All the evidence points to significant benefits of teaching children to think as well as cram for exams, argues John Perry

The good news that we’re all aware of is that schools are improving. A quick look at the DfE’s performance tables makes it clear that more children achieve more highly than they did 20 years ago, and more schools are rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ than ever before.

The bad news, whether you are a child or an adult, is that schools are arguably more difficult places because the current system is so aggressively focused on a narrow range of metrics.

Now, however, we’ve uncovered some really good news in our recent research: there is overwhelming evidence that we can teach children to become intelligent, thoughtful people who do more than just “know stuff” for their exams. Our in-depth literature review focuses on what the evidence suggests about systematically teaching thinking skills.

The English school system is geared towards proving that teachers teach, rather than developing intelligence in our children.

The English school system is geared towards proving that teachers teach, rather than developing intelligence

This is counter-productive; we need a system which enables all children to become genuinely intelligent. This is not to deny the importance of knowledge, nor even the importance of exams. My concern is that we are so focused on examination outcomes that we neglect teaching children to be thinkers.

We examined over 50 studies to ascertain the effect of teaching metacognition on pupils’ outcomes and wellbeing.

Following our research, recently published in Educational Review, it is clear that there is strong evidence that teaching metacognition in schools has a positive effect on outcomes. There is less evidence about the relationship between teaching metacognition and pupil wellbeing, but the evidence which does exist is also positive.

Thinking skills can include a huge range of teaching techniques, such as writing frames, concept maps or questioning, for example, which can develop children’s cognitive control when taught by schools in a systematic way.

The Education Endowment Foundation suggests that thinking skills can add eight months of progress to a child’s development; John Hattie suggests a strong effect size of 0.53, while and all the other studies which we look at suggest positive effect sizes.

Teaching metacognition is beneficial at any age; it is beneficial for SEND children and for EAL students, and there are even early indications that it can help diminish the disadvantage gap. What’s not to love?

Looking beyond the English system, it is also interesting that many school systems to which successive governments have looked to for inspiration use thinking skills in their curricula. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Finland all make use of thinking skills in their classrooms.

There are at least three reasons why England doesn’t. Firstly, developing a coherent thinking skills curriculum is not a quick option.

Secondly, it is difficult to measure thinking skills, and this government likes to measure things. Thirdly, not long ago we had personal learning and thinking skills (PLTS), which would have helped to place England as a world leader in thinking skills in the classroom.

Unfortunately, PLTS suffered from “framework fatigue” and was a strategy too far for most schools, coming as it did on the back of the national literacy strategy, the national numeracy strategy, extended schools etc. This is a shame, but understandable. There is only so much that schools can do with the meagre resources they have.

The irony is that our research clearly shows that thinking skills can make all children more intelligent, surely what schools are for.

We know how this can be done and now is the time to do it. By teaching thinking skills to all children we will help them live the lives they want to live, rather than simply teaching them to pass exams, important though they are.

We now need schools and MATs which have the confidence to help children become thinkers and not only learners. This will improve exam results and make children more successful, intelligent people. Who wouldn’t want that?

John Perry is Assistant Professor of English in Education at the University of Nottingham