What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them?

//What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them?

…from a purely theoretical standpoint alone, it hardly seems plausible that a strategy of inquiry that must necessarily be broad enough to be applicable to a wide range of disciplines and problems can ever have, at the same time, sufficient particular relevance to be helpful in the solution of the specific problem at hand.
David Ausubel

It’s tempting to believe that if we teach children how to think, then they’ll think better. After all, when we teach children to read, then they read better and when we teach them to juggle then they get better at juggling. Why should thinking be any different?

Well, first we have to identify what we mean by thinking. In What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology we say this:

There are two common usages of the term ‘thinking’. One holds that thinking is everything that the conscious mind does. That would include perception, mental arithmetic, remembering a phone number, or conjuring up an image of an elephant headed zebra. We might also include the many varieties of unconscious thought but whilst unconscious cognitive processes may well be tremendously important in shaping the way we make sense of the world, we are using ‘thinking’ in its conscious sense.

Simply equating thinking with any and all conscious cognitive processes is too broad to be useful. Thinking is an essentially active process and therefore distinct from the more passive ‘thought’. Thought is the result of thinking and thinking is the struggle to get from A to B. So, thinking is conscious and it is active. It is the kind of deliberative cognitive process that can make new connections and create meaning. It is dialogic: it has the quality of an internal conversation between different perspectives, although the this is not always immediately obvious. And it is linguistic: verbal for those of us who use spoken language, visual for those of us who use sign language to communicate with others and with ourselves… Thought then, for our purposes, is the inner dialogue we have with ourselves. (p.15-16)

It’s fine if you want to quibble with this definition, but this is what I mean when I think about thinking. So what might a thinking skill be? Depending on who you ask, you get stuff like this:

  • Organising gathered information
  • Forming concepts
  • Linking ideas together
  • Creating, deciding, analysing, evaluating
  • Planning, monitoring and evaluating

Have a look at this website if you feel the need for any more. The thing is, these skills are worthless unless tied to a body of knowledge. In order to organise information you must have some information to organise, but organising information is something we do automatically. Likewise, forming a concept. A concept is formed out of what we know, and again our minds appear to be wired in order to make forming concepts easy. As an intellectual exercise – practising thinking skills if you will – why not work your way through the rest of the list and suggest how any of these items could possibly exist in the absence of propositional knowledge.

The point is we all have an innate capacity to do many of these things already. We’re born with the ability to organise environmental stimuli into schemas which then form concepts etc. We do this unconsciously without the need for thought. Other things like planning and evaluating also happen unconsciously, but we can also decide to pay additional attention when our experience is such that we’re not sure as to outcomes. It might be useful to prompt children to do these things and briefly demonstrate how to do them, but I’d suggest investing much more time than that will run into a considerable opportunity cost.

If you want to, you can take an A Level course in Thinking Skills with Cambridge Assessment. The skills assessed in this course are our old friends problem solving and critical thinking as well as ‘problem analysis and solution’ and  ‘applied reasoning’. Now, of course, you can learn a body of knowledge which includes recognising and identifying biases, questioning assumption and identifying logical fallacies. These are things everyone would probably benefit from learning about and they will, no doubt, increase your crystallised intelligence. The general principle here is, the more you know the better you are able to think.

Now, of course, we can measure raw reasoning power – or fluid intelligence as it’s usually referred to in the scientific literature – but the point that I’ve made over the past few blog posts is that currently, to the best of our knowledge, there’s nothing you can do to increase someone’s fluid intelligence. Here’s the sort of question used to measure fluid intelligence: “If P is true, then Q is true. Q is not true. What, if anything follows.” Some of the questions in the Thinking Skills paper are more insensitive to instruction than others, but that just means, there’s little gain in teaching the thinking skills beyond a certain point. Exposure to, and practise at, these kinds of questions improves your ability at answering them, but ultimately, some people are just better at reasoning than others. 

For instance, how would you teach the thinking skill required to answer this question?


But what about Cognitive Acceleration? Specifically Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education. The claim made by proponents of CASE is that by teaching their science course to 12 years olds, English Language GCSE results were improved at age 16. Too good to true? Well not according to Adey and Shayer, who, in their 1994 book Really Raising Standards documented the miraculous effects of their research. The basis of the CASE intervention requires a mediator to ask questions that allow “guided self-discovery” with students working together in groups to solve a problem.

Clearly, this flies in the face of decades of research in cognitive science and is the ultimate vindication for proponents of discovery learning and group work. Except that in a 2016 RCT funded by the Education Endowment Foundation Adey and Shayer’s findings didn’t seem to replicate. In fact, the conclusions drawn by the research team were that there was “no evidence that Let’s Think Secondary Science improved the science attainment of students by the end of Year 8” and further, “Students who received LTSS [Let’s Think in Secondary Science] did worse than the control group on the English and maths assessments” although they do allow that “this result could have occurred by chance and we are not able to conclude that it was caused by the programme.” Not only was there no effect for Cognitive Acceleration programmes on science, there was certainly no evidence of far transfer.

Despite a significant investment in tailored CPD, “Many schools did not implement the programme as intended by the developer.” There is always a problem with educational interventions that teachers find difficult to deliver. It may be that CASE – or Let’s Think in Secondary Science as it’s now branded – is actually wonderful and the poor results are just the fault of incompetent teachers messing up researchers’ hard work, but equally, it may be that if interventions are so hard to get right then there’s probably a serious problem with their design.

As always, we should return to the words of Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If we’re to accept that something as unlikely as minimally guided groupwork in science leads to far transfer years later in unrelated domains then we really need some spectacularly robust evidence.

To conclude: if we were to define ‘thinking skills’ as a body of knowledge that adds to crystallised intelligence and thus makes us better thinkers, then yes, of course we can teach them. But, if we want to suggest that thinking skills are somehow different from our naturally occurring innate capacities for fluid intelligence and also different to knowledge, whether it be of the procedural or propositional variety, then we might be susceptible to the next magic beans salesperson who happens along.

Further reading

  • Greg Ashman has blogged about CASE here and here.
  • It’s also worth reading this paper from André Tricot and John Sweller on why teaching generic skills doesn’t work 
2017-02-23T23:08:15+00:00November 9th, 2016|research|


  1. […] What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them? […]

  2. howardat58 November 9, 2016 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    Polya is justfied, so long as one has read the book, and not just the first bit only.
    “Induction and Analogy” and “Patterns of Plausible Reasoning”, both by Polya, are harder work.

  3. […] What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them? […]

  4. Joe Mulvey November 9, 2016 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    Um, unless my thinking skills are amiss, then your logic example is defective, and your example shows it quite clearly. You state a rule connecting a statement P (“Student scores 85% or more”) with a statement Q (“Student gets an A”) by saying “if P then [always] Q”. The possibilities are:
    – Student gets 85% or more and is thus awarded an A.
    – Student gets less than 85% and is not awarded an A.
    – Student gets less than 85% and is awarded an A anyway because he’s nice/good looking/persuasive and it’s the instructor’s birthday and anyway who says he can’t?
    So the event “not Q” is ONLY associated with “not P”. So P must be untrue. If Q is TRUE, then we can say nothing.
    This sort of logic gets taught to A-level Maths students (usually at Further Maths level). It may be that the answer to your question relies on exposing students to the full diversity of human thought. I’m fairly comfortable with this type of logic question but something like “Explain how Shakespeare portrays the relationship between Othello and Desdemona” scares the hell out of me.

    • David Didau November 9, 2016 at 1:59 pm - Reply

      Hmm. I’ve removed the example for now while I reflect on my inability to reason logically.

      For our purposes, here it is:

      Nothing follows. The fact that ‘if P is true, then Q is true’ does not imply that if Q is not true then neither is P. It’s much easier to answer these types of questions when we have more contextual information to go on and so are able to access crystallised intelligence. Consider this statement: “If you score 85% or above in this class, then you will get an A.” Can you get an A if you score less than 85%? Easier, isn’t it?

      But, as far as I can see it, the statement does not say what grade you will receive if you score less than 85%. If you score 75% in the class and receive a B, you cannot complain that the statement was incorrect. Likewise, if you score 84% and end up with an A, you still cannot say that the statement was wrong. When the premise p of the implication “p implies q” is false, we are forced into a corner. We cannot say that the implication is false, yet we have no evidence that it is true—because p didn’t happen.

      • Robert Jones (@jonesieboy) November 9, 2016 at 2:02 pm - Reply

        +1 for Joe’s analysis. Logically speaking P=>Q is indeed equivalent to (not Q) => (not P)

        • David Didau November 9, 2016 at 2:37 pm - Reply

          But this wasn’t an ‘if and only if’ clause. Therefore we can’t support the implication that (not Q) => (not P). Look at if another way:
          If dentist drills into my tooth (P) then it hurts (Q).
          This does not imply that if my tooth doesn’t hurt then the dentist hasn’t being drilling. One would hope the dentist had used an anaesthetic!

          • Robert Jones (@jonesieboy) November 9, 2016 at 2:50 pm

            Your final line means that the original implication was false. If a painless drilling is possible, then it is not true that “If dentist drills into my tooth (P) then it hurts (Q)”

            “If dentist drills into my tooth (P) then it hurts (Q)” is only true as a logical statement if it will hurt *every single time* a dentist drills into my mouth. The truth of P implies the truth of Q. In this case, it is absolutely true that the falsity of Q implies the falsity of P.


          • Joe Mulvey November 9, 2016 at 2:51 pm

            “if and only if” would mean that P => Q and Q => P. Thus the only circumstances would in which the student can get an A are when he gets 85% or more. One implies the other. “if and only if” is not directly a statement about negations.

            To go back to your first response, I agree entirely, but you are starting from the wrong statement. Presented with the statement “Jimmy got a B” (ie Q is false), what can you deduce? Well Jimmy clearly didn’t get 85% or more because if he did the rules say he would have got an A.

            Presented with “Betty got an A” (ie Q is true), what can you deduce? As you correctly show, the answer is “nothing”. Possible explanations include “Betty got 86%” or “David fancies Betty”.

            Just to be clear, I didn’t intend this to undermine an article which, as ever, is thought-provoking, interesting and persuasive. Mostly 🙂

      • chrisanicholson November 10, 2016 at 7:55 am - Reply

        David, I think where you went wrong here is the way that you formulated the logical statement of your question “Can you get an A if you score less than 85%?”. I believe the (false) statement relating to your question would actually be expressed as “If -P then -Q” rather than “If -Q then -P”. What your question (correctly) implies is that the statement “If the student doesn’t get 85% or more, then they necessarily won’t get an A” is false. Which it would be.

  5. Andrés Bello November 9, 2016 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    Hello David,

    I’m a teacher from Spain. Sorry for my english (I only have a B2). I’ve just read your last articles about the intelligence and the thinking skills. They are all very interesting and I have some questions:

    1) What do you know about the different Learning to think projects of the Harvard University? There is the group that works with Ron Ritchhart, the other one that does the same with Robert Schwartz? The use of Thinking routines and similar is worth enough? What opinion do you have?

    2) Is it necessary in the lower grades to start working metacognition and thinking skills or shall we focus in the growth of vocabulary?

    Thank you, I bought your book ‘The secret of literacy’ and it is very interesting!

    Andrés Bello

    • David Didau November 9, 2016 at 6:03 pm - Reply

      Hi Andrés – thanks for your questions. I’m extremely sceptical of Harvard’s Making Thinking Visible programme for al the reasons outlined above. I haven’t seen a specific evaluation, so haven’t done any critical evaluation myself, but I’d urge caution. Depending on what you want, vocabulary instruction is a great place to start. Most academic thinking is linguistic and we cannot think things if we don’t have the words for them.

      Hope that helps, David

      • Andrés Bello November 9, 2016 at 6:36 pm - Reply

        Thank you David, I am also sceptic about it and, as you say, there is no specific evaluation around it.

        There is also the issue of transference, that if one pupil learns to make visible the thinking in one subject, for example in science, it wouldn’t necessary mean that he is able to do it in history, no? And as you say we’ll maybe loosing extremely valuable time because there is no stong evidence.

        I note down your recommendation, thanks.

  6. […] It’s tempting to believe that if we teach children how to think, then they’ll think better. After all, when we teach children to read, then they read better and when we teach them to juggle then they get better at juggling. Why should thinking be any different?Well, first we have to identify what we mean by thinking. In What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology we say this:  […]

  7. Robert Jones (@jonesieboy) November 9, 2016 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    I was also sceptical about Making Thinking Visible, but feel a bit less so now (with no practical experience of using it!) – it seems to involve routines for activity in a classroom, rather than an attempt to nurture specific transferable thinking skills. “Think pair share” is an example.

  8. […] It’s tempting to believe that if we teach children how to think, then they’ll think better. After all, when we teach children to read, then they read better and when we teach them to juggle then they get better at juggling. Why should thinking be any different? Well, first we have to identify what we mean by thinking. In What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology we say this:  […]

  9. […] …from a purely theoretical standpoint alone, it hardly seems plausible that a strategy of inquiry that must necessarily be broad enough to be applicable to a wide range of disciplines and problems can ever have, at the same time,…  […]

  10. […] What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them? | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  11. […] blog in the education space: David Didau’s Learning Spy. The article that caught my attention: “What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them?” November 9, […]

  12. Jon Ward November 11, 2016 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    I was so impressed by this article I wrote a blog post about it: http://zoomthinking.com/why-everything-about-zoom-thinking-is-wrong/ Hope you enjoy.

  13. […] Source: What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them? | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  14. Jon Ward November 20, 2016 at 5:21 am - Reply

    Just caught up with your comment on my blog. Correction appreciated. I have replied there to this effect: I believe we may be more aligned than my post suggests. My point that thinking skills should always be learned “on the job” implies that the thinking process must be engaged with meaningful knowledge to be teachable.

  15. […] 4. What are ‘thinking skills’ and can we teach them? (November 2016) […]

  16. Oliver Cav March 30, 2017 at 11:23 pm - Reply

    You’d love this book, David. It cured me of my championing of thinking skills. It’s Teaching Critical Thinking, 1990, edited by John E McPeck, in one one of whose chapters writes:
    “In brief, my rejection of the notion of ‘general reasoning ability’ is similar to the reasons one might have for rejecting the general notion of, say, ‘ability to win at games’.

    In another passage he writes: “The mistake that occurs in maligning factual teaching is that we tend to set up, or envisage, a false dichotomy between factual knowledge on the one hand and thinking on the other. We talk as though there were ‘simple facts’, which are relatively passive things (like data), and ‘thinking’, which is active; hence the dichotomy.”

    And…”the factual knowledge itself requires thinking; there are not two things going on in knowing facts, but one. This is because ‘knowing’ something logically entails understanding it — else we would not say one ‘knows’ it.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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