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Cognitive Education

26 February 2013

Visit to Thinking Schools in England

Mrs Williams and I spent a rather cold but very interesting and worthwhile ten days in England, with the explicit purpose of visiting accredited ‘thinking schools’. These schools are accredited with the University of Exeter and the process of accreditation is rigorous. There needs to be a whole school commitment, a range of thinking tools and strategies to be used across the school and students need to be thoughtful, independent learners. When a school has been accredited for three years, it can apply for advanced accreditation. Most of the schools we visited had achieved their advanced accreditation.

Our first meeting was with Mr Richard Cummins, the CEO of Thinking Schools International (TSI). He spoke to us about the accreditation process as well as the work his organisation is doing in Malaysia. The president of Malaysia has launched the I-Think programme to encourage students to think creatively, critically and innovatively. Every school in Malaysia is undergoing training to implement thinking skills in their curriculum. TSI suggests that, for accreditation, three thinking tools should be embedded across the curriculum. These tools should represent the following dimensions: mindfulness, community of inquiry and visual tools.

The first school we visited was Watford Grammar School for Girls. Dame Helen Hyde, who was educated at Parktown Girls, heads this school. She spent time with us showing how De Bono’s Thinking Hats and CoRT tools are used in lessons. We saw many examples of work across the curriculum that encompassed these tools. De Bono’s strategies are used in the planning of almost every lesson to assist the girls in their planning, execution and evaluation of their work. These strategies are also used for dealing with behavioural issues.

Maidstone Grammar School for Girls was the next school we visited. This school focuses on an inquiry-based approach and questioning and problem-posing are central to their teaching and learning. The Grade 7s and Grade 8s have a ‘Big Question’ lesson each week in which they engage with issues such as ‘Could we live on Mars?’ and ‘Why do countries have borders?’ Of interest was the depth of questioning used by teachers, which made the students justify their responses to answers given, whether correct or not. Maidstone uses Habits of Mind, Thinking Maps, De Bono and an inquiry-based approach throughout the school.

Rochester Grammar School for Girls was the final senior school we visited. Grammar Schools enrol students who have achieved in the top 25% of the 11-plus examinations. At Rochester, their students then go on to achieve in the top 1,5% of their final examinations. Rochester offers both the Cambridge A level and the International Baccalaureate programmes. The executive staff attributes part of this success to the use of thinking skill strategies. Habits of Mind, Thinking Maps, De Bono’s Thinking Hats and CoRT, and Enquiry Methods are used throughout the school. Lessons are carefully planned and a plenary is held for a few minutes at the end of each lesson. This school has a student drive team as well as a teacher drive team.

The purpose of the student drive team is to provide feedback from the student body. At the presentation by the student drive team, one girl mentioned how knowledge of thinking skill strategies lessened stress as it gave her a starting point for her work and a way to work more effectively.

At Binfield CE Primary School, Thinking Hats, Thinking Maps and Learning Muscles (similar to the Habits of Mind) are used. These are used extensively in all classes from Grade 00 upwards. The pupils were willing to share their knowledge and experiences and were very enthusiastic about their work. They also spoke the ‘Language of Thinking’.
A trip to the UK would not be complete without a visit to our sister school in Brighton. It is truly extraordinary to fly half-way across the world to then be greeted as ‘Madam’ and to see a familiar school badge. We had tea with the girls from Roedean (Brighton) who had been out here for a visit in 2012. They also remembered our choir’s visit in 2010 which they said had transformed their view and enjoyment of music. We met with Francis King, headmistress of the school, and bumped into Nina Ndwaba, previously from Roedean (SA). She enthused about her experiences at Roedean (SA) and we look forward to her visit before the end of term.

Mrs Williams and I have come back with a clear plan for the further implementation of thinking skills. The trip was invaluable and it was certainly a privilege to visit the schools we did and to engage with the staff members and pupils from all the schools.

Dr Sonja Vandeleur: HOD Technology and Thinking Skills