Commentary—Thinking Skills in the Regular Classroom

Spring 1993 Masthead

Deborah E. Burns
The University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

The focus for all of the research studies that are being conducted with The University of Connecticut is on educational practices for talent development and gifted education within the regular classroom. The literature that we have reviewed suggests that general intellectual ability is a major factor that affects talent development in all students. It is our belief that improvements in higher level thinking skills will also improve students’ general intellectual ability.

In a longitudinal study now being conducted by The National Research Center, experimental lessons are being piloted to improve students higher level thinking skills. It is hoped that through the aid of skilled practitioners and with the use of the experimental lessons, students will raise their academic achievement levels and their ability to transfer these skills to real world problem solving and interest-based research projects.

We are attempting to develop and nurture talent in our underserved student population with a two part intervention-thinking skills instruction to improve general intellectual ability and the use of interest-based enrichment options to help students identify their individual strengths and talent areas. Both interventions will take place in the regular classroom with students who represent the priorities of the Javits Act.

We hope students will find that the opportunity to explore their interest areas and to conduct real world problem solving projects will result in multiple benefits. By mentoring students as they conduct projects and investigations, we hope to show them how to develop their knowledge base, their task commitment, and their creativity as well as showing them how to transfer and apply learned thinking skills to real world problems- behaviors that we believe are the hallmarks of giftedness.

We have also concluded that direct and explicit instruction in thinking skills is a powerful strategy for helping novice problem solvers improve their cognitive abilities. Our review of the literature suggests that many students have difficulties with several of the higher level thinking skills. Many students jump to hasty conclusions, exhibit dogmatic behavior and are overreliant on the teacher for the “right” answer. Others have difficulty with the analytical thinking skills that are so important for academic achievement.

Our literature search has identified three different approaches for the direct instruction of thinking skills. These three approaches can be classified as the “stand alone,” “content immersion,” and the “imbedded instruction” approaches.

The “stand alone” approach focuses the students’ attention on the name and nature of the skill, the importance of the skill in varied settings, strategies for using the skill, and dispositions related to the skill. These “stand alone” programs and lessons concentrate on improving one skill at a time and are not overly concerned with skill transfer or the content that is used as the vehicle for practicing the skill.

When teachers use the “stand alone” approach they report that students often have difficulty transferring and applying the learned thinking skills if no additional instruction is offered. The “content immersion” approach favors the increased use of higher level thinking skills when students are learning new academic content. The teacher’s role is to prompt students to transfer and apply thinking skills as a means of more easily acquiring this academic content.

When teachers use the “content immersion” approach they report that some students cannot apply the higher level thinking skills to sophisticated and challenging content because they have not yet learned how to use the specific skills that they are expected to use to acquire this new content.

With the “imbedded instruction” approach to direct instruction, students are exposed to real world or academic problems that require the use of multiple thinking skills. As students attempt to solve these problems they must use the numerous thinking skills that are imbedded within the problem and its solution.

When teachers used the “imbedded instruction” approach, they report that some students become confused and frustrated because they do not know how to use the various thinking skills that are required to solve the problem, or that they become confused in trying to learn too many new skills and too much new content at the same time.

We have concluded that all three approaches for direct instruction have their strengths and their weaknesses and no one of these three approaches can meet all of our expectations for an effective thinking skills program. This is why we have developed a thinking skills model. Students need to learn the names and definitions of the various thinking skills if they are to improve their metacognition and their ability to communicate their thought processes. They also need to develop or be taught a successful strategy for using a specific thinking skill if they are having difficulty using the skill with their present approach. Novice problem solvers need modeling and coaching from their teacher to improve their own abilities, and they need to learn how to transfer a learned skill to new content and new problems. They need to develop numerous thinking skills and they need to be able to autonomously transfer these skills and to discern opportunities for the application of these learned skills. They need to feel efficacious about their ability to use these skills, and they need to believe that although thinking is hard work, it is worth it in the long run.


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