teacher can readily see the differences in pupils’ understanding from the length and composition of their draft lists of ‘taboo’ words. It is also easy to spot misconceptions and errors. This kind of feedback is also useful as it informs the teacher how effective their own explanations have been of key terms or ideas have been, and which areas or ideas need further reinforcement.

Feedback and ‘feedforward’ for learning

We believe that part of the power of thinking skills strategies is the way they provide formative assessment information (Leat and McGrane, 2000). This provides feedback to teachers about pupils’ understanding. The strategies clear space in classroom interaction so that the teachers and pupils focus on effective curriculum discussion. Pupils are given space to talk (and usually stay on task in these discussions), to explain and reason with each other and to the class. This literally lets them articulate their understanding, in both senses of the word: articulate as explain and articulate as join together. They literally join up their thinking in collaborative discussion. This builds up their metacognitive vocabulary within subjects, or their vocabulary of learning. At the same time as these cognitive processes are taking place, teaching thinking activities are usually supportive of the affective side of learning. Pupils are engaged by and usually enjoy the activities and discussion. This feeds forward to subsequent learning activities. They start to be able to discuss the processes of learning, another aspect of metacognition or what we describe as a vocabulary for learning.


In our experience in the North-East, we have found teaching thinking has been an effective catalyst for teachers to focus on the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms. One of the things we feel was significant was the enthusiasm for teaching thinking generated by the individual teachers. This was sparked by the feedback they received in their classrooms as they tried out ideas and activities. It spread as teachers talked to each other about their classroom experiences. As the momentum of interest grew it started to involve whole schools where the heads and staff chose teaching thinking and ‘thinking for learning’ as their focus for professional development. At primary level we also feel that this momentum has been influenced by national developments. The apparent prescription in literacy and numeracy of not only what to teach but how and when, and even how long for, has led some teachers and schools to see teaching thinking as a way to retain their professionalism as they adopt (and adapt) new frameworks (Higgins and Leat, 1997).

The strategies have also been an important part of this process. They provide a means by which teachers can experiment with their teaching in a structured, supported and focused manner (Leat and Higgins, in press). Teaching thinking strategies are accompanied by suggested routines based on the experiences of other teachers. They offer scope for individual teachers to expand their potential further in relation to managing group work and co-operative work, and in developing formative assessment (including peer and self assessment) and creative use of ICT. Most importantly they give teachers a real measure of control in their professional lives, an important antidote to the centralised curriculum (Marshall and Ball, 1999).


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 20 February 2006