GRETA Granada (Spain): Diana Hicks on thinking skills

GRETA Granada (Spain): Diana Hicks on thinking skills -

(Photo: Greta president Charo Reyes - right - introduces Diana Hicks) Diana began her thought-provoking session with the observation that, although education involves preparing people for the future, many pronouncements on the topic of education are dressed in nostalgic references to golden times past – phrases like “Back to Basics”, a reference to a British programme of putting more emphasis on maths, good spelling and so on.

Diana argued that “retro is fine for fashion, but it has no place in education”.  Filling this thought out, she commented that education in the past was elitist, with life-improving opportunities for the top few per cent and a spectrum of failure for the rest. The elite, which emerge in the next generation, remember the way things were when they were at school and try to create it again for the following generation, in a self-replicating cycle.  Such a cycle is inappropriate as we can’t prepare society for the challenges of the future by reifying the past: neither should we settle for superficial fixes, such as thinking that new technology can be simply grafted onto education leaving the fundamental pedagogy unchallenged.

Society is changing. Today’s kids will have many different jobs in their working life, maybe 10-14 by the age of 38, rather than one career from leaving school to retirement. Many of the jobs that will exist in the future are unheard of today. And it is not only society which is changing – even the very language itself is evolving. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be illiterate.  Kids need to learn to be resilient and creative. But unfortunately, much of what passes for education is merely rewarding a good memory. Washback from recall-driven exams only reinforces this. It’s as if we were preparing the next generation for a massive pub-quiz!

What does this mean for classroom practice? Diane criticised the overuse of the IRF classroom discourse pattern: question-answer-“Good!”. This, she says, is good for checking, evaluating or just controlling, but does nothing to promote thinking or intellectual engagement. Diane also points out how so many classroom tasks promoted in coursebooks and workbooks focus on lower-order thinking skills such as listing, naming or labelling. Instead of this, she says a child of the 21st Century needs to learn how to ask questions, pose problems, consider solutions and think creatively. She says many coursebooks offer more creative and interesting activities right at the end of a task sequence, as a kind of freer practice reward. She says simply putting this activity at the start of the task sequence rather than at the end would immediately improve matters, putting thinking first and giving the students a voice and giving the teacher some evidence of where they are at in order to better diagnose what they need.  Another simple switch would be to, instead of introducing a new topic with a question like, “What do you know about the French Revolution?”, ask, “What DON’T you know about the French Revolution?”. This will be a lot more interesting for them and revealing for you.

Diana recommended promoting a meta-awareness of thinking skills with our students. For example, simply ask them the question, “What is thinking?”.  You’d be surprised at what they come up with, she said. There are many different ways of thinking, and different tasks require different strategies. One task might require design thinking, another, ranking thinking, or another, predicting thinking. Students can be made aware of this. For instance, a teacher may set a task, and then ask them, “What kind of thinking do you need for this?”.  Such an approach shifts the emphasis from the ‘doing’ to the ‘how to do’.

Diana recommends doing much of this thinking-skills development in the kids own L1. She said that the mother tongue has a very important role in CLIL. L1 and L2 should be integrated, unlike in immersion programmes. Kids should never need to learn concepts in L2 which they can’t even conceptualize in their L1. In the round table later in the day, she phrased it this way: “English should never hold a monopoly of epistemology”. It shouldn’t come to be viewed as the language of knowledge.  So how should L1 and L2 co-exist in the CLIL classroom? Diane recommends setting explicit parameters for the students, so they know which they’re expected to use when. For example: “Answer the questions. Use English for at least three.”

Read about the rest of the GRETA conference here.


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