Thinking strategies: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can we develop alternative thinking strategies to help our learners achieve in the classroom? Find out more in our essential guide for educators.

What are thinking strategies?

Critical thinking skills are essential to educational attainment and civic responsibility. We all want our students to develop these attributes alongside emotional intelligence skills. When we talk about critical thinking strategies it is not always clear what this actually is. For the purpose of this article, we are examining them from a classroom perspective. We are talking about the self-initiated problem-solving skills that walk hand-in-hand with positive educational outcomes. These are the sort of strategies that children use to accomplish academic tasks. These critical thinking strategies are often thought of as independent learning skills. We hear a lot about 'spoon-feeding and the negative effects this has in the long run. In this article, we are talking about the alternative thinking strategies that students develop and have at their disposal when they encounter difficult challenges.

alternate thinking strategies in the classroom
using a range of alternate thinking strategies in the classroom


What sorts of thinking strategies help learners?

For the purpose of this article, we are focusing on visual thinking strategies that help students organise their thinking. These are the types of strategies that a school seamlessly integrate into everyday classroom life. At Structural Learning, we are particularly interested in academic competency development. By this we mean, enabling a pupil to think their way through classroom tasks and complex challenges. We believe that tools that work 'upstream' in the student's mind have a greater positive impact as they enable the learner to 'think for themselves'. These types of strategies include:

1) Graphic organisers

2) Learning journals

3) Checklists

4) Planning tools

5) Oracy frameworks

Thinking strategies and visual tools
Developing strategic thinking skills with graphic organisers

The development of thinking strategies should enable children to tackle tough questions. Using a thought-provoking strategic question in the classroom can cause a child to really grapple with the problem. These sorts of strategic questions need appropriate levels of scaffolding. The use of dual coding techniques and graphic organisers provide teachers with support mechanisms for deeper learning. Oracy is a great medium for advancing active listening as well as talking. These types of techniques have been shown to help groups of children build deeper knowledge. Neil Mercer coined the term 'Interthinking' when describing how children conceptualise new ideas together.

Visual strategies for thinking
Utilising visual thinking strategies using the framework

These sorts of strategies can be thought of as a learning toolkit that helps students utilise strategic thinking skills to achieve specific goals. A strategy that we have been developing over the last two years is the Universal Thinking Framework. This toolkit enables teachers and students to develop an optimal strategy for achieving complex academic goals. The taxonomy organises all of the learning words we would typically use when describing how to accomplish educational tasks. The way the framework is laid out enables educators and students to focus on strategy formation. We refer to this as the 'how' of learning. On one hand you have the curriculum, the 'what', and on the other hand you have the 'how', your critical thinking strategies. We have been encouraging schools to align these domains to optimise curriculum delivery. Children find the colour-coded nature of these visual thinking strategies empowering. Very quickly, children learn the strategic thinking skills and the language that accompanies them. This enables them to make strategic plans about the very process of learning.


How do learners use thinking strategies?

There have been many studies in the field of education that have reported positive impacts from the development of critical thinking strategies. The Education Endowment Foundation has been one of the most recent organisations to focus in on this area. In schools, this area is often referred to as metacognition. The visual thinking strategies that we have been researching enable pupils to understand the critical thinking skills they need to use and manage in order to succeed in the classroom. We usually begin a project with a professional development program that enables teachers to understand the theory behind the practice. Once teachers are comfortable with how the framework is used to develop strategic plans of learning, we shift our focus to the student.

Quite often, learners are not aware of where they could take their learning by using alternative thinking strategies. Having the framework visible in the classroom allows education communities to choose an optimal strategy that can be adapted as the task progresses. We often ask the question 'How should we get started?' This prompt immediately helps a student to begin to explore the ultimate strategies available to them. Once they have got started, we might then ask them the question 'How should we organise our ideas?'. This prompt is designed to encourage the student to choose a critical thinking strategy that enables them to organise the content of the lesson appropriately. For example, this could be: sequence, compare or connect. The student is now beginning to build an action plan of carefully chosen thinking skills, the basis of a metacognitive mindset.

deciding what alternate thinking strategies to use
deciding what alternate thinking strategies to use


Critical thinking strategies for driving the curriculum

The Education Endowment Foundation report high impact for low-costs when researching the efficacy of metacognition. These sorts of strategic thinking skills can be used in traditional teacher-directed classroom settings as well as inquiry-based learning environments. The framework can be thought of as an 'educational sat-nav', the process of learning is carefully guided using visual thinking strategies. In time, these strategic thinking skills become a habit that students can draw upon when faced with complex tasks. This approach to strategy formation is empowering for the learner as it equips them with a set of skills that can be put to use to achieve many different goals. We describe the thinking and learning words as the foundation of an action-oriented strategy. That is, all of these words require the pupil to engage in an active strategy of some kind, are required to act on the information in front of them. There will never be one set way of approaching a task, having a bank of alternative strategies at your disposal means that the learner is 'cognitively equipped' when faced with difficult situations.

developing strategic thinking skills using the framework
developing strategic thinking skills using the framework


Unit planning using thinking strategies

We have been focused on the strategic planning process of learning. We are encouraging schools to use the framework for designing individual lessons right up to unit planning. Educators don't generally have tools that they can use to develop a unit of study. It often becomes a mishmash of resources found on the hard drive. This process of zooming in and out means that the curriculum becomes a cohesive jigsaw puzzle that all learners can piece together. The supplementary materials that we have created enable teaching staff to facilitate rich learning conversations about the process of learning. The physical cards can be laid out and ordered into an order that paves the way to academic success. The future development of the framework lies in a new application that allows teachers to drag and drop the learning actions into stunning lesson plans. As always, we do welcome conversations about learning and if you're interested in finding out more, you know where to find us. Happy learning everyone!