Thinking Skills and Cooperative Learning By Rhona Snelling

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“I think, therefore I am” René Descartes

What are ‘thinking skills’?

Thinking skills are the complex set of internal mental processes we utilise to process input and attempt to understand it. These processes take us through six broad categories or levels of thinking:  knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. You’ve probably read those six categories and started using your recall of knowledge and then the application of your knowledge to recognise Bloom’s hierarchy of reasoning skills (1956). This is, of course, the foundation for thinking skills and is reflected, explicitly or implicitly, in the vast majority of ELT course books and materials.

What are the sub-skills of thinking skills?

In Speak Your Mind, the framework of thinking skills is categorised across three broad areas:

  1. understanding information
  2. manipulating information
  3. generating information.

Each of these areas has their own assembly of sub-skills:

  1. understanding information – recalling, summarising, symbolising, role-taking, and categorising
  2. manipulating information – analysing information, applying information, inducing (i.e. inferring) and deducing, and problem-solving
  3. generating information – brainstorming, synthesising, predicting, questioning, and evaluating.

When we consider these three categories and their sub-skills, we can see an evolution and advancement in complexity. For example, the sub-skills in ‘understanding information’ are relatively basic and rely on comprehension of input, whereas the sub-skills in ‘generating information’ call on creativity and independent thought processes that not only respond to the input but develop and expand it.

Why are thinking skills important?

This is an important question as there are many competing demands on your students’ wish list of skills, as well as many competing objectives in your syllabus! The cognitive ability of your students, regardless of their current level of language competence, is a key variable in language learning. A student who uses appropriate thinking skills and is able to effectively process input will clearly make better progress in the classroom than a student who does not. But a student who is routinely afforded the opportunity to employ higher order thinking skills will make better progress in and out of the classroom, because ‘good’ thinking skills lead to a more autonomous and independent student. It’s not that thinking skills are more important than other language skills; it’s that thinking skills underpin our capacity to learn a language and to improve overall language competence.

How can I incorporate thinking skills into my lessons?

It’s far easier than you think - pun intended! It’s actually unlikely that you’re not already teaching thinking skills, in fact. For example, do you regularly ask your students to bring their knowledge of the real world to the lessons? And do you routinely include cooperative learning (such as pair work and group work) in your lessons? If you’ve answered yes to these two questions, then your students are already flexing their thinking skills.

Asking questions

Activating your students’ schemata and asking them to apply and evaluate their real-world experience to their language learning is both a natural and an effective way of practising thinking skills. This can be easily achieved through prediction or reflection activities. For example, before reading a text or listening to a dialogue, use a related image (the ones in your coursebook or ones that you have sourced) or the title of the text to ask students to predict what the topic is about or what viewpoint the writer may adopt. After reading or listening, ask your students to offer their opinions or simply say whether they agree or disagree with the writer/speaker. Note that these questions and this interaction can be teacher-to-student and student-to-student.

Cooperative learning

Research has consistently shown that cooperative learning encourages students to employ and develop higher order thinking skills (Booysem and Grosser, 2013; Devi and Gustine, 2015; and Jacobs, Lee, and Ng, 1997). So, consider the student-to-student interaction in your recent lessons – did your students have multiple opportunities to interact directly with their peers? Cooperative tasks can include anything from acting out the lines of a role play to a topical discussion or planning a presentation to reviewing each other’s written work. It also includes all the smaller, but meaningful tasks, such as comparing answers and the simple act of greeting each other at the start of the lesson. Don’t forget that when greeting someone, your students are demonstrating the thinking skill of recalling classmates’ names and other personal information, e.g. their job/studies or where they live. And when your students are taking part in a group problem solving task, they will be using multiple higher order thinking skills, such as comparing, appraising, reasoning and formulating.

What are the principles of cooperative learning?

Cooperative learning focuses on positively manipulating and controlling the way students interact. We can consider the research of Kagan here. Kagan theorised that the teacher-led classroom (where the teacher asks a question to one student at a time and the other students have little or no opportunity to participate) was a negative, competitive environment and not one conducive to learning. In contrast, Kagan posits that cooperative learning is more egalitarian and beneficial to all students in the class. It involves and encourages the participation of all the students in the class and helps to foster positive interdependence with peers and interpersonal skills. This in turn creates a physical space of respect and emotional safety and this is always our overarching aim as teachers – to create an atmosphere conducive to our students’ learning and to keep that all-important affective filter down to facilitate learning. Don’t forget that there is another advantage to cooperative learning and that is the absence of disruptive behaviour in the classroom, as an engaged student is far easier to manage.

Conclusion

Cooperative learning is an easy yet powerful way to evoke thinking skills with your class. Seek to create opportunities for your students to work together on tasks and to make these tasks meaningful and purposeful. Speak Your Mind actively promotes cooperative learning in all levels of the series and also includes overt work on specific individual thinking skills, such as speculating, evaluating, and analysing.

References

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Cognitive Domain. David McKay, New York.

Booysem R. & Grosser, M. (2013) The effect of cooperative learning on the thinking skills development of Foundation Phase learners. Education as Change, Volume 18, 2014, Issue 1, pp.47-71.

Devi, A. P., Musthafa, B., & Gustine, G. G. (2015). Using cooperative learning in teaching critical thinking in reading. English Review: Journal of English Education, 4(1), 1-14

Jacobs, G. M., Lee, C, & Ng, M. (1997, June). Co-operative learning in the thinking classroom: Research and Theoretical Perspectives. Paper presented at the International Conference on Thinking, Singapore.

About the Author

Rhona Snelling is a freelance ELT teacher, editor, and author. As a teacher, she qualified with International House and has extensive experience teaching in Europe and New Zealand. She has also worked as a content editor for leading ELT publishers, and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition from the University of Oxford. Rhona has authored numerous ELT course books and been nominated for an ESU English Language Award. She specialises in lower levels, and is the author of Speak Your Mind Starter level and Gateway A1+ workbook.

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