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Thinking: After-market add-on

OR a new model?


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11pm. It is quiet and still, at least it was until the son’s ten year old car rumbles and throbs down the driveway sporting innumerable after-market, bolt-on, go-fast extras. It parks with a loud final grunt beside the sleek new sports car owned by the mother.

The 2 cars in the tale highlight a scenario being played out in our schools where thinking is the new educational buzz word. Principals, teachers, parents and ... yes, even pupils are talking about thinking. As the Ministry Of Eductaion’s new era of ‘Planning and Reporting’ dawns, schools are also revising and updating their visions, missions and strategic plans. Commonly these revisions include goals related to pupils developing ‘thinking skills’, ‘critical thinking’ or ‘higher thinking’.

Are these alterations merely after-market extras being added to an old model of learning, more stuff being added to the ever increasing load our teachers are expected to deliver, or are they the visible changes offered as part of the package deal of a new high performance model of leaning?


Is your school just doing the add-on thing?

Is your school going for a new model, package deal?

Is it a superficial change, or is it pervasive?


It is relatively easy to differentiate between the two approaches because the final product from each approach varies so much.


The superficial (add-on) approach tends to result in:

The pervasive (new model) approach tends to result in:


  • increased pressure for teachers

  • a dilution of effort, energy and time

  • a mismatch between documentation and practice

  • teachers holding conflicting concepts and understanding

  • limited classroom impact in terms of learning


    increased freedom and creativity for teachers

    effective use of time energy and effort

    cohesiveness between documentation and practice

    common understanding held by staff, pupils and parents

    visible and identifiable impact on learning


The disparity between the two is as obvious as the difference between a modified 1965 VW and the 2003 Nissan 350Z. It is the factors that create the difference that we need to address if we want to go beyond the add-on approach in our schools. Just as the vehicles have the base similarities of engine, chassis and body, so we have core similarities between two schools demonstrating the different approaches. David Perkins (1992, p5) identifies the “core” of what our schools are trying to achieve as the retention, understanding and use of knowledge. These are the common fundamental goals of all schools and learning institutions, with all schools sharing a common set of procedures and strategies to achieve these goals. I believe that there are 9 base factors that a school needs to have in place to be effective places of learning, and that these factors in fact create an overall strategy for effectiveness.


Vision: A statement defining the learning (retention, understanding and use) that the school values and aims to achieve

Criteria: Clear criteria that will show when that learning has occurred.

Curriculum: A curriculum that has been shaped, modified and designed specifically to deliver the school’s vision.

Delivery:  Conscious attention to the methods of delivery that will facilitate the achievement of that vision. Actual focused classroom delivery that specifically targets the stated vision.

Assessment: Specific, focused and realistic assessment which targets the retention, understanding and use outlined in the vision (forget the other stuff).

Recording: The data, analysis and implications from the assessment are valid, useful and recorded in a manner that is efficient and effective.

Reporting:  The analysis and implications are reported clearly and comprehensibly to the relevant stakeholders (pupils, parents, teachers and BOT).

Review:   The analysis and implications are utilised to carry out effective and efficient review.

Professional Development:  All professional development is specifically targeted at providing staff with the knowledge, understanding and skills to foster and deliver the school’s vision of Learning


Given such a strategy being in place in our two schools we have a framework to differentiate between thinking that is bolted on, or integrated fully into the learning process. We can examine the different approaches in terms of the 9 strategic factors and define how we can powerfully affect retention, understanding and use of knowledge.


1          Vision:

 In the both approaches we are likely to see variants of statements like “Our pupils will be effective thinkers” or “Higher level thinking will be valued”. Carefully worded phrases backed by serious intent.


In the bolt on approach we have an addition now to what teachers are expected to be doing. This addition is often not explained as to how this is to be done nor is their any real understanding of the role of thinking in terms of the retention, understanding and use of knowledge. In some bolt-on versions this is the last reference to thinking, it’s as if once it is in the vision the job is done. “See it is in our vision, aren’t we good!”


In the new-model approach there will be an understanding of the role of thinking in the retention, understanding and use of knowledge. Teachers in the school will be able to clearly enunciate the place of thinking in learning, the relationship between thinking, understanding and knowledge, as well as being able to plan and create learning experiences that will enable pupils to move through the different levels of thinking, understanding and knowledge.


An issue that faces both groups at this stage is likely to be a limited understanding of that relationship between thinking, understanding and knowledge. There are two prime reasons for this. Firstly: for most teachers this is not new stuff but because they are generally horrendously busy they have not been able to do the reflection, reading and thinking to pull together many of the pieces of their own knowledge, nor have they received professional development that allows them to piece it all together to form a clear picture. Secondly: much of the professional reading available on thinking and learning is written in scholarly fashion, couched in terms and language that is difficult to extract meaning from. If you throw this sort of material at busy teachers,  you should be sure that your reflexes are sharp enough for efficient ducking.

A clear understanding is essential at the vision stage because all of the other parts of the strategy link to and are driven by the vision. This raises a number of questions which have helped me to deepen my own understanding. If we have High Levels of thinking we must also have Low Levels, what are they?

We talk about levels of understanding, do these relate somehow to High and Low Level Thinking?

If thinking and understanding are so integral to the development and gaining of knowledge do we also have High and Low Levels of Knowledge?

Perkins (1992) covers much of this in a very readable format and he certainly outlines some levels of thinking, understanding and knowledge. Sergiovanni talks about limited knowledge and generative knowledge in a manner that would lead us to think about “limited knowledge’ being of low level and “generative knowledge” as being of High level. I have found it helpful to create a chart that links the aspects together to get an overview of the highs and lows as well as the relationship between these three interwoven aspects of learning.

























A Reflective Thinker is not only Strategic but also reflects on their thinking in process , ponders and revises strategies.

Reflective Understanding (Enquiry) challenges results and constructs new knowledge through critical and reflective analysis

Reflective Knowledge is understanding which is strategically, reflectively and critically applied to the process of acquiring further knowledge and clearer knowledge.


A Strategic Thinker is aware of a range of skills and strategies and organises their thinking.

Strategic Understanding (Epistemic) occurs when there is justification and explanation that relates to the subject matter.

Strategic Knowledge is understanding and information applied to situations through strategic thinking with the learner being able to justify and explain the thinking and decisions


An Aware Thinker is aware of some of the kinds of thinking they do but does not strategise these processes.

Aware Understanding  (Problem Solving) occurs when simple problem solving techniques and methods are applied to standardized problems.

Aware Knowledge is understanding and information that is recalled, thought about in a number of ways and applied in simple problem solving.


A Tacit Thinker is unaware of their thinking skills, processes & strategies.

Perkins (1992, p 102)

Tacit Understanding (content based) is when facts and routine procedures can be reproduced

Perkins (1992, p 85)

Tacit Knowledge is basic recall of facts. It is material that is retained but seldom used or applied in any effective manner.



Diagram 2 The highs and lows of Understanding, Thinking and Knowledge.







Schools who are building thinking into their new model of learning will need to have a commonly shared picture of thinking and its role within learning. That picture will have to be clear enough to be a driving force through the rest of the strategy. Without this they will be at risk of just adding something on.


2        Criteria:

This stage of the strategy requires schools to define the criteria, or benchmarks that outline the skills and achievements they expect from their pupils at various levels of development. The scope of these is governed by the vision statement.  It is obvious how difficult this becomes if there is no shared understanding amongst teachers of the overview of the territory of learning being addressed.


In the bolt-on approach there will often be no clear picture of expected outcomes. This will then make it extremely difficult to create any well defined criteria that will indicate when the desired results are achieved. In fact from here on the whole strategy becomes more and more problematic for the bolt-on school.

For the schools organising a new model, who have a shared understanding, it is much more straightforward to create the indicators they can use to identify when the various levels of development have occurred. They will be able to critically examine a learner at work and be able to comment on their performances in terms of the criteria they have identified.


3          Curriculum:

The add-on school now has a problem. They have a very full curriculum to deliver. They have huge internal pressures in terms of curriculum coverage. We can almost hear the groans as more and more expectations are placed on them. What makes this doubly difficult is that the new expectations are somehow vague and unclear, leaving each individual teacher to unpack it in their own way and to fit this new stuff somehow into their already crowded day.


The schools with the new model approach now get down to some very exciting and interesting work. They have to re-examine and re-structure their curriculum to fit their vision of learning. If, as Perkins (1992) says, the difference between low and high order thinking and knowledge is “their aboutnes”, what the thinking or knowledge is about, then they have a whole new way of looking at the curriculum.

Under this viewpoint the curriculum subject areas become the context for delivering the vision of learning. There is no longer a draining demand for curriculum coverage because they control and construct their own curriculum to facilitate what their vision of learning dictates as being important.  A sad factor is that this approach is what we should have been doing for years. The Curriculum Framework Document published by The Ministry Of Education (1993) says on page 7 “The essential learning areas are broad, recognizable categories of knowledge and understanding. They provide the context within which the essential skills, attitudes and values are developed”.  Under the newer NAG 1 revisions of 1999 the ministry states that, “beyond literacy and numeracy… the balance of essential learning areas and essential skills is a matter for each school to determine within the framework provided by the national curriculum statements”. The schools looking at their new model now have to create a curriculum that will deliver thinking, a curriculum that has been shaped, modified and designed specifically to deliver the school’s vision. Interestingly the Ministry also says that the achievement objectives allow for “local interpretation and elaboration ... to empower schools and teachers to design programmes which are relevant to the learning needs of their students and communities”.



4        Delivery:

The bolt-on approach strikes more difficulties here because we now have teachers trying to deliver hazily understood concepts and skills within a crowded curriculum. It is fairly apparent that teachers will, in this sort of situation, focus on aspects and areas they are comfortable within.


 The new model approach now has a school examining their vision to define the best approaches and strategies for achieving those goals. These schools can look at styles of teaching like “Didactic, Coaching and Socratic” as outlined by Perkins (1992, pp 63-57) and define when where and how these can be utilised to achieve their goals and vision for learning.  They are free to look at the skills and language they will facilitate, they can examine what teaching styles and methods can be utilised to best equip the learners with the attitudes and strategies that will foster higher thinking, higher knowledge and higher levels of understanding.


5-7       Assessment, Recording and Reporting:

The bolt-on approach has another problem in this area.

They are probably already weighed down with assessment. They won’t want to do more, so they have three options:


1        add more assessment so they are actually assessing what they have added

2        don’t assess it, but that means it is not important, so we can ask ‘why add it in the first place?’

3        assess it, but remove other assessment from their schedule.

The interesting thing is that most add-on schools seem to take choices 1 or 2, very seldom do we see them reducing their assessment, recording and reporting load.

If they do decide to assess their new addition they have further problems defining what and how to assess because the prime tool, the criteria were created in step two of the process. Recording and reporting generally just increase their workload because they have simply added more.


Schools with the new model approach however now have a mindset and freedom to re-examine their whole schedule of assessing, recording and reporting.  By this stage of the process they have already laid a strong foundation that enables efficient assessment, recording and reporting.

What will they assess? A quick glance back at their vision and criteria statements provides instant guidelines for this stage of the process. They are not trying to add more to the process rather they will only be assessing, recording and reporting on what their learning vision tells them is important. Any other residual practices will be jettisoned.  Instead of reporting to parents on matters to do with curriculum content (outside of literacy and numeracy) they will be reporting on levels of thinking, understanding and knowledge.

To describe this in more detail, they will be reporting on a learner’s:

    awareness of their thinking strategies

    ability to strategise their thinking

    ability to think reflectively on the effectiveness of their own thinking

    awareness of problem solving strategies and ability to utilise this awareness in simple problem solving

    ability to justify and explain their thinking

    ability to build further knowledge and understanding through critical and reflective analysis

    retained knowledge and ability to apply it

    knowledge that can be applied strategically with justification and explanation

    knowledge that can be reflectively and critically applied to gain further knowledge and understanding

This is one picture, but essentially they will be assessing, recording and reporting on whatever variation of this is dictated by their understanding of the roles of thinking and understanding in delivering the educational core of retention, understanding and usage of knowledge.

8        Review:  


Within the add-on approach the concept of effective review of all the preceding stages of the strategy becomes almost farcical because the basis of the review is provided by the outcome from assessment.  These schools will either have vague and fuzzy analysis or no analysis on which to base their review. Another common problem is a huge mass of material which doesn’t seem to really target anything that is of relevance when they come to their review process.


For the new model approach their review process is now supported by data, analysis and evidence that specifically targets their vision of learning. This can be used to revise their vision and every other part of the whole strategic process. Decisions are based on evidence and the whole process is targeted, specific and efficient. They have in fact created a new model. There may be some tuning and refining to do. However the whole strategy is structured so that it now is an  effective, workable and manageable process.


9    Professional Development:

All professional development is specifically targeted at providing staff with the knowledge, understanding and skills to foster and deliver the school’s vision of learning.



The bolt-on model has a tendency for professional development to be ad-hoc, driven by appraisal processes and individual personal interests.


The new model approach has a very different focus to professional development. Amongst it is the same thread of meeting individual teacher need but the primary objective is on equipping teachers with the skills, knowledge and understanding that will enable the m to effectively deliver the school’s vision of learning. In this case we would be seeing school wide professional development that targets teacher’s knowledge and understanding about thinking, knowledge and understanding. It would also target their skills and abilities to facilitate higher level thinking in the classroom.


I suppose a valid question that can be asked is: “Do we really need a new model?”

To respond I will return to a powerful challenge laid by David Perkins, (1992, p7 ) who in discussing the core of learning states “The bottom line is that we are not getting the retention, understanding, and active use of knowledge that we want” and asks “ If what we are doing is not working, what do we do instead?”

The very fact that many schools are turning their attention towards thinking skills is an acknowledgement that something needs to change.


In conclusion it is fairly apparent that there are two different ways of approaching the current vogue of adding higher and critical thinking skills into a school’s structure. It can be bolted-on to a pre-existing model of learning, a superficial change, or it can be pervasive, done in a manner that results in the creation of a new high performance model of learning. This is a model where new knowledge and understandings, gained by the teachers, are then used through reflective and critical application to refine and improve the process of learning. The construction of such a new model is not an overnight process, it takes time, effort and planning by a committed team. Most of us involved will need to acquire new knowledge and understanding, we will need to revise our current practices and need to lead and teach in a strategic and reflective manner. Somehow that has a familiar ring. Isn’t it interesting how the whole process of learning can in fact now drive the school as a place of learning and thinking? Our school and classroom practice must in fact embody the higher goals that we now hold for our pupils.




Perkins, D. 1992. Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. The Free Press, New York.


Ministry Of Education (NZ), NAG, National Administration Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions.



Ministry Of Education (NZ), NAG, The New Zealand Curriculum Framework.



Ministry Of Education (NZ), NAG, The New Zealand Curriculum Framework.



Sergiovanni, T.J., (1995). The Principalship:  Reflective Practice Perspective (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon