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Is there any such thing as a ‘Thinking School’?

Bob Burden

The first decade of the 21st Century has witnessed the beginnings of a mini-revolution in

curriculum planning and delivery in British schools. Tired of the constricting demands of an

over-prescriptive National Curriculum and the invidious requirements of teaching to SATs,

many within the teaching profession have become conscious of the transformational nature

of cognitive approaches to learning as an alternative to transmission-based teaching. The

ideas of such luminaries as Matthew Lipman, Edward de Bono and Reuven Feuerstein,

previously considered to be ‘on the fringe’ of educational thinking, have increasingly come to

be seen as offering valuable insights into the fundamental connection between thinking and


Attempts to introduce thinking skills into schools are certainly not new. As far back as the

mid 1980s an OECD report emphasised the need for schools to produce more independent

thinkers and problem-solvers, a demand repeated more recently by the World Bank amongst

others. A Government sponsored inquiry carried out by Carol McGuinness in the 1990s

came to very similar conclusions and offered sensible advice as to one possible way

forward. Meanwhile, however, research into the effectiveness of such approaches, such as

Nigel Blagg’s evaluation of the introduction of Instrumental Enrichment into Somerset

secondary schools, appeared to produce negative or, at best, equivocal results.

At Exeter University’s Cognitive Education Centre our preliminary analysis of why so many

thinking skills initiatives either petered out or simply failed altogether led us to conclude that

the problem did not necessarily lie within the programmes themselves. Feuerstein’s theory

of Structured Cognitive Modifiability is one of the most impressively constructed theoretical

frameworks for cognitive change that has ever been produced. The foundations of Lipman’s

Philosophy for Children stretch back to Dewey and to Socrates. De Bono’s Six Hat Thinking

has been shown to bring about remarkable improvements in business organisations

worldwide. If this is the case, then where did the roots of the problem lie?

The conclusion that we reached was that the obstacles to the successful implementation of

any programme designed to teach children to learn how to learn were almost entirely

systemic. There was little wrong with the programmes themselves, only the ways in which

they were being introduced into schools. Firstly, there was what Georgiades and Phillimore

referred to many years ago as ‘The Myth of the Hero Innovator’. In a highly influential article

they pointed out that innovations are often introduced by enthusiastic individuals, possibly

teachers returning from a conference or course, who seek to impose their new-found

enthusiasm upon an unresponsive audience of sceptical colleagues. In a telling phase,

Georgiades and Phillimore commented that ‘organisations, like dragons, eat hero-innovators

for breakfast.’ Thus, deprived of support or nourishment, the innovation will inevitably fail.

This was clearly exemplified in Blagg’s study and a more recent small scale evaluation of

one school’s thinking skills initiative by the present writer and his colleague, Lousie Nichols.

Secondly, the ever increasing demands on teachers to meet various externally imposed

targets left little time or opportunity for creative curriculum planning, or for further reflection

and innovation. It was only when frustrated with a National Curriculum that gave the

impression, at least, of focussing mainly on the regurgitation of information by means of

timed assessment tasks, that teachers began to cast their eyes widely for more processbased

approaches to teaching and learning. Although cognitive (or, as they were more

commonly known, ‘thinking skills’) approaches appeared to many to offer more promising

alternatives, advocates of each of these programmes often fell into the trap of appearing to

claim that they could provide the answer to all of traditional schooling’s ills. Alternatively, by

taking a piecemeal approach to teaching thinking and study skills, the danger became one of

adding the occasional stimulating lesson devoted to thinking skills as a kind of ‘sticking

plaster’ solution. Fairly soon those who took on the message found themselves asking, in

the words of the immortal Peggy Lee, ‘Is that all there is?’

The breakthrough came from an unexpected direction. The literature on school

effectiveness and school improvement, since the early work of Michael Rutter and Peter

Mortimore and his colleagues at the Institute of Education, later summarised by Teddie and

Reynoldshad more or less come to similar conclusions on how to recognise an effective

school and what needed to be done to achieve a school’s vision. What they did rather less

well was to offer ideas on how to reach those goals. It was the recognition of the potential

value of combining the lessons from the school effectiveness/improvement literature and

cognitive education approaches that gave rise to the concept of the ‘Thinking School’.

What is a Thinking School

The definition of a thinking school that emerged is one of an educational community in which all members share a common commitment to giving regular, careful thought to everything that takes place. This will involve learning how to think, reflectively, critically and creatively, and to employing these skills and techniques in the co-construction of a meaningful curriculum and associated activities. Successful outcomes will be reflected in students across a wide range of abilities demonstrating independent and co-operative learning skills, high levels of achievement, and both enjoyment and satisfaction in learning. Benefits will also be shown in ways which all members of the community interact with and show consideration for each other and in the positive psychological well-being of both students and staff.

In order to achieve this goal, a whole school approach will be necessary whereby all

stakeholders (including parents and school governors) are fully committed to the school’s

aims and how they can best be achieved. Staff will need to be specially trained and

methods will need to be introduced into the curriculum for teaching the skills of thinking and

associated cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies. The widest possible application of these

skills and strategies should underpin all other aspects of the curriculum and should guide

behaviour policies and expectations about human interactions at every level and care for the


Working with such pioneers as Gill Hubble from St Cuthbert’s School in New Zealand and a

group of thinking skills practitioners and trainers from the Kestrel organisation we followed

this definition by constructing criteria for identifying and achieving a successful Thinking

School. In sharing these criteria with various schools that had already started on the journey,

the idea of Thinking School accreditation became the logical next step. Fourteen criteria

were established and schools were offered the opportunity of producing a portfolio of

evidence to demonstrate how these had been met. A follow-up visit to the school by a

member of the Cognitive Education Centre Team made it possible for teachers, classroom

assistants, school governors, parents and pupils to be interviewed, lessons to be observed

and pupils’ work to be shared. At the completion of this process the school receives a report

and, if successful, a certificate and trophy, and the right to print the CEC logo on any formal

school literature.

The selected criteria, their reasons for selection and the kind of evidence needed to show

that they have been met, are presented below.

Criteria for Accreditation as a Thinking School

1. There is a need for the Principal/Headteacher to have made a formal commitment to

cognitive education as a means of school improvement as a central aspect of the

school’s development plans. This is because all the school

effectiveness/improvement literature identifies the crucial importance of leadership in

the change process. This is most readily shown in the printed documentation that

the school makes available to current and prospective parents and to reports to the


2. This commitment to cognitive education must have the explicit support of the school

governors. There have undoubtedly been occasions when an enthusiastic

headteacher has been frustrated by a governing body that has failed to see the full

benefit of a cognitive approach, but has been more influenced by a drive for

examination success at all costs. For this reason a formal statement of support by

the Chair of Governors is necessary, together with evidence of ongoing support from

the governors in the minutes of their meetings, which may well include a record of

how they themselves have been informed about or even trained in the cognitive


3. It is necessary for each school to have a formally appointed high status member of

staff as their Cognitive Education Coordinator to organise and oversee the

implementation of the cognitive education development agenda. There are several

reasons for this. It is usually impractical for the Principal to take on this role, but

unless it is seen as a highly prestigious post within the school, particularly in large

schools, research has shown that the cognitive agenda can be so easily sidelined or

undermined by competing demands. Here we are looking for details of the appointed

person’s background and experience, particularly with regard to their previous and

current training in different cognitive approaches.

4. One of the first tasks of the Cognitive Education Coordinator after their appointment

should be to establish a task force or subgroup of colleagues, from across curriculum

subjects in large schools, to ensure that communication and co-operation takes place

across the school and that discussions amongst staff and the teaching of thinking

skills and strategies can occur by means of a cascade model. This will help to

overcome the dangers of the hero-innovator tendency and will prove vital in leading

to a committed ‘critical mass’ of cognitively orientated staff. Evidence here should

take the form of listed names and roles, together with recorded details of discussion

and planning meetings.

5. This should in time lead to the vast majority (at least 80%) of the school staff,

including LSAs, demonstrating a clear understanding of what is meant by a cognitive

curriculum, why it has been undertaken and how they can best contribute to it. This

should be demonstrated in their pedagogy and in the nature of the tasks they set and

the quality of the work produced by their pupils.

6. Implementation of a cognitive curriculum is most likely in the first instance is to be

through an examination of the major cognitive programmes on offer. This should

lead to the adoption of a least two programmes over a three year period, but may

involve some degree of trial and error learning, that is, by deciding to reject one or

another of the commercially available programmes and favouring another which

seems to fit more readily with the school’s vision and action plan. At the time of

writing, the most popular and well founded programmes in the UK appear to be David

Hyerle’s ‘Thinking Maps’, Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Hat Thinking’, variations of Matthew

Lipman’s ‘Philosophy for Children’, Art Costa’s ‘Habits of Mind’ and Guy Claxton’s

Building Learning Power.

Schools tend to vary in order in which they begin, but no school achieving

accreditation has yet indicated that any one programme fulfils all the requirements of

a cognitively oriented curriculum. Two is an absolute minimum, for starters, but

gradually schools find that they can build upon their growing confidence and

expertise by taking on complementary programmes like Adey and Shayer’s ‘CASE’,

‘CAME’ and ‘Let’s Think’ programmes, the Thinking through History, Geography etc

programmes constructed mainly at Newcastle University, or by developing their own

home-grown approaches. The evidence of this process and the reasoning behind

the adoption and/or rejection of different approaches should be clearly documented.

7. All this should be part of an Action Plan that has been drawn up by the Cognitive

Education Team, endorsed by the Principal and governors and disseminated to all

members of staff.

8. It is obviously important that a Cognitive Education Coordinator needs her/himself to

be highly trained and confident in a range of potentially useful programmes and

techniques and should see this as an essential ongoing aspect of his/her role. It is

not enough for someone in this position to have attended a preliminary training

course in a particular technique and expect to remain ahead of the game. Details of

an ongoing CPD programme must therefore be made available.

9. All staff should be encouraged to attend external courses or should receive constant

in-house training by the ‘home’ team and/or highly rated external consultants.

Documented reports of such training and its outcomes should also be available for

public scrutiny.

10. Taking a cognitive approach to the curriculum carries with it assumptions about

alternative forms and outcomes of assessment, formative assessment for learning

should be the norm running alongside more conventional assessment of learning

outcomes. We would also expect to see an emphasis upon pupil self-assessment

and peer assessment as part of the regular assessment process. A Thinking School

will also have considered possible alternative ways of assessing learning outcomes

such as enhanced pupil self-esteem and increasing enjoyment in learning, and even

increased staff satisfaction in teaching.

11. At the end of the day, there is a requirement for evidence of positive learning

outcomes, attitudes and behaviours of the pupils to indicate that they are operating

as thoughtful responsible learners who are able to articulate how and why thinking

skills and strategies are a vitally important aspect of all that occurs in their schools.

This can be seen in the nature and quality of the pupils’ work (including homework),

interest they show in their work, positive attitudes towards school, enjoyment and

confidence in learning, good attendance and behaviour records, a significant

decrease in bullying and improved attainment and exam results, where this is

reasonable to expect. Much of this can be revealed during the evaluation visit to the

school, but will also require careful record keeping of critical incidents and other

indications of change.

12. Few innovations ever work completely smoothly from start to finish. In fact,

becoming a recognised Thinking School does not signify the end of the journey,

merely a significant moment along the way. This implies that there will be a need to

constantly review the effectiveness of the thinking tools employed in developing

pupils’ metacognition and wider thinking strategies. A Thinking School will constantly

be on the look-out for additional or useful approaches to enhance their children’s

learning, and for ways of evaluating these.

13. The whole school approach means exactly that. Here we are looking for evidence

that all members of staff are being encouraged to discuss on a regular basis the

process of cognitive education and how it can be maintained and improved. The

evident enthusiasm of all staff members for the cognitive approach will be a

significant feature in illustrating how well this is working.

14. All of the above should be manifest in the whole ethos of the school, in the way it

conveys a positive, caring and creative atmosphere to all stakeholders and visitors,

whilst at the same time demonstrating that careful thought has been put into its

organisational structure and visual presentations. This is likely to be shown in

examples of the pupils’ work and displays that adorn the school, the way that visitors

are received and treated and the general ‘feel’ of the way in which everyone goes

about their business.


Outcome so far

At the time of writing nearly 30 schools across England and Wales and one school in South

Australia have successfully navigated the accreditation process. The ratio of primary to

secondary schools currently stands at about 4 to 1, but every level of socio-economic and

cultural background has been represented. Some are small, three teacher schools, others

cater for more than a thousand students. Of the secondary schools four are single sex

grammar schools, whilst three are comprehensives. All have received good or outstanding

Ofsted reports, with many receiving specific mention for the unique contribution of the

cognitive approach to the pupils’ learning. As yet there is little formal evidence of the effects

of the cognitive approach apart from the schools meeting the set criteria, but the following

informal outcomes have been very apparent. Where there has been obvious room for

improvement, attainments have risen; attitudes to towards school and to learning have been

shown to be positive across the board; bullying and negative behaviour is virtually non

existent. The expressed attitudes of more than 90% of the teaching and support staff in

every accredited school reflect high personal satisfaction and enjoyment in their chosen


Accreditation is provided for a three year period, after which the school will need to provide

evidence that it has continued to move forward in its quest to demonstrate that an emphasis

upon the transformational process of teaching and learning offers far more than one in which

information transmission rules the day. Several schools are currently preparing for

reaccreditation as they approach the end of this initial accreditation period. The task of the

CEC is to find ways of identifying whether and how well they have moved forward in that

time. One important criterion currently being considered is the production of evidence of

student, staff and/or parental responses by means of questionnaire surveys or ‘home grown’

research projects. Another criterion may well be how well the school has been able ‘to

spread the word’ and influence the take up of these ideas in other schools. Another may be

the way in which the school has been able to apply the cognitive approach to considering

‘big questions’.

What does seem indisputable is that this revolution is growing fast, even to the extent of

provoking the forces of reaction into ludicrously seeking to suppress schoolchildren’s rights

to partake in decision-making processes that affect their future. To paraphrase a famous

Bette Davis quote from ‘All About Eve’, ‘fasten your seatbelts folks, this is going to be a

bumpy ride!’


Blagg, N. (1919) Can We Teach Intelligence? Hillsdale, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum

Burden, R.L. & Nichols, S.L. (2000) Evaluating the process of introducing a thinking skills

programme into the secondary school curriculum. Research Papers in Education 15, 3. 293-


Burden, R.L. & Williams, M.D. (1998) Thinking through the Curriculum. London: Routledge.

Georgides, N. & Phillimore, L. (1975) The myth if the hero-innovator and alternative

strategies for organisational change. In C. Kiernan & E.P. Woodford (eds) Behaviour

Modification with the Severely Retarded Amsterdam: Assoc. Sci. Pub.

McGuiness, C. (1999) From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classrooms: A review and

Evaluation of Approaches for Development Students’ Thinking Norwich: Dept for Education

and Employment.

Teddlie, C. & Reynolds, D. (2000) The International Handbook of School Effectiveness

Research London: Falmer

Bob Burden is Emeritus Professor of Applied Educational Psychology at the Graduate School

of Education, Exeter University, and Director of the Cognitive Education Centre, which he

founded in 2005. He is the author of one book and numerous articles about cognitive

education, and is former President of the International School Psychology Association. Further

details about the CEC can be found on the website

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