Looking into the pond – observation notes
Abdul and Charlie are crouched at the side of the pond with their key person, Bev. They are looking at and talking about the tadpoles in the pond.
Charlie – “There’s a big one there!”
Abdul – “That’s my one, it’s the leader because it has a long tail.”
Charlie – “But my one has a shorter tail and it’s growing legs!”
Abdul – “Mine is the oldest because it has the longest tail!”
Bev – “Can you remember the book we looked at yesterday about tadpoles and frogs? What did it say?”
Abdul – “Tadpoles are baby frogs!”
Charlie – “Yeah and my one is getting legs like a frog too!”
Bev – “Let’s try to think about what happens to the tadpole to turn into a frog. First we have the eggs, the frogspawn…”
Charlie – “Like jelly!”
Bev – “Yes it did look a lot like jelly didn’t it! Then we have tiny tadpoles…”
Abdul – “Then they get big like my one!”
Bev – “Yes, Abdul they do! Then what happens next…?”
Charlie – “They get legs like my one! So my one is nearly a frog!”
Abdul – “But what about the tail?”
Charlie – “They don’t need a tail when they have legs!”
Abdul – “Coz we don’t have tails do we!”
Charlie – “I do!”
Both boys run off holding their hands behind their bottoms, wagging imaginary tails!
As practitioners, we often share moments like this one with Abdul and Charlie, when the children are engaged and really think about something. This is an example of sustained shared thinking (SST). Most early years practitioners have come across this term at some point in their career, however there is still some confusion about what it is. But rest assured, SST is not a new phenomenon!
Here’s the technical bit… sustained shared thinking closely matches other theories, most notably Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development when a child moves forward in their learning through interacting with a more knowledgeable adult or child, and Bruner’s ideas about scaffolding children’s learning. The term evolved from the Effective Provision of Preschool Education (EPPE) research and is also mentioned in Development Matters under the characteristics of effective learning, when it states, ‘Sustained shared thinking helps children to explore ideas and make links. Follow children’s lead in conversation, and think about things together’ (Development Matters, p. 7). On her website, Cathy Brodie outlines what SST is and explains succinctly how important SST is for children’s learning.
Let’s break down the phrase, bit by bit:
Sustained meaning continuing for an extended period of time, without interruption;
Shared meaning something that we do together, and;
Thinking meaning the process that we use to consider, problem-solve and reason about things.
So when we share in thinking about something for a sustained time, we are participating in SST. Both parties need to contribute to the process and the thinking needs to develop or extend in some way. It’s what we do with the children when real learning takes place. This could be with any aged child from birth upwards. That sustained period of time when we engage in a two-way experience, taking learning forward. For example, when we play peep-o with a very young baby and they begin to anticipate that you will reappear. We are sharing a moment, a moment of sustained learning and interaction. It’s also when we are about to explore a wood with a three-year-old and they say, ‘We might see elephants there!’ What follows is a long discussion about the woods, elephants, lots of different animals and their habitats that we would never have anticipated discussing with such a young child. Again, we are sharing a moment, a moment of sustained learning and interaction.
The role of the practitioner is to support and extend children’s learning, engage in the learning process with the child and use your knowledge of prior learning and understanding and the children’s interests to assist you. SST involves the adult and child together developing an idea or skill. It’s not about giving children answers, or even about correcting misconceptions, but about listening to children’s ideas, valuing them and sharing your own. Having a genuine desire to find out together. (And, of course, misconceptions will almost certainly be alleviated by the process!)
Here are a few ideas of how to encourage SST in your setting. Children should have opportunities to:
- become involved in things that interest and intrigue them
- access a rich and stimulating learning environment
- engage in activities inside and outside and have space to move freely
- become deeply involved, explore and investigate – this requires time
- link learning with home experiences and their cultural background
- make their thinking visible i.e. recording ideas in words and images
- ask and answer open-ended questions
- problem-solve and resolve conflicts
- reflect upon and review what they are doing or how they are accomplishing something
- engage in different sized groupings and have adult-child 1:1 time.
Why don’t you review your setting in the light of these opportunities and begin to take note of when SST takes place? You’ll probably find it’s more often than you first think. Sustained shared thinking is a vital tool for your toolkit and one that should be used in the workshop of your setting every day!
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.