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Encouraging young children's critical and creative thinking skills: an approach in one English elementary school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effective Ways of Enhancing Pupils' Cognitive Skills

Some educators argue that specific programs, such as de Bono's CoRT materials, Lipman's philosophy programs, and Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment program (Fisher, 1995), can develop children's thinking and learning skills. Others recommend incorporating the teaching of thinking skills across the curriculum. Such an approach assumes that teaching children metacognitive skills (i.e., awareness of one's own cognitive functioning) is related to higher-order critical and creative thinking skills (McLeod, 1997). Research indicates that programs that are able to improve pupils' cognitive skills typically define thinking, identify the specific skills to be taught, and provide direct and systematic classroom instruction on how to use such skills, and how to devise and employ developmental curricula. Selected thinking skills then can be taught for various content areas (Schlicter, 1985).

The Talents Unlimited Program

Talents Unlimited (Schlicter, 1993), which was developed in the United States, and is now also used in England, France, and Germany, is a process model designed to enhance elementary school children's creative and critical thinking skill development. "Creative thinking" refers to the ability to produce original and divergent solutions to problems. It involves the following three elements:

* fluency - the ability to propose many solutions

* flexibility - the ability to see a problem, issue, or incident from different perspectives

* originality - the ability to produce novel ideas (Eggan & Kauchak, 1992).

"Critical thinking" involves:

* observation

* comparison

* explanation

* prediction.

The development of all of these elements and skills is the focus of Talents Unlimited, building on the idea that engaging children in metacognitive activities encourages the formation of their multiple talents (Gordon & Schaver, 1985).

Implicit in the Talents Unlimited approach is an emphasis on helping pupils learn to produce a greater number of ideas. It assumes that creative and critical thinking skills are related to the production of more ideas, a correspondingly higher number of good ideas, better rationales for choices, and better thinking skills across a range of situations. An important principle of Talents Unlimited is actively involving pupils in efforts to improve their own thinking skills (Schlicter, 1993). Students must be made aware of the concept of multiple talents development and understand how the model works. The teacher guides students to take responsibility for developing their personal talent, which is critical to helping pupils transfer their skills to different contexts.

The Introduction of Talents Unlimited Into an English Elementary School

Concern about the effects of the prescriptive National Curriculum on young learners motivated one principal, in an urban elementary school in southwest England, to search for a model that encouraged the thinking process. She discovered Talents Unlimited while attending an education conference in the United States in 1994. Subsequently, she participated in a training program. Then, the school conducted an intensive staff development program for all of the teachers. Initially, Talents Unlimited was integrated into the curriculum with Year 1 (5-year-old) children; since then, it has been implemented throughout the school.

The effects of Talents Unlimited on Year 1 pupil performance, using a range of critical and creative thinking tasks, was evaluated following the first instruction term. This study compared the performance of 48 children (evenly divided between those who received Talents Unlimited instruction and those who did not) from this school and a neighboring school. The results showed that the children's literacy or numeracy abilities were not different. Staff members speculated that pupils in Talents Unlimited classes would perform significantly better on critical and creative thinking tasks than the other children would. The two classroom teachers presented the selected tasks to their pupils in the final week of term. Each task lasted one hour, after which the teachers collected the work for coding and analysis.

While Talents Unlimited focuses on five talents, only three were evaluated in this study. The more complex talents of planning and decision making were to be addressed later in the year, when the young learners were assumed to be more experienced and confident. Therefore, the first three talents introduced were:

* Productive Thinking: pupils are invited to generate many, varied, and unusual ideas or solutions, and are encouraged to improve or make the ideas more interesting by adding details

* Communication: pupils are encouraged to use verbal and nonverbal forms of communication

* Forecasting: pupils are invited to make a variety of predictions about the possible causes and/or effects of various phenomena.

The Positive Effects of Talents Unlimited on Pupil Performance

As predicted, the children who were taught using the Talents Unlimited approach performed better on specific critical and creative thinking skills tasks than did their peers in other classes; no significant differences were found between boys' and girls' performances. Productive Thinking was introduced through a discussion about a witch who wanted to cast a spell. The children were asked to compile a list of as many unusual items as possible that a witch could put in her cauldron. The children who had been taught using the Talents Unlimited approach generated a significantly greater number of different ideas for the task, and they also tended to produce more original, unique, and creative ideas.

For the Communication task, the children were asked to think about the heat generated by the sun. They then thought about, drew, and described other things that are hot. As with the previous task, the children who had been taught using the Talents Unlimited approach performed better, which suggests that this instructional approach results in an increase in children's use and interpretation of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication.

As a Forecasting task, the children were asked to imagine what it would be like if it snowed every day for six weeks. Again, the children who had been taught using the Talents Unlimited approach performed better on this task, which tested their ability to make a variety of predictions about the possible causes and/or effects of a particular phenomenon.

The evaluation of this instructional model suggests that teachers who implement a thinking skills program can foster specific creative and critical thinking skills in children. When children learn how to think and apply their skills to a range of situations, they also learn to take responsibility for their own learning and become independent learners (Paris & Winograd, 1990). More important, focusing children's attention on a particular skill and its uses allows its application across the curriculum. The absence of such skills may have negative long-term consequences for children's acquisition of higher-order mental abilities.

Some Reasons Why Talents Unlimited May Encourage Better Thinking

Talents Unlimited appears to benefit pupil performance, confirming research indicating that direct instruction from teachers enhances pupil performance (Veenman, 1995). The students' familiarity with and confidence in Talents Unlimited after a full term is likely to have produced the higher scores. In addition, Talents Unlimited's academic foundation helped support the curriculum.

The teacher's familiarity with and obvious enthusiasm for Talents Unlimited also may have increased the pupils' motivation to complete and master the tasks. The teacher fully understood her aims for children's learning and was therefore able to select suitable teaching methods and materials. When teachers act as guides and mentors, and they have high expectations of their pupils, performance often improves. Students need to feel that their contributions will be respected and valued, however. Therefore, it is essential that teachers learn how to challenge pupils to higher levels of thinking, as well as to expect such thinking, and to create an environment conducive to creativity.

Finally, it appears that learning is enhanced when teachers transfer control for initiating learning to pupils (Palincsar, Stevens, & Gavelek, 1989). A fundamental principle of Talents Unlimited is active student involvement in, control of, and responsibility for their own learning. Because the Talents Unlimited model provides for a new outlook on a topic, and it centers on the pupil's response, some pupils may find it more interesting, exciting, motivating, and involving.

The findings need to be treated with caution, however, because of certain factors that could not be controlled in the study, such as the teachers' classroom experience. Although both teachers were classroom veterans, the teacher who used Talents Unlimited did have several more years of classroom experience than the other teacher. Furthermore, the teachers may not have had equal demands on their time and attention. It also is important to acknowledge that a focus on thinking itself, rather than the use of a specific instructional approach, may have influenced pupil performance.

Implications for Teachers

As the effects of Talents Unlimited have not been evaluated against other available models; the results should not be generalized beyond the findings presented here. The findings, however, provide encouragement about implementing an instructional approach that focuses upon teaching young children how to think.

The use of Talents Unlimited appears to have enhanced the performance of Year 1 English elementary school children in tasks involving critical and creative thinking. Because the Talents Unlimited model uses processes that can enliven and enrich the curriculum and allow for everyone's personal contributions, it can tap into the way a pupil thinks best, and thus maximize the likelihood for success.

Such an approach may be particularly beneficial for children who do not normally excel under conventional and traditional methods of teaching and learning. Being able to recognize one's talents, which this program helps children to do, can also boost self-esteem. As pupils pursue a range of talents, they will begin to develop their thinking skills by looking beyond the obvious, making creative connections, developing strategies, making decisions, planning ahead, and reflecting.

Training teachers in specific instructional approaches, such as the one described here, means that schools must invest in teachers' professional development. Instructional approaches that help teachers integrate a "learning to think" component into their curriculum empower students to take responsibility for improving their thinking and learning. Although cognitive development is only one part of a child's overall development, it is essential that elementary teachers respond to the community demand for, and the child's right to, cognitive competence. Pre- and inservice teacher training providers need to become aware of the benefits of certain instructional approaches on pupil performance, and they should incorporate training in such approaches in their courses.

The initial work with Year 1 pupils using Talents Unlimited proved to be so successful that it is now used throughout the school, as well as in five other schools. The principal and teachers have produced a video and printed material about Talents Unlimited to help other schools get started.

Students' ability to transfer their logic from one situation to another is ultimately the crucial test of any instructional program (Nisbet, 1991). It is essential that future research explore the extent to which the teaching of thinking skills transfers to other contexts, as well as the extent to which children apply metacognitive skills to problem-solving situations in general.

Many elementary teachers in England recognize the importance of encouraging creative and critical thinking abilities in young children as a way of maintaining the country's capacity to innovate and respond to change. They are concerned about the current emphasis on product as opposed to process, and would prefer to teach young children strategies for solving problems, developing insight and understanding, and creating meaning from and about their experiences in their everyday lives. They would like to provide a sound basis for young children's active learning (Duffy, 1998). By implementing, evaluating, and reflecting about different teaching and learning models, elementary teachers in England are demonstrating their professional responsibility for identifying the most effective ways to educate young children.


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Julian Rodd is Reader in Early Childhood Education, University of Plymouth, England.
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Title Annotation:Creativity Around the Globe
Author:Rodd, Jillian
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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