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The impact of a prescriptive curriculum on the development
of higher order thinking skills in children.

University of Leicester School of Education
M.A. Professional Studies in Education.
1998
Graham Beck

 

Page Links

Introduction;       
Rationale;      
Theories of cognitive development;      
What is metacognition? ;    
How can metacognition be developed? ;      
National Curriculum links;      
Planned intervention strategies;
Subjects; Procedure; Materials;
Discussion and interpretation of findings;
Conclusions;
References

The study seeks to draw together some of the disparate conceptual frameworks arranged around the term metacognition. An attempt is made to provide a constructive definition of the term which will allow more accessibility of approach in developing higher order thinking skills in children of primary school age. A key objective in the study is that of providing a platform for the assessment of the effects of the perceived rigidity of the National Curriculum framework, and more specifically that imposed by the National Literacy Strategy, on the development of such higher order cognitive skills. Strands of the Somerset Thinking Skills Course (Blagg et al. 1988) are utilised as stimulus material to a class of 10/11 year old children attending a junior school in a socially deprived area of An East Midlands City. Responses to this material are observed alongside those towards standard curriculum material, in particular that related to the National Literacy project. A written dialogue, analogous to that described by Swan & White (1994) is introduced as a means of enhancing reflective thinking by the children in relation to their school experiences. Children’s' attitudes towards completing these learning logs were on the whole negative, and there emerged little evidence of reflective thinking about their work. The greater part of the literacy hour timetable was seen to present a learning environment inconsistent with that defined in established research as necessary for the development of metacognitive skills. The value and success of the literacy hour in its prime objective is recognised by the writer who concludes that structural changes to the programme could simultaneously enhance both literacy and cognitive skills.

 

NB it should be noted that this research material on thinking skills predates the highly visual Learning Logs displayed on the site and is based on a more structured and literacy based learning journal. The notes on metacognition and reflective learning are primarily intended to provide some context for the later development of Learning Logs

References are quoted to evidence the research base on learning journals as distinct from Learning Logs. GB

 

 



Introduction

Introduction

 

This study seeks to sift the considerable research material concerning the development of cognitive and metacognitive skills in general, and in the development of children in particular. Further to the analysis of published material in this area of research, there will be an attempt to apply interventions to a group of junior school children with the defined purpose of exploring the range of available resources aimed at developing a set of transferable metacognitive skills which will support their learning over a wide range of curriculum subjects. It is recognised at the outset that within the scale of the investigation this range of interventions can serve only as a minor element of the study as a whole. The time constraints alone are a considerable barrier to obtaining data which could provide any significant indication of change. The population of children selected as subjects for the somewhat limited number of interventions is itself small. Reference to the interventions and any implications of their implementation will therefore be largely subjective, and in the light of these limitations no attempt will be made to subject the findings to formal analysis.

 

Some major theoretical explanations of development through childhood will be explored, principally those of Piaget and Vygotsky, in order to provide both a background to the planned strategies and anticipated outcomes, and as a means of exploring some of the support mechanisms which may be required to facilitate development in the desired directions. In addition to the focus on pure cognitive development, there will a sustained effort to draw links between the development of higher order reflective thinking skills and the demands of the materials and methods which form the body of the National Curriculum. This general awareness of the effects of the teaching of the National Curriculum material, based on the experiences of this group of children in particular, will be complemented by a specific focus on the implementation of the National Literacy Project (NLP) materials.

 

This most recent, and significantly more prescriptive, system of teaching English will be used as one of the main threads of development of reflective thinking skills during the study. Its value, and its place in the structure of teaching under the National Curriculum will be critically examined as a determinant of the cognitive development of the children who form the subject of its attention.

 

The structure of the NLP materials claims to provide a balance of approach which facilitates reflective process as a means of improving the learning cycle which the children undertake. The programme sets out to provide just the kind of support structure which Vygotsky described as being essential for optimum development, detailing the need for scaffolding and modelling by the teacher in order to achieve learning. This mediation of the environment to facilitate the child's learning and development of cognitive and metacognitive strategies through modelling (Colley & Beech 1989, Shayer 1997) should indeed provide an effective tool for the improvements which are sought by the programme. The question which will be addressed however is whether the structure of the programme mitigates against the very development which it seeks to foster. The case for the effectiveness of such a severely structured system of teaching in application, and indeed its very structure in use across a wide range of ability groups, will be questioned.

 

In addition to straightforward National Curriculum and NLP materials a number of other sources of intervention material will be explored. One of the key intervention tools to be applied as both development stimulus and assessment mechanism will be material from the Somerset Thinking Skills Course (STSC). These materials, influenced as they were to a great extent by the theoretical ideas and approaches of Feuerstein (Blagg et al. 1988) reflect once again the idea of teacher as mediator in the development of strategies to solve problems. The materials are a diverse combination of resources to develop through this mediated approach a set of skills and strategies which raise the level of awareness of cognitive process and encourage a metacognitive approach to problem solving. Blagg emphasises the need here for pupils to think for themselves in defining the task and he goes on to detail the need for ambiguity as a stimulus for debate. These characteristics of problems are expressed in the largely open-ended tasks contained within the STSC materials, and attention will be closely focused on the NLP materials to establish the degree of flexibility in approach which result in significant development in the skill areas defined. The aim, to generate a reflective transferable cognitive skill base, will be explored with reference to all of the materials utilised during the study. Specific tasks from the bank of material will be utilised to stimulate development in some of the key reasoning skills which may form the basis of eventual evolution of metacognitive awareness in the target group. As stimulus material, exercises will be selected with a view to eliciting more sophisticated thinking skills than are currently being employed in addressing standard curriculum material. A small number of tasks will be selected with the aim of providing stimuli for the development in particular of analytical and orientation skills. In consideration of the low mean literacy levels of the target group of the study, the STSC stimulus materials selected for use will be as far as practicable of a non-verbal nature.

 

The principal aim of focusing on these two areas is to attempt to expedite some development in the skills of locating and utilising data in order to facilitate the development of more effective solutions to problems. The tasks themselves are designed to elicit cooperative group working practices, in itself a stimulus for peer mediation which may go some way to developing cognitive skills (Shayer 1997). Some tasks will be used as monitoring devices in order to provide some empirical evidence of development in general reasoning skills over the short period of the interventions.

 

In addition to the aforesaid, and indeed as a main element of the study, a diary type record will be maintained through the use of thinking books, after the model described by Swan & White (1994). Swan & White (1994) utilised these books as a means of modelling and inspiring the kind of reflective thinking in children which is sought in the present study. Through a sustained written record of discussion concerning the children’s' learning, they were able to establish a significant level of reflective thinking in the group of children with whom they worked. It is proposed that a similar system of recording and modelling of thinking styles will be implemented as a central part of the present study.

 

The thinking books will require the children to contribute regularly to a conversation between child and teacher as to what has been learned on each day. Clear guidance will be given to the children as to what they should be recording in their books. The responses entered by the teacher will, as in the model outlined by Swan & White (1994), include questioning and direction intended to guide the child towards the sort of reflective responses which are desired, and away from the more mechanical descriptions of what work they have undertaken during the day. It is intended that the thinking books will be brought more into the public domain than in the Swan & White (1994) model so as to provide an explicit sharing of the ideal reflective writing which is being promoted through the study. The books will therefore serve, as is the case with the Somerset Thinking Skills material, as both stimulus and measurement devices, although it is anticipated that the books will focus more on the latter element of the task.

 

Finally as a tool to provide some practise element for the cognitive skills which are the focus of development, a range of reasoning skills tests will be provided as stimulus and discussion material in order that the children may have an opportunity to practise their problem solving and analysis skills in a broadly mediated environment.

 

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Rationale

Rationale

 

The development of a reflective style of thinking, which is the desired aim of the interventions, is the link to the background of development in metacognitive skills which forms the backdrop to the research. It is in the development and use of these sophisticated thinking skills that improvements in general skill attainment lies, with a heavy reliance on the transference of learned behaviours and strategies to inform progression when confronted with new problems. The aims of the study then are twofold, primarily to draw together the research evidence concerning strategies aimed at development of cognitive, and more especially metacognitive skills in children, in an attempt to establish the levels of success in this exercise. Secondly, having drawn attention to the varying success rates in producing the required development in transferable, metacognitive skills, parallels will be drawn between these and the programmes adopted by the National Curriculum in general, and the National Literacy Project in particular, which certainly in the latter case, herald claims to promote this very quality of reflective higher order thinking. Additional material will be used as appropriate in order to foster the development of some of the formal reasoning skills required to undertake successful problem solving exercises. Published schemes of reasoning skills exercises will be introduced to the children as a means of raising their awareness of some of the thought processes which they may be required to utilise in order to generate solutions to problems. They will, through collaborative working patterns and support from their class teacher, be guided towards methods of careful analysis of data and both intuitive and deductive methods of obtaining successful resolutions of specific problems. This collaborative, and adult supported, approach has much in common with the ideas put forward by Vygotsky. He clearly saw intellectual development as an internalization of socially learned and mediated processes (Dixon-Krauss 1996), and this development of thought processes as a reflective higher order thinking skill, or metacognition. These higher order mental behaviours are in effect, as Dixon-Krauss (1996) goes on to say, psychological tools which give us control over our mental behaviour.

 

They do not then merely give us an insight into how our thinking processes are functioning, they may also be directed towards guiding our thinking processes to support activity in previously uncharted areas. In order to achieve this level of control over the higher order thinking skills there is a need for the individual to first notice what has gone well in a process, or not so well, and then reflect on why this outcome occurred (Gibbs et al. 1994). The formation of a learning cycle, wherein an understanding is developed of what events or qualities led to success or failure within a process, is seen as the precursor to the development of this level of control over cognitive processes. This concept relies heavily on the process of mediation as a means of controlling the learning environment and providing the feedback opportunities which are essential to the skill development.

 

It is necessary here to define quite clearly what is meant by mediation since it has acquired a variety of interpretations in the broad spectrum of psychological study. As a general term this is by and large accepted to represent some event or events intervening between a stimulus and response, more usually as an internal cognitive action impacting on the response. When used throughout this piece however, the term will be considered as mediation of situational factors by an adult or expert individual in support of learning by a less experienced learner, generally in this context a child, or group of children. That is to say there must be, in order to satisfy this definition of mediation, some involvement in the process of learning, by an adult or more able peer, to assist the child either through example or by effective framing of the context of the problem (Adey & Shayer 1994). This perception and definition of mediation is the one propounded by Vygotsky and is a crucial element of the processes which will be undertaken throughout the study. The Somerset Thinking Skills material which will be utilised in the study has a deep dependence on this role of mediation and is in large part based upon the work of Feuerstein, who declared its crucial importance in the process of cognitive development.

 

There are clearly concerns about the way in which the curriculum material is constructed (de Bono 1991) and about there being no well-defined strategy within its framework to facilitate the development of those thinking skills which will support the needs of the individuals both in school and in later life. Given the increasing concerns regarding the lack of success of schools, both in the U.K. and the U.S.A., in producing young people who are able to exhibit these higher order thinking skills (Burden 1998), it seems appropriate to investigate the latest initiatives in education with reference to their level of effectiveness in the development of these necessary thinking skills.

 

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Theories of cognitive development

Theories of cognitive development

 

As far as the present study is concerned, we might be said in Piagetian terms to be attempting intervention strategies with a group of children at or around the transition point between concrete and formal operations. Piaget concluded from his many observations and investigations that the borderline between these two cognitive strategies fell at around the age of 12. Whilst there has been considerable debate as to whether this is strictly the case, there does seem to be some consensus for the proposition that changes in cognitive processes are occurring at or around this age. It would therefore seem to follow that the change in the type of thinking skills which we are attempting to engender could signal some evidence of change across these two stages of development. We are here seeking to promote improvements in the awareness of thinking which will ultimately lead to improvements in the quality of solution generation, which underpinned the basis of Piaget's conclusions regarding his staged development theory (Bee 1985).

 

Piaget's view that development, and transition between stages, occurs as a consequence of a change in basic logic, precipitated by interactions which are at odds with the existent paradigm, would seem to support the notion that a programme of sustained interventions aimed at achieving such discord might also promote some change in learning strategies. Such challenges presented to the thinking style of the children in the present study met with a rather different set of responses however, and were more generally perceived as threatening and unwelcome. Piaget outlined clearly the significant change occurring at the inception of formal operations, noting the development of more powerful cognitive skills which would allow the individual to organize and manipulate complex ideas and concepts, as well as actual objects, systematically and methodically to achieve a successful learning outcome. In this study we are seeking to foster just such skills by encouraging the development of reflective thinking across a range of tasks within the context of 'normal' classroom teaching. Neimark (1975, 1981) notes in this connection that 'reflective' and 'field-independent' children  are more likely to show formal operations, compared to otherwise bright 'children who are 'impulsive' or ' field-dependent'.

 

In support of our attempts to engender higher order thinking skills in 10/11 year olds, somewhat earlier than the inception of formal operations, according to Piaget, we can garner some measure of support from Flavell (1982b) who does not regard human development as such a mechanistic stage based, horizontally consistent process, rather as a sequential, vertically consistent structure. We must however be realistic in expectations in the light of Piaget's opinion, and that of a host of other eminent writers and researchers, that the achievement of reaching the formal operations stage is far from universal. Webb (1974) feels that even the brightest of children show no formal operational thinking below the age of 10, so it may be that what we are seeking to achieve may be less related to age and more dependent on approach strategies as for instance the Vygotskyan concept of exploiting the ZPD. Procedures will need to be carried out with this factor clearly in mind in relation to both styles of interventions and observations of perceived change. Piaget's concept and definition of a child's readiness implies that an individual is only able to develop particular cognitive skills as they negotiate the transition between particular stages of development. This notion is considerably broadened by Vygotsky, who expresses readiness as a state which implies the child's capacity to learn with support (Wood, 1990). This he denotes as the individual's 'Zone of Proximal Development', being the gap which exists between what the child can achieve in isolation, and that which is possible with support or help from a more knowledgeable or skilled associate. Vygotsky therefore distinguishes between the child's current level of performance and their potential level if supported by a more expert associate. This support is referred to appropriately as scaffolding, a term which seems to adequately describe the supportive function needed by the child to reach targets which would otherwise be beyond their reach. Successful learning, for Vygotsky, must be aimed at the ZPD. The more traditional measures of intelligence or attainment are in Vygotsky's model rendered inadequate, since they examine merely the fixed skill range which the individual has achieved thus far. There is no mechanism to determine how far the individual could progress, that is to say what the true potential ability or intelligence level is, given a structure of support which assists the individual in reaching that potential.

 

Vygotsky emphasises the benefits of cooperatively achieved learning and development, a point emphasised by Brown et al. (1983) who describe children’s' cognitive development as a process which very much takes place within a social context, influenced by other people. The point seems very clear, that learning is not a process which is undertaken with great success in isolation. Indeed the atmosphere of co-operation or indeed competition is likely to provide new information and perhaps a degree of feedback on the ideas of each individual participating in a social learning context. In support of the principle Meadows (1986) points to the evidence that in joint activities the modelling of successful metacognitive strategies is likely to generate the advancement of learning skills and the development of more mature thinking skills. Brown et al. (1983) comment that this type of co-operative learning model, where there are differential levels of expertise in a group, may lead to some integration of the more highly developed thinking skills which would support the novices and assist in their general cognitive development.

 

The other key difference concerning development  from the Piagetian view to that adopted by Vygotsky is that whereas Piaget perceived through his observations a series of changes which he interpreted as profound development stages, Vygotsky's interpretation of change incorporated a greater degree of social interaction as a generator of cognitive development. This is then altogether a more interventionist approach where the adult, in this instance teacher, has a more pro-active, constructive role in the development of cognitive and metacognitive skills in the child through the scaffolding process. The focus then is much more on the learning environment, attending to the learning strategies of the children and implementing a greater degree of independence in their thinking styles but with the support of the more competent and confident teacher as a means of moving their cognitive development forwards and beyond their capacity to achieve progress alone. Learning is after all in this context an activity which takes place in a cooperative framework rather than in an individuals mind (Hanks 1991). It is through the social engagements involved in the participation in group activities, mediated by the differing perspectives of the co-participants, that the cognitive conflict, and consequent cognitive development, are achieved (Hanks 1991), Williams & Burden (1997) confirm the belief that learning is always affected by the environment in which it takes place and, in direct relation to this study, that the impact of context on the learning of language is considerable. They emphasise not only the vital role of the teacher as mediator, but also the need for an environment which supports and develops the self-esteem of the students through the building up of trust and confidence (Williams & Burden 1997).

 

The role of a set of socially developed, reflective, thinking skills does then appear to be a major element in the general development of a child at around the age of our target group. It is towards a clearer recognition of the framework within which development of those skills can be facilitated, and a more precisely defined definition of those key skills, that this study is presently targeted. As a precursor to the attempt to find some alignment between the cognitive skills and the National Curriculum work which is the mainstay of school education it is perhaps first necessary to define the desired range of skills loosely referred to as metacognition.

 

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What is metacognition?

What is metacognition?

 

In order to place the present investigation into a clear perspective, it would perhaps be appropriate to attempt to define what is meant by the term metacognition within the framework of this piece. Differences of opinion and confusion over exact definitions of the term abound in the literature surrounding the areas of cognitive and metacognitive research. The problem is perhaps best illustrated by an anecdote related by Adey & Shayer (1994) which recounted their reviewing a video to identify examples of particular psychological topics including metacognition. They evidently found themselves in some disarray when disagreeing with the producer as to which elements were or were not examples of metacognition. It appears that it took several weeks of literature review and discussion for the two to reach a consensus on what metacognition actually was.

 

This confusion in individual interpretation of the concept is reflected and indeed exaggerated by an examination of the broad range of literature which engages with the subject. The position is summed up adequately by Wellman (1983) who notes that the term metacognition is a fuzzy concept, being a cover term referring to a family of knowledge about memory and cognition. It is perhaps worthy of note that as a psychological term metacognition is not alone in suffering from a rather diffuse range of definitions. The writer goes on to say that metacognition has an ill-specified role in the performance of cognitive and memory tasks.

 

Given the disparity of views expressed in the literature, it seems appropriate and sensible to begin by outlining the parameters of the definitions which will be used herein. For the purposes of this investigation the term metacognition will be used simply as a descriptor of the ability to demonstrate an awareness of ones thinking processes. Further to this underlying definition, there will be an expectation of the use of metacognition to monitor thinking processes and ultimately to provide an executive control over those processes.

 

This final stage will be presented as the utilisation of metacognition to develop the purposive use of cognitive strategies to solve problems. Flavell (1979) for example uses similar terms of reference, including awareness of cognitive processes and executive control in his definition of the term. Metacognition is thus perceived as a superordinate structure which embodies knowledge about ourselves, the tasks we perform and the strategies we utilise to achieve our objectives.

 

Matlin (1989) extends this last feature to describe metacognition as a guide which can enable us to arrange circumstances and select strategies to improve our future cognitive performance.  Borkowski (1992) further extends and refines this definition in describing metacognition as self-regulation, an analysis of tasks as a tool for selecting approaches and then to monitor the course of learning in order to adjust or reverse strategies. This controlling aspect of metacognition goes far beyond the ability to be simply aware of our own thinking, and it acquires at this level the power to control those cognitive strategies which we might utilise in conflict resolutions related to all aspects of learning. Adey and Shayer (1994) describe metacognition as 'thinking about ones own thinking, becoming conscious of ones own reasoning.'  They also affirm the belief that it is a feature of higher order thinking.

 

Metacognition then is seen within this definition as having an ability, probably unique to the human race, to reflect on the thoughts and thinking processes which we use in any particular aspect of our inter-relationship with our environment. It is the ability to visualise the future, foresee what might happen, plan to anticipate it, and represent it to ourselves in images inside our heads (Bronowski 1973). The possession of this ability to reflect does of course necessitate the development of self-awareness since without this there can be no basis for reflection. In addition there would seem to be little basis for reflection on cognition in the absence of well developed language skills since the inability to articulate thoughts would be a considerable obstacle to the framing of concepts and strategies (Matlin 1989). The reflection may then transform the approach to a task by providing the means for heuristic learning and transfer of skills into new situations. This demonstrates the second and third elements of metacognition. More than a mere awareness of thought processes, it becomes a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling the cognitive processes which must be brought into operation to secure objectives in any given set of circumstances. The implications of this in relation to the education process would seem to be profound. If pupils can be coached, guided or directed towards the acquisition of metacognitive skills, then the potential for their taking control of the learning process is enormous. The emphasis on personal autonomy, which is so much a feature of current teaching and learning models, accords well with the idea of developing metacognitive skills which may be highly transferable between disparate areas of learning.

 

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How can metacognition be developed?

How can metacognition be developed?

 

McCrindle & Christensen (1995), in a review of programmes designed to improve cognitive and metacognitive skills, report the benefits of coaching children in rehearsal strategies, where they did not spontaneously invoke them, as a means of improving performance, although transfer of strategies utilised in these exercises was not evidenced in later presentations of skills. There is clearly a failure here to implement improvement in the metacognition of these individuals which would have provided them with the necessary transfer skills to address alternative tasks. It appears to have been generally the case that the instructional approaches to learning, whilst achieving relative success in isolation, have in the main failed to generate genuinely transferable skills. It is this more generalisable skill which we wish to achieve in the present study. McCrindle & Christensen (1995) do report that there has been success in achieving improved learning which is not domain specific where programmes have been targeted towards the enhancement of metacognitive skills. 

 

A number of approaches aimed towards the development of cognitive and metacognitive skills in children are succinctly outlined by Blagg (1991). Blagg cites a number of models, contrasting them with his detailed analysis of Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment programme. The importance of learners becoming aware of their own individual thought processes, and gaining insights into the strategies which they utilise to resolve problems or overcome difficulties, is once again highlighted in Blagg's text. The immense value of acquiring this ability to superimpose an analytical function onto the cognitive processes which are undertaken in the learning process allows the individuals to transfer their skills into new hitherto unexplored areas of learning. Annett (1989) makes this very firm connection between transfer skill and metacognition. The cognitive skills development programmes themselves vary in the degree to which they integrate with the normal curriculum material and they each owe something to the basic belief systems of their initiators. Blagg (1991) for instance describes de Bono's CoRT system as one which places a great emphasis on pupils becoming more efficient in particular strategies and techniques. This type of approach, where the main focus is upon organisational skills, seems an appropriate basis for development of what he describes as 'lateral thinking'. Here the available data in any given problem situation is re-arranged so as to provide alternative non-standard viewpoints on it, in the belief that this re-structuring of the problem will lead to insights which might generate potential solutions. Its strength is perhaps that it draws upon everyday practical problems.

 

It has not however, according to Hunter-Grundin (1985) been shown to have resulted in generalised cognitive benefits in primary age children. Contrary to the aims of this present study, and other cognitive development styles, Blagg (1991) also reports that there is little opportunity for pupils to take responsibility for their own learning and that it depends substantially on rote learning of the techniques rather than an exploratory approach which has been favoured by other researchers. A completely different approach to the one detailed above is described, again by Blagg (1991), with regard to that initiated by Lipman through his 'Philosophy for Children' programme. Here the approach is Socratean, thinking about thinking and reasoning. Instead of the structured, practical approach recommended by de Bono, the Lipman programme uses children’s' novels to illustrate a philosophical framework of reflection leading to the development of more successful reasoning processes.

 

The system appears to be largely discussion based, with the consequent heavy dependence on language skills which may in the present study present some difficulties. Blagg (1991) further comments that it appears to be targeted towards children who have in any event a reasonable level of cognitive skills, in contrast to Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment programme which has been applied to a wide range of ability and age groups (Blagg 1988).

 

The third procedure described is Sternberg's 'Componential training programme'. As its name suggests it is a highly modular programme which its author asserts as a means of enhancing intellectual development through improvements in either lower or higher order information processing components. Blagg (1991) reports that Sternberg's method is closely linked to psychological theory. The modular activities comprise real life examples of problem based development in cognitive skills which are then followed up by naturalistic or abstract examples, enabling the students to apply the skills they have developed in other contexts. As a system of cognitive development it appears on the surface to have some merit. However, we are not here concerned with the process of developing mechanistic cognitive skills, rather with the awareness, monitoring and eventual control of these processes through the higher order capacity to apply metacognitive skills.

 

The principal focus of Blagg's (1991) text is the Intellectual Enrichment process developed by Feuerstein. This kind of approach where learning is mediated by the presence, intervention or situational control by adults, either as parents, teachers or significant others, appears to present a more comfortable fit with the needs of the present study. It is considered important that any work towards enhancement of metacognitive skills must be considered as an integral part of normal subject teaching within the framework of the national curriculum. This supportive model of learning, where pupils are guided towards the development of internal models of the world, incorporating in a meaningful way many disparate aspects of experience (Blagg 1991), would seem to be a suitable framework from which to draw key concepts for the present work.

 

Later analyses of the results of Feuerstein's work have failed to produce statistically significant evidence that his methods are successful, but there appear to be trends of improvement in many areas of learning and behaviours in the reports of teachers who carried out the work. The increasing inflexibility of the curriculum, with its largely knowledge based content, mitigates against both the actual transfer of skills and the ability of the teacher to discern those areas where transfers are effected (Rutherford 1989). The process of bridging, a generalisation of what has been learned to other areas of the child's experience, is conditional on the individual teacher's knowledge of the other areas of the child's life and their own interpretation of the lesson content (Rutherford 1989). The evaluation process becomes then, as is the case in the present study, a subjective, almost anecdotal, record of progress against loosely specified targets. Feuerstein attested that low attainment was primarily caused by a lack of adequate mediation, in this context external adult mediation rather than the Piagetian internal model, and that to be successful the teacher must be an effective mediator. He felt that intellectual development was crucially effected by the mediated learning experiences described above. The adult intervention is crucial in the subtle management of the environment, embellishing, interpreting and emphasising the important aspects which will go forward to developing the cognitive models which the child builds up. This supportive framework of learning echoes the model outlined by Vygotsky and described above. The scaffolding technique, perceiving, reaching across and helping to bridge the gulf between the child's actual and potential level of development, seems to embody many of the aspirations of the Feuerstein technique for cognitive development. The approach also has at its core the feedback cycle which facilitates the development of just the higher order metacognitive skills described above.

 

If the present study is to meet with success it will be through the development of links between the ideas of Feuerstein and Blagg, a sustained effort to initiate mediated learning, and the teaching of the conventional National Curriculum materials. Whilst Blagg's (1988) STSC materials will be used as a specific stimulus for the development of metacognitive skills, there will be attempts to find ways to foster development of these same skills through the rather more prescriptive materials of the National Curriculum and National Literacy Project.

 

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National curriculum links

National curriculum links

 

It has been argued (e.g. Woods 1995) that the strictures of the National Curriculum repress the creative processes in teaching and learning and in fact inhibit the development of these key skills. The prescriptive nature of the National Curriculum is bound up with its knowledge based, content driven approach and this may work against the development of more reflective thinking skills which could facilitate a deeper reasoned understanding of the material. A further incursion into control of teaching, the 'how' as well as the 'what', has begun to emerge as the National Literacy Project (NLP) which is being unrolled across the country, and which has been part of the backdrop of the present study in a school which is piloting the scheme. Unlike the NC which merely presents a set of prescribed outcomes for each subject, the NLP represents a detailed incursion into the teaching style as well a formalised, incremental programme of teaching which must be directed towards each year group in order to promote the development of a comprehensive set of skills.

 

Superficially the scheme presents a detailed curriculum map of material to be taught in specific sequences, using specific types of stimulus material, to a highly structured lesson timetable. It appears to be, in the model of the national Curriculum, highly knowledge based with little if any flexibility for those undertaking its implementation. The scheme does however appear to contain some opportunities for modelling and practise of reflective thinking within its structure. The progress of each lesson is constrained by a highly formalised timetable which dictates that the first period is to be a whole class shared reading/writing experience of about 15 minutes at text level. Then follows a similar period of word/sentence work, again with the whole class using a shared text. The third period is devoted to individual work by most of the class at word or sentence level, whilst one group remain with the teacher in a group reading or writing task. The final portion of the hour long session is devoted to a whole class plenary where teaching points are reviewed, reflected upon and reinforced by the teacher (DFEE 1998).

 

There are indeed opportunities during much of this hour to draw on the reflective thinking of the children in relation to the shared material which is the focus of the lesson. At first glance it would appear that reflective thinking could be stimulated by the teacher during all but the independent phase of the working hour where the teacher is engaged with a small group and is unavailable to the rest of the class as mediator. This premature conclusion would though presuppose that the children had the skills and the will to exploit them in the situations outlined. It is clear from the present study that children who do not have these incipient or developed reflective thinking skills, and in particular those lower ability children where low self esteem might be an issue, do not have the capacity to participate wholeheartedly in the whole class aspects of the hour.

 

The plenary, where it might be expected that peer support would encourage leaning, in fact works to the detriment of the children in this group. The process of learning, and cognitive development, in this type of environment depends upon the sharing of insights. The sharing of these insights through whole class discussions should result in the development of an ability to construct powerful strategies for successful problem solving (Sylva 1997), since the successes and difficulties of individuals within the group can be shared as learning points. The difficulties in expressing failure in this group are almost insurmountable and their reluctance to express publicly any opinion on their work reflects the dire state of their self esteem. This session to them must seem an almost inconceivable torture.

 

Where there is some scope for development, even with this very difficult group of children, is within the small segment of guided reading or writing, where the threats to self esteem are much reduced by the size and composition of the group of which they form part. Indeed every aspect of this particular stage of the process seems to lend itself towards the successful implementation of teaching and learning with children of this type. It is perhaps unfortunate that the span of time within the framework of the NLP which is suitable for the children we have pictured here is infinitesimally small in terms of their real needs.

 

In practice then, in the circumstance of the group in question, the structure may in fact be a too rigid vehicle for the implementation of the supposed improvements in literacy, or for the implementation and development of reflective thought. Much of the activity in the model is teacher directed, which has been the staple diet of this group, or unsupported, unmediated individual work, which they find unrewarding and tedious. Under these conditions it is hard to project any meaningful development in reflective thinking since the opportunities for gaining any real insights by individuals in a group of this type are likely to be inhibited by the lack of either peer or adult mediation. The system in effect precludes any feedback from more expert peers or adults, feedback loops being according to Colley & Beech (1989) one of the organising principles characterising development. Gibbs et al. (1994) confirm that the need for feedback to improve is a fundamental part of skill learning. More specific to this project they say that practise without feedback can be almost totally ineffective.

 

Again in particular relation to this group Elawar & Corno (1985) state that low ability students benefit from feedback tailored to their individual needs. This is totally contrary to the way the NLP teaching hour is organised since direct, individualised feedback is absent from all but the small guided reading element of the hour. Galton (1998 in press) cites the reduction in the amount of immediate feedback and monitoring which pupils receive whilst writing and concludes that the National curriculum has reduced the amount of time teachers can devote to developing children’s' literacy. Indeed the very structure of the groups, with individuals classified by ability, is perhaps the greatest inhibitor of peer mediation which could be imposed, and only serves to exacerbate the lack of adult intervention. The plenary session might in another group provide excellent opportunities for the sharing of insights and reflection on the tasks performed. This again presupposes a level of confidence not evident in these children. Even the more able, accustomed to the caustic responses of those less well prepared, showed an unwillingness to participate at an appropriate level. The general group attitude, as has been previously described, tended in such a sensitive body, to promote its satisfaction merely that the task had been completed and thoughts of it were forever cast aside. Reflection in a wide ability group such as this is merely a painful reminder that real success is outside of the experience of many of the individuals. In addition to these difficulties there is also, in the whole class sessions which form the overwhelming majority of the planned lessons, a considerable amount of what Galton (1998 in press) describes as 'easy riding', that is to say children who are largely or totally non-participants in the activity.

 

We are reduced then to utilising a small 15/20 minute block once a week per child to developing in these children an awareness of, and control over, some of their higher mental processes as a means of extending understanding in this fundamentally important part of the curriculum. Tiny as it is there can be no doubt that this is the one element of the prescribed methodology which can and does benefit the less able and less confident children. Their response to this element, with the intensive support and attention of a teacher, in a group of similar ability children, and with a much reduced risk of encountering hostility or derision, proved to be a positive reminder that development is possible given the most favourable of circumstances. There is little doubt that fluent readers evidence a greater level of development in higher order thinking skills (Short & Ryan 1984), metacognition, than do poorer readers who, lacking these strategic skills focus instead on lower level activities such as decoding text. With this intensive level of support however, even the poorest can demonstrate surprising levels of insight and reflection.

 

In the context of the present study where many of the children have poor academic records and lower than average reading ability, it is this type of guidance which is crucial to the development of the strategic skills and motivational factors which they will need to employ their mental skills in the wider curriculum and beyond (Gaskins 1994). Like Woods (1995) Gaskins emphasises the need for students to have strategies for learning, with an understanding of how to locate and think about information, rather than merely targeting what she refers to as the 'static' subject matter of the curriculum (Gaskins 1994). These children have clearly focused for many years on this static material, to the detriment of the more flexible thinking style advocated by Gaskins. Whether this is a consequence of their own innate difficulties with literacy, social factors impacting on their levels of self esteem, or indeed the considerable and frequent changes in both material and approach towards teaching the National curriculum which they had endured throughout their school lives will never be determined.

 

Having said all that, the small component of guided reading provides an exceptional opportunity to provide the highest quality guidance for reflection in what is perhaps the least threatening context for this group of children. Grouped as they are by ability, they face only a low level threat from their colleagues who are as uncertain and poorly skilled as they are. They do not have to expose their inadequacy before the more able and they have a teacher to pupil ratio which is likely to be able to provide them with generous, immediate positive support as well as instruction and guidance. In short then, this seems to provide the best context for developing the kind of reflective thinking in relation to a piece of text that is ever likely to arise. Even this more favourable construct relies, for the least able students at any rate, on peer interaction with those of similar low ability. Jones (1998) describes cognitive growth as a consequence of conflict and conflict resolution resulting from interactions with peers. These particular individuals have first to overcome their perception of threat from others which undermines their essential confidence to challenge or contribute openly. In defence of their own fragile self image there is a tendency to behave and respond aggressively towards the ideas of others and this severely inhibits participation levels even in this close grouping structure. Teacher mediation, including direct and positive feedback and modelling of strategies and approaches, is of course available and it is possible over time to support some development in the required areas. In the small group situation it is of course somewhat easier for the teacher to monitor and control behaviour and learning patterns so there is, even in the worst cases some improvement in progress and some experience of learning from peers through the sharing of ideas.

 

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Planned intervention strategies

Planned intervention strategies      

 

In the continuum of achievement performance amongst children in a school environment, there are clearly differences in approach strategies which are rooted in the degree to which metacognitive skill is developed in the individual child (Cardelle-Elawar 1992). Whilst low achieving children demonstrate no clearly thought out strategy to resolve problems, others are able to show well developed metacognitive skills, and their performance in problem solving tasks is more successful. In the haphazard approach (Fisher 1990) which exemplifies the low achievers, there is no evidence of the meticulous attention to building a structured approach, utilising previous experience as a mechanism to organise and develop solutions.

 

In short these children have not, during their previous learning experiences, learnt how to structure their ideas and general thinking in order to avoid previous mistakes and develop a rational approach to novel situations. The group under discussion typify this unplanned approach, described by Fisher (1990), where past experiences are cast aside and forgotten and each and every new problem is treated in isolation of any past experience with an impulsivity or passivity which defies logic.

 

Fredrickson (1993) similarly comments that random searches for solutions are unlikely to result in successful outcomes in the majority of cases. Rather the responses tend to be impulsive, having no regard for experience and evidencing no attempt to plan an approach which might lead to a successful outcome. By contrast the more successful problem solvers have learnt to structure their ideas, learn from their mistakes and act in a more controlled rational fashion when presented with what appears to be a novel problem situation.

 

The key to the development of these strategies for success lies in the building of metacognitive skills which will underlie the individual's ability to formulate systematic strategies during the process of the problem solving exercise. Further these skills will provide the basis for the process of reflection and evaluation of the progress of their solution generation, and more importantly, on their own thinking process during the exercise (Cardelle-Elawar 1992). This ability to reflect on internal thought processes provides an important opportunity to allow critical analysis to be effected upon the thinking which is undertaken during the solution generation, providing the individual with a capacity to consider and test alternatives in a very structured, controlled manner. As Ashman & Conway (1993) report, there is a critical need for the students to be actively involved in the process of learning and the focus of the study will emphasise the need for students to take responsibility for their own learning. Following the model of scaffolding described earlier, the children will be offered a support mechanism but the responsibility for learning will remain with them.

 

It seems clear then that in order to foster improvements in children’s' solution generation and general approach strategies, when they are faced with tasks containing or comprising novel material, there is a need to develop their thinking skills in a structured way. In simple terms they need to be guided towards approach strategies which encourage them first of all to interpret information which is presented to them, providing them with an awareness of the characteristics of the task which is offered. This initial understanding and subsequent steps will be monitored through a technique of self-questioning, where the individual will develop a fuller understanding of the material. Finally in the solution generation stage, the individual will generate potential solutions and carry out a similar monitoring procedure on each in order to assess the relative merits of each before proceeding to implement the most plausible solution.

 

The instruction in metacognitive techniques will be based on the activities and processes as opposed to outcomes at this stage. That is to say, children will during the study period be encouraged to become aware of their own learning strategies in order that they might develop the more successful ones and begin to implement them in a wider context. They will be guided towards gaining an awareness of their own thinking processes and the skills and knowledge which they have acquired, and encouraged to think of this as a resource which they can employ actively in the resolution of tasks which are presented to them in the course of normal curriculum teaching. Elawar & Corno (1985) report that the use of individually tailored feedback, as a means of developing metacognitive skills, can be successful even with low ability students. This might involve discussion of errors in order to obviate or reduce recurrence of similar mistakes, and/or guidance towards more successful strategies of solution generation.

 

What is generally envisaged is a system of scaffolded support which it is hoped will improve direct task performance and, with adequate feedback opportunities, provide guidance on the incorporation of strategies for task performance which have a transfer value. That is to say, the focus will be more directly on how to learn rather than what to learn, on the approaches and strategic routes to success rather than on the expected outcome. It is however recognised here that the brevity of the programme, and the high incidence of low attainment in the group concerned, make it unlikely that significant improvements will be achieved by the programme outlined. This conclusion is underscored by Rutherford (1989) who questions whether it is reasonable to expect changes in cognitive performance in curriculum materials emanating from the implementation of the Instrumental Enrichment programme over a two year period.

 

The present study is cast over only a few short weeks and it would be unrealistic to expect, and exceptionally difficult to measure, changes in performance in curriculum areas. Rutherford (1989) further states that the assessment of change in relation to the Instrumental Enrichment tasks is almost impossible. Similar constraints may be evidenced with regard to the STSC materials used in the present study. Subjective evidence from the learning books and the children’s' responses to the STSC material will however be presented as a means of illustrating the perceived progress of the children through the programme.

 

Fisher (1992) reports that many children do find it difficult to distinguish between what they know and what they don't know. There is clearly implied here a lack of metacognitive skill in the inability to focus objectively on the individual's own skill and knowledge base. He directs our attention towards the notion that the uncritical mind tends to see things in black and white, in the context of this study as being all right or all wrong. Beliefs are held as extreme opposites rather than as points on a continuum. Again he cites the problem that children with learning difficulties are apt to lack adequate planning behaviour, a particular problem with the group in present focus. There is clearly a need to provide adult mediation targeted towards providing a model of considered planning as a basis for approaching any new task, with an emphasis on the need to visualize possible outcomes prior to actually executing them in a more self-controlled manner than has previously been employed.

 

With regard to the means of achieving the stated objectives, the model approach which would appear to be most appropriate is considered to be that adopted by Swan & White (1994). In an attempt to generate just the type of reflective thinking which is sought by the present writer the authors used a device referred to as 'the thinking book' which was used as a conversation medium between teacher and student. Each child was issued with a book in which they were encouraged to record observations of what they had learned on each particular day. The notes were read by the teacher and appropriate responses were written in a way which might facilitate and foster a more reflective mode of thought in the child regarding the learning. It should be emphasised that what was sought and encouraged through the conversational tool of the book was not evidence of the process which they had undertaken during the lesson, rather it was concerned with the acquisition of knowledge or skill which had resulted from completing the exercise. The children were then encouraged to reflect on their learning rather than report directly on the mechanics of what they had actually done.

 

The attempt then was to focus the attention of the children on the thinking skills which had been employed in the task rather than on the physical actions which were involved in doing it. The role of the teacher in this development programme was to direct or focus the thinking skills of each child by inserting comments or questions in the thinking books which would stimulate or re-direct new thinking in the child. The aim was to provide the child, through this private conversation, with a means to re-appraise the learning which had been achieved and hopefully stimulate further reflective thinking which might in time occur with a greater degree of spontaneity when they were undertaking task resolutions in other contexts. The use of learning journals and their success in promoting reflective writing, leading to the development of metacognitive skills, is supported by McCrindle & Christensen (1995) who refer to research findings which indicate that journals of this type are likely to increase metacognition through students becoming aware of their own thought processes as well as through their management of the processes. As Donaldson (1978) candidly points out, if the child is to gain control of its thinking processes, it must first become aware of them. It is difficult to see how it could be otherwise.

 

The difficulty envisaged in the employment of this type of intervention is principally that the child may begin to perceive the interaction process which the book represents simply as a means of supplying the response desired by their teacher. That is to say, the thinking book may be perceived by the child as a task in itself, set by the teacher with defined parameters of operation. As the conversation in the book develops then the child may become attuned to the outcomes desired by the teacher and simply respond to those in a mechanistic fashion with no real change in thinking style. The measure of success, that is the increase in reflective thinking, may in fact then only be a response to the explicit stimulus imposed in the design by the teacher.

 

There is then in the mind of the writer a possible flaw in the methodology of this trial which may distort any measure of change in the thinking style of the children involved. To some extent this is seen to centre on the privacy of this conversation between teacher and child. The relationship here is exclusively one to one and it is perhaps this aspect of the model which will most contribute to the shaping of the child's responses towards those 'desired' by the teacher, i.e. there is no external, objective view of the proceedings. Additionally, there is no sharing of this reflective thought with other individuals in the class group.

 

This latter point regarding the exclusivity of the exchange is at odds with the view that cognitive development is a process which takes place in social, co-operative environment (e.g. Brown et al. 1983, Meadows 1986, Hardman & Beverton 1995). It is proposed therefore that a similar but not identical procedure will be employed by the writer in the current study. The thinking books do seem to have been a useful tool in the Swan & White (1994) study and they will be employed herein with one procedural change. In this present study the books will be used much as before, but rather than forming a confidential link between teacher and child, they will be a rather more public document, a shared resource of the class.

 

Whilst it is clear that this may inhibit some of the children when they are called upon to put their thoughts down on paper, it is to be hoped that those able to record their thinking styles in relation to common tasks will provide both encouragement and support to those less confident. The dialogue between teacher and child will be conducted on similar principles to the Swan & White (1994) format but the perceived advantage of this opening up of the record of the conversation will be to share the more highly developed thinking skills and strategies with the whole group in order to foster a more widespread, and rapid development of those key skills in the group as a whole. The key questions must be targeted towards obtaining an analysis of what each child learned, what they found easy or difficult about the tasks and how they could improve their performance in subsequent learning experiences. Teacher responses might be aimed at indicating rather more successful approaches, questioning what might have resulted from particular approaches for example.

 

As has been intimated above, profound changes in learning or other behaviours are not anticipated during the course of this short programme. The children represent for the most part the lower ability stream of their cohort and are the most under-developed in terms of curriculum materials and broader thinking styles. Their relatively low levels of attainment have led many to resist compliance with the demands of the curriculum, particularly with regard to the production of written output. Their defensive strategies would suggest that they have little faith in their own abilities and, having failed to achieve the levels of learning of their peers in other classes, they have come to regard full and free participation in discussion and more open-ended tasks as a direct threat. Hargreaves (1982) describes the consequences of such continual failure as leading to a downward spiral of under-achievement which destroys the dignity of the pupils, resulting in their feeling increasingly inferior, unable and powerless. It is hardly surprising then, if they feel like this, that they do not wish to take risks, and faced with major changes in curriculum materials and approaches, and here the STSC and other materials, there may be considerable resistance to more than a superficial participation.

 

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Subjects, procedures, materials

Subjects

 

The subjects involved in the study were a group of 23 10/11 year old children forming one of two Year 6 class in a small junior school in An East Midlands City. The school is in a relatively socially deprived area of an East Midlands City with a catchment drawn largely from local authority housing stock, high unemployment amongst parents and, to give an indication of financial status, 60-70% allocation of free school dinners granted in the school. The area has been the focus of at least two studies in recent years focusing on low and apparently declining literacy standards both in and beyond school, which in themselves reflect a negative attitude towards literacy, and perhaps education in general, in both children and significant numbers of parents. The study was carried out during the Spring and Summer terms of 1998, during which period the children were involved in preparation for, and completion of, their annual standard assessment tests. Further to this the school was subject to OFSTED inspection during the Summer term, and had been taken under the direct management of the LEA at the end of the Spring term. These additional factors should perhaps be taken into full account in consideration of the general attitude and response towards change to which the children were subjected, bearing in mind that they would be leaving the school at the end of the Summer term to go to their senior schools.

 

The group represents the lower stream of year 6 children, most, but not all, assigned to the class for support with learning difficulties and/or emotional and behavioural difficulties. An awareness of the relative ability level in the class is given by their average reading age on entry of 8.6 years, against their chronological age of 10.3 years. A significant proportion of the children in the class, rather more than 60 percent,  were registered by the school as having special educational needs of some type, the majority of these learning difficulties being centred on the poor standards of literacy evidenced by the individuals concerned.

 

General attitudes towards school were perceived to be negative, reflecting their experiences to date and poor records of success, and actual attendance levels were lower than average for the school, which in overall terms was achieving a lower than acceptable level of attendance. At the end of the year, and the study, the teacher assessed National Curriculum levels of the children were markedly below national averages, a conclusion confirmed by results of Standard

 

Assessment Test results.

 

As is frequently the case with lower ability children levels of self esteem, although not measured here, are likely to be significantly lower than the peer group average, and motivation levels similarly will be lower than might otherwise be expected (e.g. Coopersmith 1967). Attitudes towards learning, and school in general, were markedly low and general levels of motivation towards school work were similarly low. Much of the working practice to which they had become accustomed in their school learning was aimed towards development of their basic skills in literacy and numeracy through routine completion of closed tasks. Their background in learning had not included the type of open reflective style of thinking which would be required to interact either with the materials used purely as intervention stimuli, or with some of the methodologies used in the new national literacy scheme which was being piloted in the school during this period.

 

Procedure

 

It must be recognised at the outset of this section that the short time scales involved in the study will mitigate any meaningful conclusion relating to changes in the observed behaviours of the subject group regarding development of thinking skills. It is too implicitly accepted that observations will form for the most part a commentary against the background of broader research material which is cited throughout this piece. Examples of the responses of the children to both the normal curriculum work and the thinking skills material will be reproduced as direct illustrations of their thinking styles. The observations, and the written outputs of the children in response to the various interventions, cannot and will not be formally assessed and measured as they do not represent a sufficiently significant body of evidence upon which to draw firm conclusions. They will therefore be referred to throughout the study as a reference towards maintaining some cohesion with published material and as a general link to the focus of the study which is an appraisal of the relative gains in the quality of thinking which purposive training programmes such as those described may be said to engender.

 

The study commences with the introduction of the learning books (the name adopted for the 'thinking books' model of Swan & White 1994). Following the style of Swan & White (1994), they were to be the main instrument of recording of the pupils' progress in the development of reflective thinking. It was to be expected, as with the model study, that there would be some uncertainty and confusion amongst the children as to what was expected of them in completion of the books. Strenuous efforts were therefore made to familiarise pupils with the need to separate, in their thinking and writing in the books, the process elements of their work from the product.

 

One of the difficulties in the population chosen was that their concept of schoolwork centred wholly on the product aspect of the work and mere completion of a set piece was for many of them equivalent to success, regardless of quality of the actual outcome. It represents perhaps a confusion in the minds of the children as to what is required, in other words, what goal are they really trying to satisfy. With this particular group it appears to be a straightforward desire for teacher approval, rather than the production of a well thought out piece of work. In this they are perhaps attempting to second guess what the teacher expects, and working to this target, rather than focusing on placing their thinking skills wholeheartedly into the task with a regard to producing a satisfying outcome. Their fragile self-images may be too precious to risk in is way since the threat of failure can so easily crush the little hope they have of success.

 

This is perhaps one of the inevitable consequences of a curriculum and education system which, as been intimated, tends to measure success solely in terms of product and competition. Indeed their low levels of self esteem led many to almost disregard the quality of the product and focus their attention not on the task completed but on the next one. Reference to the quality of completed tasks was for many too harsh a judgement resulting in violent expressions of anger and general inappropriate behaviours.

 

At the outset it was envisaged that the children would contribute some comments each day so that their confidence and ability to reflect would gradually increase over the period of the study. When the books were initially introduced there was therefore a sustained effort on the part of the writer to instil a positive sense of purpose to the completion of these record books and an attempt to create in the children a desire to express themselves in what was to be ostensibly a confidential exchange of views with their teacher. Pupils were asked to think carefully about the variety of material covered during the day and instructed to write about something which they felt they had learned over the period. In general they showed a keen interest in the concept of writing about their school work and many were anxious to commence immediately to record their thoughts.

 

During a discussion concerning the purpose of the books it was made clear that it was the learning, not merely the process through which the learning had taken place which was to be the subject of the writing. In other words the book would be a record of their reflections on the day's learning rather than a diary of what they had done. The response of the children at that point, and indeed throughout the study, emerged as an almost entirely superficial one. Their perception of the purpose of the learning books was clearly not then, or later, understood in the context of reflective thinking. Whilst they were enthusiastic about the prospect of recording their views in a special book, they showed little if any evidence during the short period of the study of being able to reflect in a deeper sense on the activities they had taken part in during the day.

 

It was clear from the outset that the group of children in question were representative of the type referred to by Fisher (1990) as evidencing a haphazard style of approach to novel or unexpected situations. These children present almost entirely as impulsive in their approach and do not evidence the reflective style which would demonstrate the development and use of metacognitive skills of the type under discussion. The group of children in question was comprised of a rather unusual mixture of mostly low ability, low self esteem children with a high proportion of individuals who had evidenced emotional and behavioural difficulties over a number of years. Their general attitude towards schoolwork was unusually negative and it was particularly notable that their interest in completed work was minimal. They tended therefore to become rapidly disengaged from tasks once completed, a tendency perhaps reflecting their low levels of self esteem, retaining interest for only very short periods immediately following task completion if recognition for effort or success were to be granted instantly. Indeed rapid mechanical task completion appeared to be for many children the desired end, rather than the learning content of the task. In the absence of instant gratification the task would be cast aside as if irrelevant.

 

In the light of this observed behaviour it is perhaps not surprising that they had little to offer in the way of reflective thought at the end of the day concerning the learning which they had achieved as a result of their efforts. The initial responses, whilst entered into with some enthusiasm, served only to confirm these observations. Some examples of the typical type of response level are detailed elsewhere in the text. There is more than a passing similarity here with the responses noted by Swan & White (1994) at the commencement of their study but the response level is if anything even more a mechanical iteration of the process undertaken rather than the learning achieved. Thus the typical response to the task of noting what had been learned during the day would be something like "we did maths it was easy", or "we did literacy hour I did loads of work". In these initial responses there is no evidence of reflection at all and precious little information pertaining to what the children had even undertaken at a process level. In view of Swan & White's (1994) experience this was no more or less than was to be expected since this was to be a relatively new experience to which the children might take time to adjust. However, unlike the aforementioned study, there was to be little or no growth in the level of reflective thought noted in the learning books over the period. Indeed the children’s' attitude towards the exercise, in stark contrast to the positive responses noted by Swan and White (1994), became ever more negative.

 

Far from being an opportunity to reflect on and record their thoughts about the day's learning, the books were perceived by many children in the group as yet another challenge to their thinking skills, and perhaps another threat to their self esteem. The typical response to this challenge, bearing in mind that this class contained a large number of what were effectively disaffected pupils, was overtly negative. Sometimes this would be represented by an outright refusal to write in the book, sometimes children would write only the date, with no comment. On occasion verbal abuse or, more rarely, physical violence, would result in an effort to avoid the writing task.

 

Bearing in mind Fisher's (1990) description of this haphazard style as typifying the approach of underachieving individuals who have poorly developed metacognitive skills it is perhaps hardly surprising that the class contains a disproportionately high number of children who have been identified as having learning difficulties, even measured against relatively low attainment levels in the school as a whole. The general inability of the individual members of the class to reflect, indeed their marked reluctance to enter into the process of considering such a practice, may be, if Fisher's (1990) suggestion is correct, a considerable barrier to their progress, and a significant contributory factor in their background of academic failure to date. The learning books became then less and less useful as the study progressed, and rather than evidencing a development of higher order thinking skills, they show a stark record of a group of children who have no wish, or who lack the skills to express, their closest thoughts in regard to the work offered to them during the school day. As the study moved on the children became ever more reluctant to complete the books and the comments showed no degree of change from the stark records at the outset of what subject matter they had covered. The overtly negative responses grew sufficiently through the period to force the writer to reduce the frequency of completion of the records so that whilst at the outset they were completed daily, by the end of the study the children were completing them only two or three times a week at most. Even this low level of completion was only achieved through a high level of persuasion by the writer. It should perhaps be noted that this level of task rejection was not apparent in relation to normal curriculum tasks.

 

At the commencement of the study it was envisaged that the implementation of this use of the learning books would extend beyond that outlined by Swan & White (1994). The implementation would differ in as much that the content of individual books would be much more broadcast as a whole class exercise as a means of extending reflective thinking skills throughout the group by promoting and evidencing the reflective thinking of some of the more developed individuals. This sharing of the reflections of some children amongst the wider audience was envisaged to be a positive means of guiding the less developed towards the style of thinking which would lead them perhaps to an awareness of their own thoughts on what they had learned and achieved, and to raise the profile of their thought processes towards future tasks. The increasingly negative attitude towards the books, and the lack of any individual who could be said to have evidenced the type of reflective thinking sought, served to negate this aspect of the programme. Throughout the period of the study, there was no individual who provided any coherent record of reflective thought through this medium.

 

The study was not however confined to this one intervention and there were somewhat better responses to other strategies employed over this period. During the period of the study the children were in any event being exposed to new curriculum approaches through the implementation of a pilot scheme for the National Literacy Project (NLP) (DFEE 1998). This in itself resulted in a degree of exposure to the style of reflective thinking which is a constituent part of the teaching of English under this regime. Whilst the NLP formed the main focus of the NC element of the study, the methodology of the NLP, in particular its reflective approach in the plenary session, was utilised in many other areas of the NC throughout the period.

 

In addition to this curriculum based intervention, the group were also exposed to materials drawn from the Somerset Thinking Skills course (STSC) (Blagg et al. 1988). Given the short period of time available it was necessary to focus on a small sector of the material in the STSC and since the children were generally poorly skilled in the area of problem solving it was resolved that the main focus for attention would be through Module 2 of the course which is concerned with analysis and synthesis of data, with additional material being used from Module 4, Positions in Time and Space.

The materials from the STSC proved useful tools in modelling some of the analytical skills which are a precursor for successful problem solving, and in a longer time span these might in themselves have helped to initiate the development which was being sought. Pupils' responses to these tasks were on the whole favourable, perhaps in part due to the novel nature of the tasks, although a more significant factor may be the clear definition at the outset that these were very open ended tasks which had no right or wrong answer, thereby reducing any threat to self esteem which might otherwise exist.

 

Despite this positive response it would be foolish to ignore the findings of McCrindle & Christensen (1995) and deny that the STSC materials appear to be so isolated from the structured, stratified, National Curriculum (N.C.), that any skills or strategies obtained may not necessarily transfer to the desired areas of work. Gibbs et al. (1994) are even more specific in their view that there is little evidence that these kind of 'transferable' problem solving skills will in fact transfer to new situations. They make the explicit point that merely tacking on this type of skill training to normal curriculum material will not necessarily result in the development of genuinely transferable strategic thinking skills.

 

Having made the point about the ambiguity of the benefits in transferable skills which might be forthcoming from such a scheme as the STSC, it seemed  worthwhile to expose the children to this type of open-ended style of task for a number of reasons. As has been previously stated this group of children, largely by reason of their record of poor behaviour, had been the recipients of an education largely based on closed, well-defined, often verbal tasks which they could complete to a more or less satisfactory level and then forget. The tasks which make up the material body of the STSC are generally, though not always, open-ended, often non-verbal and frequently with no defined completion target. regardless of whether any skills developed in the completion of the tasks, there seemed to be some considerable merit in exposing the children to this type of task as a means of developing in the children general approach, reasoning and reflection skills which they either did not possess, or could not apply to their normal work.

 

An additional factor in the general beneficial role which the STSC materials might confer was that of peer mediation in the task completion. The tasks were completed by heterogeneous groups, not determined by ability as with the NLP, but by free choice, usually resulting in the formation of mixed ability groups containing both boys and girls. Learning was then in this instance perceived as a much more collaborative affair, which in itself might be expected to impose a positive influence on cognitive development (Dixon-Krauss 1996). The non-verbal, pictorial nature of much of the stimulus material used had the effect of raising the contribution level of some of the poorer readers and generated a markedly greater level of peer support than might otherwise have been noted. There were then perceived to be developmental benefits to the injection of these extraneous materials into the timetable of NC work despite the previously stated widespread doubts over the likelihood that any of the skills promoted will indeed transfer to the desired areas of normal everyday school lessons.

 

That is not to say that the materials were not of use in the study and can be dismissed as an irrelevant side issue. These children at present show no evidence of higher order, reflective thought in any aspect of their work. In the view of the writer it remains a valid aim to develop these skills by any reasonable means available in order to raise the general level of cognitive strategies in the children, regardless of whether they are applied to N.C. work. The STSC materials were therefore implemented as an occasional intervention alongside the daily routine materials of the National Literacy Project.

 

As has been described above, the methodology of the scheme requires that for much of the set hour the children are required to work as individuals with no adult support. In the context of the Vygotskyan model of learning through scaffolding there is an obvious difficulty here in that the adult mediator is missing during a critical period of learning. Whilst it is true that the mediator is technically available during the first periods of the session, it is difficult to sustain the notion that the considerable numbers of less able children in this group would be assisted in any significant degree by a teacher who is leading a whole class group with such a wide range of abilities. In light of the low levels of self esteem which characterise many of the low achievers it would be unreasonable to suppose that they would interject willingly or even under pressure in a whole class situation where the teaching materials are to them pitched at too high a level to facilitate secure comprehension.

 

The NLP model then fell well short of its full potential in developing the skills in this group, but its one powerful tool, the guided reading or writing element, proved to be an effective means of developing not only the literacy skills towards which it was explicitly targeted, but also to a degree the more reflective thinking skills which form the focus of this study. Whilst there is a degree of flexibility in the management of this element of the programme, it is generally accepted to be a period of some 20 minutes when one small group of children has the benefit of the teacher as mediator to develop a reflective approach towards the reading of a common text.

 

The children each have a copy of the common text and reading may be organised so that they read quietly or aloud as individuals, or perhaps in the case of groups of less able children they may read aloud as a group. The approach to their reading is structured by the teacher who may require the children to read a section of the book with a predetermined and stated aim of gaining certain explicit or implicit information or understanding of the material. Alternatively there may be a period of reading followed by a questioning by the teacher concerning the material read in order to promote reflective thought in relation to the text. In this short period then the children have the full benefit of a mediator to promote higher order reasoning and reflection in relation to a text, in a small group, membership of which is dictated by ability, thus removing, or at least minimising the effects of poor ability on self esteem in group interactions. Thus for a short period within each week each of these mostly low ability students are able to benefit from a focused, individualised feedback session tailored to their needs. It should be said that this somewhat idealised situation exists for each group once a week, representing for each of these children a period of 15 minutes per week, or around 10 hours of the school year. Useful as it is, the absolute limits on the time allocated to it will determine its overall effectiveness.

 

Materials

 

The study has, as has been previously described, two main bodies of intervention material. These are respectively those materials consistent with the teaching of the National Curriculum, including here National Literacy Project material, and material specifically designed to develop or raise the level of strategic cognitive activity. In addition to the direct interventions, a record of the children’s' learning was maintained, by the children themselves, in a so-called 'learning book'. This consisted of a simple exercise book wherein the children recorded their thoughts concerning the material which they learned on each particular day. The children had free access to this book and were able to record their thoughts on learning as and when they wished. There was however a requirement for them to do this on a daily basis at least. The books also provided an opportunity for the teacher to comment on the entries made by the child and give some direction to the form of writing which was actually desired, that is to say a reflective style. This would be directly modelled through the teacher's writing, or perhaps guided by questioning of the child through the book in order to stimulate or challenge the thinking style which was being adopted. Whilst this learning book would not in itself be seen as a principal means of intervention, it was nevertheless utilised as a means of modelling and encouraging reflective thought in the children on a regular daily basis. It therefore had a strong subsidiary role in the consistent modelling of the style of thinking which the other intervention strategies sought to develop more overtly.

 

National Curriculum materials would of course form the bulk of the materials to which the children were exposed during the school day. The principal focus of attention here would be on the National Literacy Project materials. It would be inappropriate to detail all of the materials utilised even during the relatively short period of the study but it is nevertheless necessary to outline the types of materials used in order to provide a background to the procedure. Basically three types of resource were employed during the teaching of English under this system, each reflecting one element of the stratification of the published procedure.

 

For the introductory, whole class, session, usually a large format book was used, although sometimes other material such as a newspaper article would be used. When, as was usually the case, the stimulus material was a large format book, the class would read through a portion of the material with the support of the teacher. Some pre-determined aspect of text level work would be the focus of this stage of the activity. At the second stage, that of individual working by most pupils, a variety of standard English resources would be used. That is to say in the main English grammar stimulus materials, although there may be occasions when individually prepared materials would be deemed more appropriate. This stage of the procedure would for most pupils involve independent working through these materials which would involve the practise of some aspect of the work covered during the whole class session. On each day of the week one group of children would be exempted from this practise session, instead being part of a guided reading group with their teacher. This group would be exposed to the third resource which would be a reading book, selected by the teacher to provide a somewhat challenging level of text for the ability group. Each child would have their individual copy of the book in this session. At the final, plenary, session of the lesson, the large format book would again be the focus of attention in a largely teacher directed reflective analysis of learning which had taken place during the module.

 

The STSC material (Blagg et al. 1988) consists of a series of modules which are designed to promote the development of specific conceptual skills through a programme of teaching, discussion and practise of problem solving activities of various types. The course is substantially influenced by Feuerstein's work in instrumental enrichment and one of the essential qualities of the implementation of the process is the significant role of the teacher as mediator in the process of development. There are though significant differences between the STSC material and the Instrumental Enrichment programme. Blagg (1988) expressed concerns as to the abstract nature of Feuerstein's materials, and the STSC overcomes this somewhat by incorporating a wider variation in materials. As a result Blagg (1988) claims the STSC expresses a greater novelty, and the use of naturalistic situations in order to improve motivation and generalisation of the skills and ideas across situations. In contrast Blagg (1988) notes that in many instances both teachers and pupils experienced difficulties in generalising from the quite abstract tasks in the Instrumental Enrichment programme to real life situations.

 

The course is modular in structure, having five principal foci, each designed to develop skills in a particular area of problem solving. In essence the problems outlined within each of the modules are designed to facilitate the development of the high level strategic, metacognitive skills through peer and adult mediation and a broad interactive discussion of the material as they are analysed and addressed. The contents and style of the STSC materials are described in some detail as they form the principal focus of non-curricula material which was employed during the study.

 

Module one presents an introduction to some of the key concepts in problems and aims to provide the foundations for success in this type of activity. This module sets the tone for the course by promoting, as do subsequent modules, broad discussion, opportunities for development of self-esteem and general oracy skills. The activities in general incorporate a high degree of ambiguity in order to stimulate discussion and provoke active debate amongst pupils. The particular emphasis in this module is on developing the skills to gather and organise data, elements which are considered crucial to the process of developing reflective solution generation skills in response to the later material, reducing the impulsivity of the approach. There is a great emphasis on focusing on the fine detail, filtering relevant data from that which is irrelevant, and refining the approach strategies and developing the skills to recognise and define a problem from the available data.

 

Module two extends these skills through the development of analytical skills needed to identify the key elements of a problem which might lead to its solution. The units are largely composed of tasks which require a clear and structured analysis of constituent parts of a whole to be carried out. Tasks extend either to hypothesis formation based on the analysis or construction of a whole structure from the constituent parts. The four tasks selected to be used from this module were all of the former type. They were entitled respectively: The burglary; The dustbin; The workshop; The kitchen. Each consisted of pictorial representations of a scene from which data had to be extracted in a systematic manner, group discussion forming a significant element of the task completion. Hypothesis forming and testing then followed and, as a follow-up, whole class discussions and reflection on analysis, methodology and conclusions.

 

Module three is concerned with categorisation and seeks to extend the earlier learning with a focus on patterns and relationships, and on the discussion of similarities and differences. An exercise from module four, positions in time and space, has been used as a monitoring device with a view to discerning development through the study. The module focuses on positions in time and space, using both temporal and spatial dimensions. The particular exercises used as a monitoring device focuses on spatial referencing of objects relative to two individuals pictured in a cartoon. The two exercises are similar in structure and have been used as a pre and post intervention measurement device.

 

Module four focuses on positions in time and space, using as its basis spatial and temporal referents and the somewhat abstract nature particularly of temporal space. Time and space are represented as relative systems of reference which must be observed and understood.

 

Module five, understanding of analogies, is an increasingly abstract study of relationships between relationships. The tasks focus on similarities between pairs of relationships, comparing attributes. Links are made between analogy and simile.

 

Further to these structured materials it was considered appropriate, given the extremely short period of intervention, to introduce a regular exposure to materials designed as tests of reasoning skills. The children were therefore given on a weekly basis a test, based on published materials, which in itself gave unaccustomed opportunities for practising their reasoning skills. As a follow-up to each of these simple tests, the responses to the questions were discussed through teacher led, whole class discussions where the rationale attending to the solution of each of the questions could be openly and freely analysed. This last aspect, it was hoped, could provide a small but significant support to the process of developing a more reflective approach to problem solving, encouraging the development of general problem solving skills.

 

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Discussion and interpretation of findings

Discussion and interpretation of findings

 

As has been intimated in the procedure section and elsewhere, the implementation of the 'learning books' was far more difficult, and the resulting material far less revealing of reflective thinking, than was the case in the original Swan & White study. Initial entries in the books were almost exclusively straightforward descriptions of the mechanical operations carried out during the day. For example on the first day (13 April 1998) lessons involved, amongst many other things, learning of times tables, letter writing and drawing an illustration to complement a story read by the teacher, following a whole class discussion on the qualities and possible appearance characteristics of the central character in the story.

 

The children’s' responses to the question posed by the task, What have you learned today?, ranged along a continuum from, ‘English’ (Leanne), 'I lernt to draw ionman' (Karl), through such entries as, 'I learnt to do letters. I learnt how to do xtables and the ironman.' (Gemma), towards the very few more descriptive entries which appear to evidence learning such as, 'Today I have leart how to draw Iron man and I have leart that to have a discussion with the whole class it can help you to lern from eachother I have leart to write a letter about children haveing to go home for dinner' (Leon). This last entry, whilst ostensibly evidencing reflective thinking, is probably rather a rephrased iteration of instructional material issued by the class teacher.

 

Basic as they are in general, the small number of more detailed responses gave rise to the hope that development of a more reflective type of thinking could be elicited through the programme. In fact these initial responses appear to result from the novelty of the exercise rather than any genuine longer term interest by the children. The somewhat impulsive approach indicated earlier which characterises this group appears to have extended to this task as it does to the mainstream curriculum. The need for sustained effort, and the development of a level of consistency in approach, appears to have been beyond the normal scope of their experience and motivational plain. In other words the learning books do not seem to have been perceived by the children as an extension of their normal curriculum work, an opportunity to extend their thinking skills in relation to national curriculum material. Rather they became established immediately as a new, separate and additional task, in other words a novel and perhaps more invasive threat to their self esteem. If this is indeed the case, then it is perhaps not very surprising that their reaction to the books became almost universally hostile during the course of the programme, and the mere mention of the filling in of the books towards the end of the programme would meet with extreme reactions and considerable task avoidance strategies amongst a significant number of the children.

 

It would perhaps be illustrative of this reaction and the general non-development of the reflective style which was sought, if a selection of typical responses made during the programme were detailed, it being impractical to recall all of the responses. Amongst the children who were least disturbed by the procedure, there were two fairly distinct groups. One group, characterised by their lower than average literacy skills, but not with the more extreme learning difficulties evidenced by a number of children in the class, did usually complete the record books with little fuss or complaint. Their entries however remained at or even below the level of contribution evident at the commencement of the programme. A selection of some typical examples of their contributions through the period follow.

 

21 April, 'I have learn a bit of CPM (maths scheme). We have been in to The

LibrariTo wrak' (Daniel), 'Today I learnt percent' (Gemma), 'I have learnt about How to' (Amy), 'Today I learn how percent are and we had music by mozart and we went to the library and I read a spice book' (Tammi).

 

6 May, 'I have learnt about some new math because we had maths today and I know how to do really hard sums today' (Amy), 'Today I learnt to write a news papper report it was good and we had a Dsaation (discussion) about it' (Gemma), 'me and karl was warking to gever at CPM I don well at it and I Dunn it' (Daniel).

 

11 June 'I have lante to reed some big wades wiht mr Beck to day and I have lante some English as will to day' (Daniel), 'Today I learnt how to Do letter stone (strings) It was good when you on how to Do it i Didnot onk how to Do it at first But i got the hangeabut and me and Tammi Did it togeatter' (Gemma).

 

26 June 'Today I learn all diffent ways you can used adjective' (Tammi), 'Today I learnt how to do palem saveing (problem solving) it was good' (Gemma), 'I have learnt how to spell a new word and it is a long word Observation, and meaning of the word I do not know what it means' (Amy).

 

As a contrast, the following entries recorded during the Swan & White (1994) study illustrate the considerable progress made during a similar period of time by children two or three years younger than this target group.

 

10 Feb. 'Today I want tell you some thing that I have leand'

 

2 May  'Today I leant how to do new sums I can use it if someone wants to lean. at school and if you want to fine a price. (Ariana)

 

5 Feb. We saw a map and I lornt alot

 

13 May  Today in problem solving I lornt how to write 1000 but in numbers. Once I saw how to do 1000 I said to myself "Ah now I've got the hole ider. Mr Lises tuld us this story alot when he was small how he lorn't to con't. I thort you did 1012 like this 10012. when Mr Lises said "Dose eneywon know how to writ in numbers 1012 I put my hand up I was abot to say yes I know 10012 But he did not pick me. I lorn't how to make some sapes out of squers. I lornt a lot.(Stephanie) (Swan & White 1994)

 

There are many other examples cited by Swan & White which illustrate just as graphically the progress which is being made but these two demonstrate a potential for progress which is lacking in the group in focus. The contributions made by these children were interspersed, as was the case in the original Swan & White (1994) study, with a series of contributions from the teacher. At the outset the children were drawn into a quite detailed discussion concerning the purpose of the books and the form which should be adopted in completing them. It was made explicit that they should not record what they had actually done in a lesson, rather what they had learned from what they had done. These consisted in the main of questioning techniques aimed towards drawing out the children’s' thinking either relative to their previous response, or sometimes as a direct stimulus to thinking around some other aspect either of their school work or their thinking skills in general. The questions and comments were written in a form which either directly modelled the style of response which was desired, or acted as a prompt to produce such a style. The children were also invited to place questions in their books which their teacher could answer, although in practice this happened relatively infrequently.

 

On 12 June the question, 'What do you think the learning books are for?', was once again posed to the whole class. This was essentially the basis of the discussion at the outset and the aim was to establish the children’s' current views after some months of involvement in the project. In this group the responses were once again typified by the more superficial, mechanistic responses which had characterised their general style of contribution. Examples of their responses were as follows.

 

'I think that the learning books are good because you cantell youre Answer about youre work to the teacher' (Amy),

 

'So mr Beck knows whot we have learnt' (Gemma),

 

'So the you can write what you have learn' (Tammi).

 

So despite all of the initial briefing, regular spoken reminders and written comments or questions in the books, there is still no evidence that these particular children have even the most basic grasp of the task demanded of them.

 

Of the remaining children, those who evidenced an increasingly marked reluctance to take part in the completion of the books, there were two distinct groupings. The two groups were separated by their significant difference in general level of ability. So the two heterogeneous subsets within the group of those most reluctant to reveal their thinking styles were at the two extremes of ability in the class. Given the previously stated concerns about how the extremely low self esteem levels of some individuals might impact on this type of investigation, it might be natural to assume that the lower ability children would react in this way when confronted with such a challenging objective. It is perhaps less obvious why some, though not all, of the more able children should mirror this negative reaction. This may be a consequence of their lack of clarity with regard to teacher expectations, discussed earlier.

 

At the lower end of ability the responses of the children became ever more restricted, when they could be elicited at all, and some of the reactions to being asked to complete their learning books were towards the end of the programme, little short of physically violent. It became increasingly clear that they wanted nothing to do with a procedure which demanded such a personal and unstructured input from them with no mechanism for direct support. From a fairly promising beginning then, their responses faded to short phrases, sometimes a single word, or nothing when the time came to complete their book for the day. Some of the examples typifying the group are detailed below, and in order to provide a more coherent picture of the progress through the period in question extracts are presented in diary form for each individual child rather than collectively by date. Questions posed by the teacher are interspersed herein to illustrate some of the attempts to draw out the child into a more detailed and open communication.

 

(John) 21 April 'To day I leart Enjgoth from the dictionary'.

 

22 April Do you think dictionaries are useful? What can you do with them? Tell me a bit more please next time.(Teacher)

 

23 April (No response to question) 'today I leat CPM and sums But the best of my was Enjgoth and I Done Science Test But I DiDnot Do very well at my Science Test.

 

6 May 'Today I leart'

 

3 June 'Today I leart Enjgoth and I leant spellings But I'

 

11 June 'I lent nothing'

 

(Matthew) 21 April 'I lernt new word'

 

23 April 'I learnt maths'

 

Matthew, tell me next time what it is you actually learn. What new thing did you understand? (Teacher)

 

No response

 

29 April 'Today i have learnt English'

 

6 May 'I have learrnt about plants'

 

2 June dated but not completed

 

17 June dated but not completed.

 

26 June dated but not completed.

 

(Christopher) 21 April 'I did'.

 

22 April 'Idid maths test to parpar for sats, I learnt how to put conjuncons in to sentences.

 

Well done Christopher. Maybe next time you could tell me a bit more about what you can do with these things you have learned about. I would like to know what you think. It would help me a lot. (Teacher).

 

(No response to question)

 

23 April I learnte how to read together in literacy hour'

 

24 April I learnte maths and I learnte how to put numbers 24 so you can put it in ¼ and ½. I leante how to join up writing.

 

Did you find it more interesting to do these sums now that you understand a bit more about the rules that make them work? I want to know a bit more, it will help me a lot. (Teacher)

 

(No response to question) 6 May 'I learnte how to join up in the test today'.

 

(Undated) On monday I learnte about the human body I know where the liver is.

 

Why do you think we need to know about our bodies? (Teacher)

 

(Undated) 'we need to know about our bodies because'

 

(Undated) today I learnte how to gange (join) sentences up

 

12 June (In response to the question, What do you think the learning books are for?) to tell you what we learnte.

 

17 June I learnte about rocks. we looked at all sorts of rocks.The case above is a good example of the tendency to completely ignore any of the questions which were placed into the books by the teacher during the course of the programme. In the original study, Swan & White (1994) used this strategy to draw out increasingly complex strands of thinking from a set of children who at the outset displayed the same sort of tendencies to provide shallow mechanistic responses to the task set. The questions are clearly not stimulating the desired responses, either because the required skills are not present in the children, or because they do not have sufficient confidence to extend their answers beyond the safe, factual bare bones of what they can identify in their general day to day group activity. The notion of revealing their innermost thoughts and thinking processes lays them open to the ridicule which is commonplace in their environment, and against which they have learned to protect themselves. Even the declared confidentiality of the learning books was insufficient to support the development of more open risk-taking strategies in forming their contributions.

 

The other subset in the group who showed the most reluctance in completing the learning books were some of the more able pupils in the class. It is a little more difficult to discern the reasons underlying their reluctance to participate wholeheartedly in the process, but it may stem in part from their previous experience of school, which may have engendered a preference for a more structured approach on which their ability, and by inference their general level of confidence, may be based at least in part. Whatever the reasons for their increasingly negative attitude towards the process, it became clear during the latter phases of the programme that the contributions expressed in their books were not truly representations of their reflection concerning their work, merely a quick response to the task demands in order that they might declare that they had complied with the procedure. Their contribution then, having begun to develop towards the desired goal, slowly began to diminish once again towards the conclusion to become more concise in nature. Their entries became in effect merely a gesture of compliance with the procedure of making a written entry in the book, the real aim being either conveniently forgotten or becoming perceived, in the context of regular prescribed work, as being of little value.

 

A small number of children, notably those with the more developed language skills, completed the entries in the learning books more in line with the expectations generated by the Swan & White (1994) study. From the outset their entries were more comprehensive and responsive to the task of informing the reader of the learning undertaken rather than providing a stark description of the processes undertaken during the lesson.

 

It is perhaps also interesting to note that in general they respond to the questions posed by their teacher and indeed regularly set their own questions, creating a more conventional, conversational type of document than was the case with the rather less able children. Given the brevity of the trial it would be unwise to expect significant levels of development of this skill, but there are nonetheless some indications that certain individuals have begun to adopt a somewhat more positive approach towards the completion of the document, although it would be inappropriate to look for such a change in the overall learning behaviours of these children over such a short period. A small sample of their contributions is detailed to illustrate the divide which existed between these more able children and the main group who for the most part evidenced some form of learning difficulty.

 

21 April 'Today in the library me and Gemma was writing about animals from the past. I really enjoyed it, we didn't write much. I really enjoy reading. I go to the library every Saturday!' (Claire).

 

'Today I learnt about percentages. We went into the library to do an outline about a non-fiction book. I didn't do an outline, I did facts about hospitals with Danielle. I learnt a lot today and tomorrow I hope to learn even more' (Hollie).

 

28 April 'Today I learnt about verbs, nouns and adjectives in literacy hour, Knew very little about them but ( I knew what nouns were) today I learnt a lot' (Claire)

 

How will you be able to use these new things you know? (Teacher)

 

30 April 'I could use them in sentences and probably use them in my next school and in the Sats test' (Claire)

 

3 June 'Today I learnt about Kenya, we drawn temperature chart, answered some questions. I learnt about the human body. I thought that the kidneys were ate the bottom of the stomach but when we done the work I knew where they were and they are at the top of the stomach (well I think)' (Claire)

 

11 June 'Today I have learnt not to judge something just by what it looks like. Thinking skills is very important in life' (Hollie).

 

Brief as they are, these notes perhaps convey a flavour of the gradual movement by a few of the children towards reporting actual learning experiences which they had undergone. They are far from the reflective notes which resulted from the Swan & White study but it might be envisaged that a rather longer period of attention to this task might have achieved similar outcomes in some cases. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the whole exercise is the inherent levels of resistance to the whole procedure, which in some cases was raised through the period of the exercise to extreme proportions. A rather different range of responses was noted towards the implementation of the STSC materials, perhaps as an effect of the grouping strategies or, in light of the poor academic attainment levels of many of the children involved, because the tasks relied on oral rather than written contributions. On the whole the less able children were most reluctant to perform at more than a very minimal level in producing written work. These tasks allowed them to participate, in mixed ability friendship groups, as near to equals with the more able as they were likely to be.

 

This type of group approach had both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, the tasks were approached with enthusiasm, perhaps for the reasons described above. They were novel to the experience of the children and were certainly very unlike any of the materials to which they would have been exposed in the teaching of the National Curriculum. In the recording of their thinking, the writing tasks could be delegated to some member of the team who possessed the requisite skills. On the negative side, there were still one or two individuals who by reason of their history of behavioural problems could not be affiliated to any of the groups except with the greatest reluctance on the part of their peers. An even greater barrier was the reluctance on the part of these individuals to work cooperatively even when groups could be persuaded to accommodate them. The response was however on the whole positive and whilst it is questionable whether the materials actually inculcate any transferable skills they did generate a good deal of free thinking in pursuit of solution generation. The use of the materials was on the whole too limited and instituted for too short a period to draw any meaningful conclusions and the writer can only present a subjective perception that the task demands of the STSC materials did appear to effect a positive influence on the development of a more reflective thinking style, albeit in a limited context. Some of the notes made by the children in response to the tasks might give an insight into the more flexible thinking styles which were forthcoming.

 

For example they were presented with a task in which they were asked to examine a picture of a dustbin and its contents, detailing evidence and forming hypotheses as to the characters of the present or former inhabitants of the house. The mixed ability groups produced a wide range of responses, some as we have seen in other areas at a low level, others hinting at a more reflective, analytical approach. In response to the 'evidence' of toys, one group wrote, 'The children mite have grown up,or they have new toys or they were having a spring clean', whilst another group merely noted, 'children - young'. This divide, already described extensively elsewhere characterised most of the responses. Again the 'evidence' of paint tins provoked such diverse responses as, 'painting', or 'might be an artist, could have cleaned out, or painted the house'. Some groups played very safe and only listed objective evidence with no hypotheses. The majority however in this, and other exercises from the STSC materials, responded with some detail and evidence of reflection, in situations where adult mediation was restricted and peer mediation was higher than would normally be the case for normal National Curriculum and particularly NLP work. It may well be that in a more sustained trial of this kind the effects described by Schraw et al. (1995) of a gradual generalisation of this domain specific experience might result. Certainly the peer influences on cognitive development were significantly evident in this type of exercise where mixed ability groups were utilised, in contrast to the structure of the National Literacy Project approach where similar ability groups are constructed presumably as a device to focus individual development more precisely. It is this aspect of the NLP which perhaps provides the greatest contrast with the aims and ideals of programmes such as the STSC.

 

The procedures prescribed by the NLP documentation have been described in some detail above, but it is important to note the effects on the learning behaviours of these children who during the course of this study have also been part of a wider pilot project to implement the NLP in the whole school. On the whole the response to the framework of the NLP in terms of developing thinking skills, which is the focus of this piece, was what might have been expected from such a low ability, low self esteem group.

 

In the whole class group sessions which represented the initial text work and plenary session, those more sensitive to criticism, that is to say in this group the majority, played little or no part. Thus, far from acting as a spur to the development of their reflective thinking processes in a mixed ability group it provided at most a graphic illustration of their limited ability compared to that of some other individuals in the class. Perhaps unsurprisingly in this context, detailed discussion of the text in a reflective style was restricted to only a small number of children. In this situation the benefits to whole class development and learning in either literacy or higher order thinking skills seem questionable.

 

The discussion then focuses on the one area of the planned programme where peer support should not be perceived by the children as too threatening, the group reading or writing session. This tiny fragment of time, 15 minutes a week, proved to be a fruitful period when mediated learning could take place and an attempt to develop the kind of higher order thinking skills under discussion could be made. There were indeed some assesses in promoting a deeper analysis of some of the texts which were addressed during the period. Mediation by the class teacher in this closely focused activity with only a small number of children facilitated the exercise by some of the children at least of a more open approach to discussion and thinking about the text. Reports of any progress of this type during the implementation of the NLP are bound to be somewhat anecdotal in nature as the development, such as it was, resulted from open, unrecorded discussions which took place at intervals over a number of weeks.

 

There is no doubt in the mind of the writer however that skill development did take place, albeit to a limited degree, and that sustained efforts towards implementing this type of procedure would have a favourable impact on the development of higher order thinking skills. Given the limited amount of time within the procedure to adequately address the perceived needs of the less able children, it is perhaps unfortunate that the dictates of the NLP preclude the beneficial impact of peer mediation in the session where they might be most effective, and promote them where threats to self esteem are greatest.

 

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Conclusions

Conclusions

 

 

Rutherford (1989) notes that it is an almost impossible task to assess change in the areas addressed by Instrumental Enrichment, and it would be unwise to conclude that significant long term improvements in thinking styles had been engendered by this brief programme of intervention. There are however indications at the subjective level that a more collaborative, non-competitive approach to problem solving, using materials which do not present as having a prescribed 'right answer', could precipitate the development of higher order thinking skills. This seems particularly appropriate with the lower ability, poorly motivated type of child forming the greater part of the group involved in the study. This may support the case put by Elawar & Corno (1985) regarding the considerable benefits endowed by the giving of individual feedback to low ability students in particular. In relation to the three principal foci of attention, the learning books, the STSC materials and the National Literacy Project methodology, there were some interesting, though disparate, findings.

 

With regard to the learning books, there are some parallels with Swan & White (1994) in that many of the children in that study lacked the language skills to participate fully at the outset. The significant difference between those children and the ones under discussion here is perhaps the severe and long-standing nature of their failure to succeed in their school work. This appears to have led to the development of comprehensive and robust defensive strategies projected against the threat of further failure which might result from full participation in a challenging exercise, particularly one so dependent on written output, one of their most serious weaknesses. This whole approach may then be self-defeating and it is perhaps unsurprising that there was a general failure to evoke positive and self-revealing responses in such a population. It cannot be denied however that the enthusiasm expressed by the children at the outset was genuine, and that the novelty value of the exercise could have been exploited through other media. Given their reluctance to produce written work, it may for example be more prudent to gather the data through taped discussions, or by simply allowing the children to record their thoughts on tape in some privacy, sharing their thinking in a sheltered confidential manner with their teacher. There could be a number of advantages in adopting this procedure in that both modelling and feedback could be incorporated into the teacher’s role, impacting directly on the thinking styles of the child. Additionally the elimination of the process element of actually writing out their thoughts is removed, removing a major restraint on their output. This could impact on their levels of motivation and cooperation with the programme, directly and perhaps peripherally through the exploitation of the novelty of using this type of medium to interact with their teacher.

 

The enthusiasm and positive level of response to the STSC materials seems to reinforce the case that dependence on the writing process forestalled a more positive and detailed response by the children to the learning books procedure. Here the mixed ability groups were able to nominate a scribe, and even the least able writers were able to make oral contributions to the group with some confidence. Unlike the solitary exercise of producing a written record of their own thinking, the children were given the opportunity to feed their thoughts into a group. In this they were able to perform in a manner not realistically attainable under the strictures of the National Curriculum, and the experience perhaps provides some support for the case put forward by Woods (1995) that the prescribed curriculum represses the development of the thinking processes we are seeking to inculcate.

 

In this context they could receive some feedback from their peers, and re-evaluate their thinking in the light of this and in relation to the ideas projected by other members of the group. The activities then gave opportunities for modelling by more expert, or more confident, peers, and the group construct provided an environment where cognitive performance could be challenged in the way described above. Even in a group so constrained by their negative experiences of school, there were then some signs that a prolonged programme of this sort could provide a platform for the development of strategic cognitive monitoring and control skills. Having said that it must be reiterated that there is little empirical evidence to show that, even if a sustained programme such as this could be undertaken, skills such as these will transfer effectively into curriculum or other areas (Rutherford 1989). As has been detailed earlier, however successful the isolated programme of intervention is, the transfer to contexts where more conventional learning patterns takes place has yet to be convincingly demonstrated (e.g. McCrindle & Christensen 1995, Hunter-Grundin 1985, Williams & Burden 1997).

 

The STSC materials were then perhaps the most successful element of the programme, in that they received the most support from the children and they appeared to generate by far the greatest responses in the manner required. The task of incorporating these materials into a busy curriculum was however far from easy, even over a relatively short period, and it seems unlikely that sufficient time could be devoted to such a programme without there being a significant impact on the teaching of a broad and balanced curriculum. The question arises then as to whether this type of approach could be taken with straightforward curriculum materials, as an alternative to introducing a completely separate programme such the STSC.

 

The structure of the National Curriculum, and the National Literacy Project which has been focused on in this study, do not lend themselves particularly well to the methodology utilised for the STSC materials. One of the perceived advantages of the STSC programme herein was that heterogeneous groups were the main driving and motivating force of the process. It was in this melée of mixed minds that much of the exchange of ideas, cognitive conflict, and any consequent cognitive development, was likely to take place (Jones1998).

 

The NLP strategy demands instead homogeneous groups, often working in a carousel type system where each group is undertaking not simply a different level of task but work of a wholly different type. In the skills practice section of the NLP programme therefore, when the teacher is required to be fully and exclusively engaged with one single group, the remaining eighty percent of the class have no adult mediator, and no more-expert peer mediators available to them. For the lower ability children this appears to be the worst possible scenario, as far as cognitive development is concerned. Denied any form of effective mediation for a major portion of the lesson. In other words they are undergoing what Gibbs et al. (1994) described as being almost totally ineffective, that is to say, practice without feedback. This prescribed structure defies much of the research emphasising the benefits of mixed ability groups undertaking cooperative learning (e.g. Hanks 1991, Brown et al. 1983, Meadows 1986, Elawar & Corno 1985) The actual effect of this structure is that however well the tasks are designed and differentiated, those children at the lower end of the ability spectrum are not being drawn upwards through a learning zone through mediation, rather they are fixated at a point beyond which they find it difficult to move unaided.

 

Progress is then likely to be slow, or non-existent, given the reluctance of these children to undertake risk, in general with regard to their school work, and in particular with their writing activities. The practice of 'easy riding' described by Galton (1998 in press) is therefore frequently extended beyond the whole class introductory work into this skill practice session with a good deal of work avoidance activity, or at best rote copying of work from peers who might be motivated to at least attempt some response to the task.

 

In general terms then, the methodology of the National Literacy Project is contrary to the received wisdom of a substantial body of research literature concerning best practice in developing metacognitive skills. That is not to say that it will not fulfil its principal objective of raising literacy standards of course, but changes in the approach aimed to improve strategic thinking skills could enhance this also. Modifications to effect the type of development envisaged by this study could perhaps be limited to utilising heterogeneous groups rather than homogeneous ones, and raising the profile of the guided reading element over the whole class reading section. These twin strategies would provide on the one hand some peer mediation for many of the lower ability children in the practice session, whilst at the same time teacher mediation in the guided reading groups could perhaps be doubled. This increase in the level of adult mediation would of course also benefit the more able, since all groups would gain from the improved opportunities for modelling by the teacher. The NLP is still in its early stages of development and the pilot programme which has been part of the focus of this study has already seen some changes in approaches. If the case is proven that strategic thinking skills are seriously lacking in young people (e.g. de Bono 1991, Burden 1998) then this project could be a useful vehicle to promote them as a complementary range of skills to the principal target of raising literacy standards.

 

It does not of course embody the naturalistic and cognitive skill focused approach of the STSC materials, but a range of activities could be designed to provide heterogeneous groups with the type of conflict resolution situations found therein. The observed improvements in motivation levels associated with these STSC tasks could be readily exploited and real learning could take place. In the present structure learning and writing are synonymous and those with a history of poor development in writing are the same individuals who will go to great lengths to avoid any task with a significant dependence on that skill. Writing is of course important, but some of the observations recorded above, particularly with regard to the learning books, indicate that if writing is insisted upon, then in fact no work, and no learning, will take place. Changes in the NLP approach, or at the very least an increased element of flexibility in the approach to accommodate differing circumstances such as those of the class described above, might offer considerable opportunities now to develop both literacy and thinking skills more efficiently through the mainstream curriculum.

 

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