The power of the thinking child

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If we teach children everything we know, their knowledge is limited to ours.

If we teach children to think, their knowledge is limitless.[1]

Thinking is a crucial part of our development. It is how we make sense of the world. As we get older, our thinking becomes more sophisticated. This cannot happen in isolation. Thinking develops best when children are encouraged to think. Research indicates strongly that when children have supportive adults supporting their thinking, they will do better than those whose thinking has been typically solitary or influenced by peers.

Many years ago, my youngest child, aged 5, had a particularly entertaining idea for a business model. After listening to lots of chat with his siblings about how we could all become overnight millionaires, he said,

”I’ve got a good idea for making money.”

“What?” we asked, with rather low expectations.

“You buy loads of Xboxes.”

“Yes,” we all said, getting quite impressed.

“And you smash them all up…”

“Yes…?” we went, a little less certain now.

“Then you mend them, and sell them online!” he finished in triumph.

Needless to say, he was suitably crushed when his siblings howled with laughter for five minutes. And yet my son’s cognitive thinking skills were working well. He simply hadn’t done any critical or reflective thinking!

Thinking is as natural as breathing.  We are wired to think. Yet successful thinking doesn’t come naturally. Successful thinking requires collaboration.  If my son and I had spent a few minutes talking about the broken Xboxes, we could have thought out loud with words like “I think that…” and “What do you think?” I can guarantee that he would have arrived at a different conclusion, just because someone had ‘thought’ alongside him.  Together we would have made the thinking VISIBLE.

Making thinking visible is vital in early years settings.  Shared thinking between an adult and child transforms weak and unformed thought processes into creative and powerful ones. It literally ‘grows’ the thought process, leading towards more complex ideas, particularly in pre-schoolers. Shared thinking raises the bar, especially for the most curious of children.

This works on two levels. To start with, using the word ‘think’ – “I think we can make our tower much stronger. What do you think?’- opens up the thought processes. In addition, these simple ‘out loud’ thinking words prepare the child for successfully thinking on his own.

And that leads us to a deeper type of shared thinking, namely Sustained Shared Thinking (SST). This is where ‘ two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative… both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend.’[2]

Research indicates strongly that any setting using this type of thinking is up amongst the most effective ones. Really? Thinking together helps a preschool become more effective? How does that work? What makes thinking so powerful?

It all boils down to connection. Relationships are established when we pay close attention to another’s thought processes. This two-way thinking deepens the connection between two individuals.

Imagine a child’s thinking when they are engaged in an activity that profoundly stirs and stimulates their interest. Place an interested and alert adult next to them, making their own thinking visible, and urging the child to do the same. What happens? The child’s thought processes whirr into action. Learning happens. The more a child ‘practises’ thinking, the more established the neural pathways for thinking become.

Preschool children think out loud. We hear them as they play, ‘I’m going to make the dinner, it’s pasta!’ Thinking out loud creates ideas and solves problems. Thought and self-talk become connected.

This is the time to create powerful thinkers! We don’t have to wait until a child is older. Early Years is when a child’s windows of ‘thinking’ are wide open. All we have to do is partner their thinking.

‘What do you think…’ can be one of the most powerful questions we can ask. Careful, considered shared thinking creates inquisitive and absorbed children and these are the children who will love to learn.

Job done.

[1]  Michael Baker, President of The Critical Thinking Company

[2] Siraj-Blatchford et al (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years. Dfes.

About the author

Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in Preschool Children: a handbook for Practitioners’. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world. 

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