In the final part of her article, Shirley Pulis Xerxen talks about how the Thinking Skills Programme can help foster a creative climate in class.
There is no magic formula that will guarantee success in teaching and learning how to think. However, this does not mean that thinking is entirely dependent on raw talent. Some people have more of this talent than others but there are ways of facilitating insights, methods of opening the mind. A creative climate is one in which learners can become highly involved in experiences that provide rich soil for the growth of intuitions and concepts for dealing with thinking, learning, playing and so on.
The thinking classroom should provide an environment where learners, together with the teacher, work together as well as they can. Teachers should aim to create a situation where learners look forward to the lesson because they are free to explore new ideas. Learners come to realise that they can give valuable contributions during lessons and the teacher is no longer the be-all-and-end-all. This sets a safe climate for thinking by modeling risk-taking and acceptance, creating an atmosphere where ideas can be expressed freely without fear of ridicule. The teacher has to cultivate a climate where learners realise that the ability to think does not depend on academic performance.
In a class that fosters a creative climate, learners learn to work in teams. They learn to compete with themselves - "next time I'll try to do better than I did today" and not compete against each other. Children learn to value each other's contributions and develop speaking and listening skills. Knowing how to express their ideas verbally also helps them put their ideas more clearly on paper.
By using and teaching such skills, teachers are enabling their learners - giving them independence and the ability to seek learning. The same argument can be made in the context of enabling employees. Learners and employees not only become responsible but also response-able. Each one of us not only needs to learn how to adapt to an environment but we also need to learn to adapt the environment positively to suit our needs without detriment to others, considering alternatives and future repercussions.
In the thinking classroom the teacher purposefully gives priority to teaching learners different ways of thinking about what they are learning. A major concern for teachers is finding time to create a balance between the delivery of static knowledge and content and helping learners to process and apply that knowledge.
Currently, in Malta, there is too much focus on content as opposed to providing opportunities where learners can become actively engaged in the learning process. The National Minimum Curriculum (NMC) proposes changes but unless these are supported by concrete actions in the national assessment methods, little can change. Teachers have no alternative but to rush from one subject to another. Coverage, speed and quantity are the values acted upon because ultimately that is what learners are examined on, with the result that learners can parrot answers but few can solve problems, analyse situations and think critically and creatively.
When teaching thinking, teachers should avoid the mistake of giving too little time for learners to practice the thinking strategy being learnt. Teachers should avoid rushing too quickly from one thinking skill to the next. From my experience as a teacher of thinking skills for the past six years, I have realised that learners need to practice applying a skill a number of times before it can become a stable part of their way of doing things.
In a classroom atmosphere that promotes thinking, the teacher needs to tolerate noise and movement. The teacher also needs to display a genuine and obvious interest in what the learners have to say. The effective teacher should use all the basic tools available to give clear explicit directions, focus attention and expect clear thinking from her learners.
The issue of transfer relates not only to the teaching of thinking but also to other subjects like English, Social Studies and History. The teacher needs to include transfer as one of the educational objectives of her teaching strategy. The challenge of achieving transfer should be addressed directly by helping learners to become explicitly aware of the importance of transfer and to achieve it rather than leave it to fate.
All teaching should be for transfer and teaching thinking has to be made relevant for the learners by providing examples where they can transfer the strategy learnt to other contexts outside the programme being used to teach thinking. The mission of the thinking classroom should be to lead learners towards relevant transfer and use across the curriculum and into life situations.
In topics such as "Money" in mathematics, transfer is simple because it relates directly to a life situation. In other instances, learners might not make the connection automatically or realise how the learning taking place is useful. Learners need explicit instruction in making connections between what they acquire in the thinking classroom and the rest of their school/personal life. Learners need to learn to incorporate the habits of thought being taught directly into all their ways of thinking, whether during school lessons or beyond their school-life.
What happens in Malta with the implementation of the Thinking Skills Programme is that learners, after having acquired a particular thinking skill, explore how the skill can be deliberately used with other subjects. The Thinking Skills teachers work hand in hand with the class teachers and together find ways of applying the thinking skills that the learners would have just learnt to the rest of the curriculum. This is possible particularly when the class teacher sits in for the Thinking Skills sessions with the pupils as this facilitates the transfer of the thinking skills to the rest of the school subjects.
The result of this approach is that it is maximising the benefits of the direct teaching of thinking while at the same time helping learners to transfer the skills to other areas of the curriculum. The development of thinking skills improves academic performance. Having attention directing tools and strategies to improve thinking certainly makes it easier to explore other subjects.
It is essential to strike a balance between teaching the basic skills in literacy and numeracy and giving learners the opportunity to be creative, to think and explore their own ideas and competencies. A combination of the direct teaching of thinking strategies and the teacher modelling strategies and encouraging the development of metacognitive skills may improve pupils' capacity to think and work strategically. The design of the Thinking Skills Programme being implemented currently in state schools in Malta aims to do just that.
No one would deny the importance of fostering thinking skills in learners. Unfortunately this does not occur automatically as an effect of schooling. This article has given several reasons why teaching thinking should become an explicit part of the curriculum. These include the fact that rote learning is no longer an acceptable pedagogical practice; in today's highly-technological world, information is expanding at such a rate that learners require transferable skills to face different problems in different contexts at different times throughout their lives and finally thinking skills and strategies such as Professor Edward de Bono's CoRT programme do not become obsolete and are applicable across cultures.
Ms Pulis Xerxen is a teacher of thinking skills in state schools, currently reading for an MA in Creativity and Innovation at the University of Malta researching Maltese teachers' perspectives on creativity in education. The article is based on the long essay presented as part fulfilment of the requirements for the Post Grad. Dip. in Education (Administration & Management) at the University of Malta in 2005.