Encouraging Young Children's Critical and Creative Thinking Skills: An Approach in One English Elementary School

Article excerpt

Can young children be taught to think creatively and critically? This question is the focus of an innovative approach to teaching and learning that has been implemented by one elementary school in the southwest of England. Known as Talents Unlimited, the model provides a framework for developing children's creative and critical thinking skills. The instructional program aims to help children use their imagination, produce creative ideas, cross reference, plan, and make decisions in the context of the curriculum.

Elementary education in England currently is influenced heavily by the National Curriculum, which mandates subject/content areas, and learning targets and outcomes, for 5- to 16-year-olds; in some instances, it standardizes teaching methods. For example, the compulsory literacy hour in elementary schools must include whole-class teaching, as well as individual and small-group work. The National Curriculum guidelines tend to be prescriptive, often focusing upon what pupils should be taught, and upon what pupils are expected to be able to do. Unfortunately, such prescriptions generally are not accompanied by recommendations for strategies that teachers can use in order to achieve these targets. While striving to meet the demands of the National Curriculum, some teachers tend to focus upon imparting knowledge, without teaching pupils how to think. In addition, creativity is narrowly defined as that which is associated with the arts, such as art, music, and movement.

As teacher educators face similar pressures, the current de-emphasis on process may mean that some teachers will not be exposed to models for teaching thinking skills. Consequently, some teachers do not know how to teach children to learn to think. Creativity, especially in curriculum domains other than the arts, appears to be neglected and undervalued.

The human thirst for learning is powerful; given appropriate opportunities, young children can engage in sophisticated cognitive processes (Rogoff, 1990). Educators and researchers are attempting to identify which intellectual skills can be developed, and what are the most effective ways to encourage learning in the classroom. Such questions have led to a renewed focus upon the development of children's critical and creative thinking skills, as well as an interest in instructional approaches that facilitate the development of such abilities. Because schools are charged with the responsibility of teaching children how to think (Coles & Robinson, 1991), elementary teachers have an obligation to learn how to enhance children's cognitive development (Ebbeck, 1996).

Cognitive development research has increased awareness of the existence of different kinds of intelligences (Gardner, 1983; Renzulli & Reis, 1986; Sternberg, 1984). Learning is thought to be more effective when different types of intelligence are used to process information and solve problems (Fisher, 1995). Most English educators are aware of the current debate in teaching circles about whether play, socialization, or academic learning goals should be the primary focus of early education. Some critics of England's elementary education believe that young children are allowed to play too much. Others argue that too many classrooms focus on the development of a narrow band of intellectual abilities. Research suggests, however, that either too much or too little structure can prevent development of higher-order critical and creative thinking skills, and so children are not equipped with an ". . . active, strategic approach to learning tasks" (McLeod, 1997, p. 6).

By using the multiple intelligence approach to teaching (Gardner, 1991), however, teachers can identify and foster pupils' multiple talents in a variety of intellectual areas. Instead of simply imparting knowledge, it is important for teachers to teach children how to think, so that children can learn to make use of information.

Effective Ways of Enhancing Pupils' Cognitive Skills

Some educators argue that specific programs, such as de Bono's CoRT materials, Lipman's philosophy programs, and Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment program (Fisher, 1995), can develop children's thinking and learning skills. …