M5b. Developing the 4 Cs of Thinking (Preview)

Up until now, we’ve focused on what the Learning Pit is and how to get your students into it. Now we’re going to look at what to do once they’re there.

Before we do that, it’s probably worth reiterating the point that the Learning Pit isn’t just about creating more challenge; it is about creating that challenge so that students have more opportunity to build their skills of good thinking. This in turn allows them to approach their other studies – and their lives in general – with more flexibility and resourcefulness. In much the same way that people exercise so that they improve their health – which in turn allows them to engage more fully in life – so it is with the Learning Pit. Indeed, this is the thinking behind Challenging Learning’s mission statement: Strengthening Learning; Strengthening Lives.

In terms of the types of thinking that can be developed in the Learning Pit, I find it useful to use the ‘Four Cs’:

  • Critical thinking (wondering why)
  • Creative thinking (wondering if)
  • Caring thinking (thinking about others)
  • Collaborative thinking (thinking with others)

Each of the ‘Top Ten Thinking Tools’ in Section 6.3 of the LC Book focus, to varying degrees, on developing one or more of these four Cs of thinking. So, before you begin experimenting with these ‘pit tools’ (and I very much hope you will experiment with them), I think it would be worth giving you some detail about each of these categories of thinking.

There is no particular order in which the four Cs should be practised. I have chosen critical, creative, caring, and collaborative as my order but I know not why (how’s that for critical thinking?!). I guess that was the order in which I introduced them to my students early in my career and that’s the way they’ve stayed in my mind. Some less random ways to choose your own order would be to base your selection on one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Decide on the type of thinking your students need most – maybe because they’re missing this category of thinking from their day-to-day studies or because it’s the one most likely to influence their chances of success in the near future. For example, your students are pretty good at following rubrics but struggle to think outside the box – in which case, go for an emphasis on creative thinking to begin with. Or your students are pretty adept at thinking on their feet and coming up with innovative ways to solve problems but are, on the whole, a bit too competitive and self-centred; in which case, focus on enhancing collaborative or caring thinking first.
  2. Start with a quick win before moving onto the types of thinking your students are likely to struggle more with. For example, it could be that your students are familiar with ‘circle time’ activities and are therefore pretty adept at listening to each other and caring about each other’s feelings. In which case, start with an emphasis on caring (and perhaps collaborative) thinking so that your students feel a sense of competence right from the start. This should give them the confidence to try out less familiar strategies such as critical thinking approaches next.
  3. Create a community first and then develop your students’ inquiry skills. As you will have noticed by reading the LC Book – or indeed any of the 10 books I’ve written – I am particularly influenced by the Philosophy for Children (P4C) tradition. This approach is built upon the idea of a ‘community of inquiry’ which moves away from ‘education as knowledge transmission’ to a new paradigm of ‘education as the outcome of participation in a teacher-guided investigation of ambiguity, equivocation and mystery’. Catchy phrase it isn’t, but in my mind, an investigation of ambiguity, equivocation and mystery seems a desirable – and necessary – counterpoise to the knowledge-transmission model that dominates most school curricula.

Placing the ‘community of inquiry’ side by side with the four Cs, you can usefully associate caring and collaborative thinking with creating the ‘community’ and critical and creative thinking as the focus for the ‘inquiry’. Thus, if it fits your purpose and context, you could begin by creating the community first – by focusing on collaborative and caring thinking – then moving onto developing an inquiry approach by developing critical and creative thinking.

One other way to make your decision (apart from close your eyes and pick one at random) is to read through the next four sections to decide which one(s) you’re attracted to most and then start there.

Before you do that, it’s worth mentioning that there are three generally accepted ways to teach thinking skills. The first approach is to teach thinking skills separate from content. For example, learning how to compare and contrast or sequence information without worrying which subject(s) or curriculum area(s) that information belongs to. The second approach is in context, in which thinking skills are encountered during various challenges. For example, you set your students some challenging tasks or ask questions that create cognitive conflict which, in turn, lead to the need for thinking skills such as sequencing or categorising. The third approach is to teach thinking skills within curriculum areas. For example, science teachers guide their students in the development of inference, deduction, observation, classification and so on, whereas drama teachers focus more on observation, comparison, relationships (e.g. between objects and space), relevance, and so on.  

Perhaps the best approach is to design experiences that afford your students opportunities to develop their thinking skills in all three ways – separately, contextually and subject-specifically. My writing tends to focus on the first two methods but that’s not because I’m uninterested in the third; my aim is to support all educators, irrespective of the year group(s) or subject(s) they teach, and this is best achieved by focusing on pedagogy rather than curriculum content. That said, if you want to ask me about geography or philosophy then brace yourselves for a long conversation!

In Video 10, I give an overview of the Four Cs of Thinking and how you might decide which one to focus on first.