How do we develop the thinking skills of our young learners?

The New Zealand Curriculum Key Competencies has ‘Thinking’ as one of the five main focus areas. It states: 

Thinking is about using creative, critical, and metacognitive processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas. These processes can be applied to purposes such as developing understanding, making decisions, shaping actions, or constructing knowledge. Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of this competency.

Students who are competent thinkers and problem-solvers actively seek, use, and create knowledge. They reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions. NZC – Key Competencies – Thinking.

The early childhood years are a critical period for brain development. Providing opportunities for developing  thinking skills during this time helps shape neural connections, fostering a strong cognitive foundation for future learning.  Thinking skills encompass cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and reasoning. ‘Teaching’ these skills at a young age supports the enhancement of these cognitive abilities, providing children with tools to navigate the world around them.

I think we would all agree how important it is for our children to develop sound thinking skills, especially in an age where we are surrounded by ‘fake news’ and AI at our finger-tips.  With the recent poor International education rankings, I fear the focus will once again be on the three r’s of reading, ‘riting’ and ‘rithmetic’ and a focus on the KCs will go out the window. Some schools are already saying they now have no time for learning through play. This is a travesty as play is HOW children learn.

Learning through play offers a holistic approach to the development of thinking skills in young children. It  is a powerful and natural way for young children to develop a wide range of thinking skills.  It engages multiple facets of their cognitive, social, and emotional development, providing a foundation for future learning and problem-solving abilities. Play provides a context for children to explore, experiment, and make sense of the world around them. 

Play often involves challenges and obstacles, whether it’s building a tower of blocks, solving a puzzle, or navigating a pretend play scenario. These activities require children to think critically and develop problem-solving skills as they figure out how to achieve their goals.

Pretend play and imaginative activities encourage children to think creatively. Through role-playing and creating imaginary scenarios, children engage their minds in abstract thinking, storytelling, and inventing new ideas.

Play is inherently social, and children learn valuable social thinking skills through interactions with their peers. Negotiating roles, sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflicts during play contribute to the development of social and emotional intelligence.

Play provides opportunities for language development as children communicate with each other, negotiate roles, and express their ideas. Developing a rich vocabulary and the ability to articulate thoughts are important components of thinking skills.

Many play activities involve concepts of quantity, size, shape, and spatial relationships. Sorting objects, counting, and arranging items during play contribute to the development of early mathematical thinking.

Play often involves a sense of curiosity and exploration. Children naturally engage in activities that allow them to observe, experiment, and draw conclusions—essential components of scientific thinking.

Play activities, such as memory games, role-playing, and storytelling, engage cognitive functions and memory. These activities contribute to the development of memory skills, attention, and overall cognitive abilities.

Play often involves making choices and decisions. Whether it’s selecting a game to play, deciding on a role in a pretend scenario, or choosing how to build with blocks, children practice decision-making skills during play.

There are also many alternatives to develop thinking skills in our young learners. Posing open-ended questions that encourage children to think and express their ideas can be used throughout the day. Questions like “What do you think will happen next?” or “Why do you think that happened?” stimulate critical thinking.

Stories are great for engaging children in discussions afterward. Encourage them to share their thoughts about the characters, plot, and possible alternate endings. This helps develop their ability to analyze and interpret information.

Encourage children to observe their surroundings and reflect on their experiences. Ask questions like “What did you notice?” or “How did that make you feel?” This helps develop metacognitive processes and self-awareness.

Introduce age-appropriate puzzles, games, and challenges that require children to think logically and find solutions. This can include simple math games, pattern recognition, or sorting activities.

Promote collaborative learning experiences where children work together to achieve a common goal. This helps them develop communication skills, learn from each other, and see different perspectives.

Create a culture where asking questions is welcomed. Foster an environment where children feel comfortable asking “why” and exploring their curiosity. This helps them develop a natural inclination to seek and create knowledge.

Incorporate visual aids, such as pictures, diagrams, or charts, to support understanding and stimulate discussion. Visuals can enhance comprehension and encourage children to think critically about the information presented.

Model thinking processes by verbalizing your own thoughts and problem-solving strategies. This helps children see how thinking is a dynamic process and provides them with a model for their own thinking.

It is important to remember that whilst developing thinking skills in our young children to  make learning enjoyable and engaging. The goal is to create a positive and supportive environment that nurtures the development of thinking skills in young learners.

 

We Learn Best Socially

Miley Harris uses the story of Pete the Cat to teach her Year 2 class about resilience. Matiu Cross uses learning buddies to tutor other Year 5 students on how to find lines of symmetry in an object.

The reason both strategies are effective is because they rely on the social encoding advantage.

When children read about Pete the Cat (or watch the funky Youtube videos) they relate to Pete as a character with attributes and characteristics. That’s far more interesting to the brain and far more memorable than a book or video on the concept of resilience.

When the tutors in Matiu’s class are learning about lines of symmetry and know they’ll help their buddies with it, they are far more invested in the learning, and it becomes embedded more deeply in their brains.

The fascinating thing about the social encoding advantage is that it uses an entirely different memory system than the one we use to memorise information traditionally.

Jason Mitchell, social neuroscientist at Harvard found that the mentalizing system is active when the social encoding advantage applies. That’s the system that enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s the one that tells us that our partner is going to be upset when they come home from a weekend away and find the place is an absolute mess.

Under certain circumstances the mentalizing system is more powerful than trying to memorise.

Numerous studies have compared groups who were asked to look at statements describing ordinary behaviours.

Reading the newspaper

Riding a bike

Patting a dog

Washing a car

Eating an apple

Kicking a ball

Grooming a horse

Writing a note

Watering the garden

Checking the mailbox

One group was asked to memorize the statements for a test. The other group was asked to ‘form an overall impression of what the person who performed the various actions is like’ and are explicitly told not to try to memorize the information. They are instructed that they’ll be asked some questions later based on the impression they had formed.

In reality they were both given a memory test based on the list (social scientists are sneaky like that).

In study after study, those that were thinking about the attributes of the people remembered the material better than those actually trying to memorize it.

How does this apply to our classrooms and in our schools?

In many cases we’re doing it already. We’re asking children to work in groups, to work co-operatively to research and develop solutions to problems. We’re looking at real problems that impact real people in their own environment. We’re telling stories and we’re creating our own stories around what we can do now and what we can accomplish in the future.

Activities like this are also building communication and self-management skills alongside the skills we need to work in teams, to co-operate and co-ordinate together.

In the coming decades Artificial Intelligence is going to take over many of the data and information-based tasks that we do now, our children are increasingly going to need those human skills. Those are the skills that we need to be teaching and we need to be teaching them in a human-focussed way.

Reference Social – Why our brains are wired to connect by Matthew D Lieberman

 

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Taking Turns – an emotional intelligence

Let’s talk about taking turns! Taking turns requires a certain amount of  emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognise and understand one’s own emotions and those of others.  Taking turns takes a great deal of practice and mastery, even as adults we can find ourselves interrupting when someone else is talking. As adults we can find it hard to wait our turn if we feel we have something important to say.  So modelling and teaching turn-taking whilst talking will really support children develop this crucial skill.

Research has shown that learning the skill of turn-taking in the first three years of life has been linked to higher intelligence levels later on.  It has been linked to increased emotional regulation, attachment, and emotional communication, and to cortical growth in language and social processing regions of the brain .

According to the latest research, the more children participate in turn-taking during a conversation without interruption with their caregivers, the more active their brain is in responding to language production and processing .

Turn-taking can teach children many things, such as hearing new words that they may use on their own when it’s time to take their turn. They learn to pay attention to what someone else is saying, how to initiate an interaction, how and when to take a turn. They learn how to clarify or repeat what they were trying to say if it was not understood, how to ask questions, how to use previous knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills to express their point of view .

This is good for children’s social skills, and also their brain. According to research, turn-taking is strongly linked with the strength of white matter connections between two key language regions (Broca’s and Wernicke’s) in the brain . Conversational turn-taking is also linked to the increased surface area of the left Perisylvian cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension and reading skills .

So how do we foster and develop this social skill which will support us through life?  Dramatic play can be the champion of growing this skill.

Role Reversal: As they step into different roles, children learn to appreciate the give-and-take in everyday interactions, just like in our world.

Communication Skills: It’s all about talking and listening! Dramatic play encourages kids to express themselves, listen to others, and patiently wait their turn to shine.

Empathy Building: Taking turns and sharing in the world of make-believe fosters empathy. Our tamariki understand the value of waiting and respecting others’ feelings.

Problem-Solving Playground: When “drama” happens, children learn to resolve conflicts, negotiate, and find creative solutions together.

As teachers, parents and caregivers, we can help children learn to take turns in conversations: 

  • pause for one or two seconds after a child talks and look directly at them, indicating it’s their turn to say something. Around five seconds should be long enough. If you’re still waiting, the child can be encouraged to take their turn to speak with a touch, a question, or a comment.
  • Encourage children to take their turn by getting face-to-face with them. Pay close attention to what the child is interested in, including eye gaze, gestures, facial expressions, and sounds, which are all clues to when they’ll be ready to take their turn.
  • Be patient and wait to give the child a chance to send you a message. Remember that they don’t need to use words – they might just give you a quick look or make a gesture. Treat any sound, look, or gesture as your child’s first “turn” in the interaction.

 

Learning with and alongside others.

Contribution/Mana Tangata in the NZ early childhood curriculum, Te Whariki, is about children’s growing capacity to develop relationships with other people who are different from them in diverse ways. Relationships between teachers and children provide models for the social skills and attitudes that support this capacity. With the continuing push and pressure for our teachers to timetable more of the “three r’s”,we have to press pause and reflect on the importance of the “harder to measure” competencies and how we can support our children to become connected, relational and relate well to others.

In the early years of ECE and school, social skills are incredibly important skills our children  need to interact and communicate effectively with others. These include skills and behaviours important to the development of friendships and interpersonal relationships, communication skills and an understanding of the societal ‘rules’ of behaviour across a range of social settings. Having good social skills helps our learners to develop healthy relationships with others, which is vital to emotional health and well being.

Whatever their age or stage, our children are honing their social skills. When they are little, we watch them as they learn to share and take turns, actively supporting their development of social skills whenever they run into difficulty. As they grow, so does the outer boundary of their social world, and with it the skills and behaviours necessary for them to navigate social situations successfully, often without us as close (at least physically) offering the same level of practical support.

Relating to others/making a contribution is an important skill for children to develop. 

Some examples of what this skill looks like in practice are:

  • Sharing and explaining their ideas with others
  • Respecting and understanding different perspectives and feelings
  • Standing up for themselves and their peers when needed
  • Learning to develop a positive sense of self and recognising their own strengths
  • Taking turns and sharing with others
  • Learning to empathise with others

As educators, we can support children to develop this skill by:

  • Getting to know our learners, their backgrounds, preferences, strengths, and interests, and honouring their diversity and individuality
  • Creating and maintaining positive relationships with children, and helping them to do the same with their peers
  • Listening to and respecting children’s feelings, opinions, and needs, and encouraging them to express themselves
  • Appreciating and acknowledging children’s contributions, and providing feedback and encouragement
  • Helping children to resolve conflicts and negotiate with others in positive ways
  • Supporting children’s interests and passions, and using them as a basis for planning and assessment
  • Providing a stimulating and varied environment that sparks children’s curiosity
  • Offering play materials that are open-ended and sensory, and that allow for creativity and imagination

As mentioned in a previous blog, dramatic play can help to foster and develop many social skills which will support children through life.  Through dramatic play, children can act out different scenarios and pretend to be someone with feelings other than their own. They have an opportunity to talk through what kinds of feelings or emotions the character might be experiencing. For children who are more shy or introverted, dramatic play can also be a powerful tool for helping them to come out of their shell and express themselves. 

I reflected on a quote recently which stated “If a child can hold a pencil, write their name, count to 100 but doesn’t know how to manage their emotions, make friends and have self help skills, then none of the other stuff matters”.  Of course other “stuff” matters, however, we must pause ourselves more often and ponder on the absolute importance of these foundational social and emotional skills and what we can do as educators to prepare our learners for success in all areas of learning.

Dont make friends with students – make connections

By Vince Ford

At the start of the school year do you look for common links with your students? Do you find similarities where you have a shared interest such as swimming, or you live in the same part of town, or you’ve taught their older brother or sister?
 
Finding common ground with others is how we build social bonds, it’s why ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ We look for what we have in common, we move socially closer to them and act in similar ways.
 Social Anthropologist Robin Dunbar summed it up in his Seven Pillars of Friendship.

P
rofession – education and career

I nterests and hobbies
L anguage – shared dialect brings us closer
L ocation
A ttitudes – values and worldview
R hythm – musical taste
S ense of humour
 
The more of these pillars we share, the more likely we are to build a strong connection.
 
I believe that forming bonds with your students through what you have in common is a mistake. If you develop ties through commonality, then what does that say to those students that are different to you? If they’re from a different culture or location, then they immediately feel marginalised in a classroom that values students who are like the teacher. Isn’t that how unconscious bias forms?
The Pillars of Friendship were a natural development when we lived in small communities and villages, where gossip thrived, where we knew who we could trust and who were outsiders.
 
Today far more of our students are already outsiders. Migration means that many have English as their second language. Interests, music and even sense of humour are often culturally entrenched therefore they differ along with the culture. Everything from electronics to entertainment and groceries is available online now, we don’t share the experience of common markets. It’s possible that you share nothing in common with pupils in your class.
 
If we don’t connect through commonality, then how do we connect?
 
I say that we need to listen to the stories of our students. Every one of them has their own interests, their own journey, their own way of viewing the world. If we ask our ākonga for their stories, and we genuinely listen then we can begin to understand them for who they are, not just how they are like us.

We need to invite our students, their families, and their communities to share their stories so that they feel valued and accepted but also so that we can understand what makes them who they are.
 
As you start the year, how do you plan to discover the stories of your students?

 

Connection before Curriculum

By Vince Ford

In a remote school in Northland a principal was doing things very differently. In this school, te reo Māori was used in interactions with pupils, kaumātua were regularly invited to address the students and ākonga worked on real problems drawn from their local community. The community and the natural environment were incorporated into everyday learning and teaching and there was a strong focus on language, art and craft. “I felt my children were needing to express themselves about their own lives, their own homes, their own muddy tracks that led through the hills, their own fishing spots.”

Children were taught to look closely at the world around them, to observe and record their observations, to utilise scientific method and to integrate art and science into their everyday learning.

The startling thing was that Elwyn Richardson was principal of Ōruaiti School between 1949 and 1961, at a time when the use of te reo Māori was actively discouraged. The curriculum was prescribed down to what animal and bird were to be studied at what year level in the curriculum. Richardson refused to allow the education of Ōruaiti pupils to be confined in that way. He also stood against corporal punishment in schools and was labelled an ‘educational saboteur’ by James K Baxter.

With the blessing of Clarence Beeby the Director of Education, Ōruaiti became an experimental school, Richardson set aside the official syllabus and turned to the lives of the students and their environment as the foundation for his school curriculum.

Richardson later went on to be principal of Hay Park and Lincoln Heights schools in Auckland, he lectured internationally and wrote about his thoughts on curriculum. He was made a Companion of the Queens Service Order for his work in education and received an honorary doctorate in literature from Massey University.

Its interesting to reflect on Elwyn Richardson’s work when Te Mātaiaho, the curriculum refresh has been placed on hold. As well as understanding and valuing Te Tiriti O Waitangi, the principles of Te Mātaiaho are to hold a broad view of akōnga (student) success and to hold high expectations for all ākonga (students).

Within the principle of holding a broad view of success, Te Mātaiaho places wellbeing and excellence as important and connected. It reinforces inclusion through a focus on positive, inclusive relationships, a sense of belonging for all, and a promotion of diversity as ordinary and expected.

In describing Te Mātaiaho, Graham Hinengaroa Smith said that it was about ‘seeking ways to bring people together and to be more focused on what holds us together rather that what divides us.’

To me, this principle is about seeing every student for who they are, truly listening to them and valuing what they bring with them in terms of their culture, their experience and the people they share their lives with. It is about forming a relationship so that every child can feel safe and extend their trust to the kaiako and the class.

I believe this is the work that Elwyn Richardson was pursuing in Northland. When he began this work, he did it despite the dictates of the Education Department. Later, he came to influence a generation of teachers. I believe that his example demonstrates the influence a teacher can have on students lives when they forge deep and meaningful connections with the students themselves. Whether the curriculum refresh is on hold or not, isn’t this the work that educators and leaders in education should be undertaking?

Elwyn Richardson – Oruaiti Prinipal from 1941 – 1961

Nurturing Young Minds: The Importance of Teaching Self-Management Skills to young learners.

In the dynamic landscape of early childhood development, fostering essential life skills is pivotal for laying the groundwork for success and well-being. Among these crucial skills, self-management stands out as a cornerstone for a child’s growth. Learning to “give things a go,” embrace risk-taking, complete tasks, be responsible, persevere, stay self-motivated, and learn from mistakes are invaluable attributes that set the stage for a resilient and confident individual. The significance of teaching young children self-management skills and how these skills empower them to meet challenges head-on cannot be underestimated.

Teaching young children to “give things a go” involves instilling a growth mindset. Embracing challenges, whether big or small, allows children to develop a sense of curiosity, creativity, and a willingness to explore. By encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones, educators and parents play a crucial role in nurturing a mindset that perceives challenges as opportunities for growth rather than insurmountable obstacles

Risk-taking is a natural part of learning and discovery. Allowing children to take calculated risks builds resilience and confidence. Whether it’s attempting a new physical activity or expressing themselves creatively, taking risks fosters a sense of adventure, independence, and the ability to make decisions – essential skills that carry into adulthood.

Completing tasks and being responsible are integral components of self-management. Teaching young children the importance of finishing what they start instils a sense of accomplishment and pride. As children learn to take responsibility for their actions and belongings, they develop a foundation of reliability and accountability, essential qualities for success in school and beyond.

Perseverance is a quality that empowers children to overcome obstacles. Whether it’s learning to tie shoelaces, mastering a new skill, or navigating social challenges, teaching perseverance reinforces the idea that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process. Resilience built through perseverance equips children to face challenges with determination, adaptability, and a positive attitude.

Encouraging self-motivation in young children involves tapping into their inherent curiosity and interests. When children are motivated from within, they develop a lifelong love of learning. By providing a supportive environment that nurtures their passions and encourages autonomy, parents and educators contribute to the cultivation of self-driven individuals who approach tasks with enthusiasm and dedication.

Mistakes are valuable opportunities for growth and learning. Teaching children to view mistakes as stepping stones to success rather than as failures is essential for building resilience. By creating a safe and supportive atmosphere where mistakes are seen as part of the learning journey, children develop the courage to explore, experiment, and refine their skills.

Equipped with self-management skills, young children are better prepared to face the challenges that life inevitably presents. The ability to “give things a go,” take risks, complete tasks, be responsible, persevere, stay self-motivated, and learn from mistakes empowers children to approach challenges with confidence, creativity, and a positive mindset.

The threads of self-management skills weave a resilient and confident fabric. By imparting the importance of giving things a go, risk-taking, completing tasks, being responsible, persevering, staying self-motivated, and learning from mistakes, parents and educators provide young children with the tools needed to navigate a world full of challenges. As we invest in teaching these foundational skills, we not only prepare children for success in their formative years but also lay the groundwork for a future generation that embraces challenges with courage and resilience.