Becoming a thinking school

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Rochester Grammar is an Advanced Thinking School. Denise Shepherd explains how and why the school has put thinking at the heart of its curriculum.

Last autumn, Rochester Grammar School became the first English secondary to gain accreditation as an Advanced Thinking School, an educational community in which all members share a common commitment to think reflectively, critically and creatively.

The initiative is used to promote independent and co-operative learning skills, high levels of achievement and both enjoyment and satisfaction in learning.

Rochester Grammar is a selective girls’ school with a mixed 6th form in Medway, an area with its fair share of socio-economic issues. The decision to put thinking at the heart of our school was taken when the school had just achieved some of its best results ever at
A level and GCSE. It was felt that somehow we were still not challenging the minds and creativity of the students. Ges Hartley, the deputy head, began by planning and implementing a number of cross-curricular projects, or “rich tasks” as they are now known.

The first task – named the Phi Factor – brought together mathematics, music, ICT, drama and media in a new and innovative way. Our students, finally, had to transfer skills from different disciplines and apply past knowledge in order to move forward with their creative projects. A focus was placed on group work and skills of collaboration. Students were assessed on the quality of their work – posters, compositions, film sequences and presentations – but were also asked to quantify levels of creativity and personal growth.

The success of the Phi Factor led to further “rich tasks” on migration and it was clear that the school was beginning to look at learning in a new light, with students being asked to reflect on and value intelligent dispositions and thoughtful strategies as well as just summative outcomes.

Plans into practice

By summer 2007, six teachers had been trained as trainers for Thinking Maps, a set of eight visual tools to teach universal thinking processes, and all eight maps were trialled by the teachers. The following year, Thinking Maps were introduced across the curriculum at all key stages by all teachers.

This was reinforced through performance management targets. Despite some initial reluctance on behalf of staff and students, the maps started to have a visible impact on the processing of knowledge and thought by students.

It was evident from the exemplar material and observations that students were beginning to understand the link between the visual tool and the actual thought process. For example the simple bubble map focusing on adjectives really led to an improved descriptive quality of student’s written work; by focusing their thoughts on description via the bubble map their vocabulary became richer and more considered. As a result, the maps are now seen as vital tools, held in high regard by both staff and students.

During 2007/08, staff were introduced to the concept of Art Costa’s Habits of Mind and six habits were chosen as termly themes for 2008/09. Habits of Mind were introduced formally to years 7 to 11 through our vertically integrated house system, another initiative to promote thinking and creativity across the school.

Weekly sessions introduced different ideas on the habit for that term and asked students to reflect on their own behaviours, to make links with their own experiences and the wider world and to partake in a wide range of activities such as role play, creating songs and dances, poster competitions, using Thinking Maps, group discussion or analysing film clips.

Students were invited to plan sessions alongside Richard Coe, the director of independent learning, and an online forum was introduced so students could comment on the sessions and how they might be improved or adapted. Key staff supported the termly habits through assemblies, notice boards and commendations.

Richard and the new assistant headteacher in charge of teaching and learning, Gwynn Bassan, monitored the quality of these sessions through learning walks, termly number-crunching of evaluations, and reading of the online forums.

We also held open sessions for the most cynical students to come and openly express their views. These students were then used to proof-read the next term’s lessons and give suggestions on how these might be improved or amended. New students and staff received training on Thinking Maps and CPD sessions were run to develop the use of maps in the classroom and curriculum areas.

Greater heights

A new stage in our development came with the introduction of Thinking Keys to a Thinking Club for Teachers. Developed by Tony Ryan, the keys are 20 ways, all titled, with a specific function to unlock creative and critical thinking.

We ran a twilight CPD session on the keys, which was seen as a valuable and creative way to incorporate simple but effective thinking tasks into all lessons. A further CPD session focused on the Habits of Mind, where successful strategies were shared as part of a “thinking carousel”. Teachers from a range of curriculum areas took one idea and shared it with small groups. These included incorporating Habits of Mind into learning objectives, assessing the habits and using habits to evaluate trips or workshops.

Developing Thinking Maps and supporting Habits of Mind were again integral features of all staff performance management targets, which gave the approach some real gravitas and led to rigorous monitoring by Richard, and by all line managers and curriculum leaders. 

In the summer of 2008, all curriculum areas were asked to choose from the 16 habits those that were most relevant to, or pre-requisites for, their specialism. This was followed by a focused day’s training from Thinking Schools International. The focus for the day was on how to promote and then assess the key habits for each curriculum area.

After attending a national conference on personal learning and thinking skills, and researching P4C (philosophy for children) and the work of Ian Gilbert, we decided to introduce “Thunking Online” for the most gifted students. A “Thunk” is a question that makes your brain hurt and asks you to look at life from a new angle or perspective. For example, “is a broken down car parked?”, “is there more future or past?”, “where do shapes start?”.

After a successful trial, it was introduced via some funky postcards to all staff and students. It has taken off better than we could have hoped and we can now all think and debate together online, off the curriculum.

So, how are we planning to develop our work? We are now a multi-academy trust and a Teaching School. Our aim is to be at the centre of more Thinking Schools, working together to further our vision of cognitive education. 

Being a Thinking School has transformed our school. Our last Ofsted report said: “When students leave the school, they have not only the qualifications they need to proceed to higher education but also the maturity and independent learning skills that serve them well in their chosen careers and futures.”

  • Denise Shepherd is executive headteacher of Rochester Grammar School.

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