Jargon like "thinking skills" and "learning progressions" abound. Here's how I work with a children's author to give parents confidence in understanding child development.
I’ve been involved in the implementation of assessing and reporting against standards from the time I used them with my own students in the mid-1990s. However, I don’t feel we’re taking seriously the importance of having parents confidently understand how school assessments today are ‘marked’ using learning progressions? 1
Parenting & Educational Progress Maps
On the other hand, there is every indication that millennial-aged parents and younger are very interested in having a proactive role in constructing “master narratives”. For instance, recent research from the Australian Institute Of Family Studies on types of courses parents found most relevant shows that they don’t want courses telling them how to effectively parent. Instead, they favour ones that allow them to focus on their children’s development.
Indeed, parents surveyed in the research say that reframing communication from effective parenting to child development allows them to view parenting through a much more productive lens, minimising more negative ways of managing children’s behaviours.
To explain what children's development looks like, how it works and what threatens it, communicators need to use meaningful language. Metaphor is a time-tested device that can be used to enhance the understanding of parenting concepts. … The successful candidate was a 'navigating waters' metaphor. This describes parenting as a journey that requires skill and support, where one may encounter smooth or rough seas and where safe harbours and lighthouses can protect parents from these challenges.
This should give teachers and school leaders hope in educating parents to better understand education standards and progress maps. But in the time-starved busyness of all schools and their crowded curriculum, there’s no mystery how educating parents on the importance of learning progressions is just another complex thing to do (or avoid) in an ocean of complex content demands.
My current work on ‘thinking skills’
My question is, how do we tell parents the positive story of the efficacious practice of using developmental frameworks without adding to the load that home-school relations already carry. I have been working to solve such a challenge in my own work with respect to learning progressions in critical and creative thinking, which I know have been around since the mid-1990s.2 However, the truth about interacting and making sense of them now includes dealing with three maps for measuring the development of critical thinking.
For this reason, I’ve turned my attention to the narratives we might use to keep school communities thinking and talking about thinking skills in order that children, parents and teachers share a sense of progress. My approach has led me to devise educational resources with children’s author Clare-Rose Trevelyan around her Young Philosophy Series of four interactive activity books (shown below).
I do so in the confidence that it is Clare’s passion that her stories about lost characters (in The Book With No Story), absurd but determined explorers (in Why Are We Here), regretful aliens who cause environmental destruction (in One Thing And And Anothers) and wordsmithing (in The Fake Dictionary) support the development of children's critical and creative thinking. Ultimately, we imagine the resources lending themselves to supporting parents in conversations with their kids, and then, in turn, building the confidence to discuss with teachers children’s use of thinking skills.
Revisiting the kiss-it-better-with-a-band-aid-strip approach!
The band-aid commercial which gave rise to kiss it better with a band-aid strip shows my age. So too the disparaging comment that a band-aid solution is not the way to deal with complex issues. But as I consider the complexity of understanding how thinking skills are developed, I’m reminded how often it’s the power we wield that determines our ability to solve problems. Parents are overwhelmingly the dispensers of band-aids. For that matter, so are classroom teachers, except that their professional status put them on the inside of the system.
But let’s look at it another way. A temporary band-aid solution can be a very important first response to a physical injury. Furthermore, there are many types of band-aids for different injuries, that is, the band-aid business is a well-developed one. In any case, this is the metaphor I’m using to explain my own efforts in making a positive difference to the complex home-school relationship which I believe is at the heart of why parents need an understanding of child development described in learning progressions.
Honouring what happens at home.
For this reason, my observation of author Clare-Rose Trevelyan has led me to deeply admire how she has reclaimed the imaginative processes of her own childhood. Finding an unexpected book on her mother’s bookshelf in which she discovered the word apeirophobia.3 Keeping journals from the age of four in which she draws and creates characters made of many things, like string and ribbons. Wanting books in which she can draw and write all over. Finding her grandmother’s mementoes scattered around the house - her diaries, thimbles and sewing things, her hatpins. Remembering family discussions around the kitchen table.
I believe that Clare develops each of the four books in the Young Philosophers Series as part of an evolving manifesto that helps her explain to her children how thinking and doing are related. Remarkably, by doing so she has hit against one of the oldest prejudices that we have in education. Namely, on the one hand, we have ‘thinkers’ and on the other hand, we have ‘doers’. The separation has been proved nonsense by researchers of Embodied Cognition and the Conceptual Metaphor Theory. For example, in his comprehensive account of the research in Scientific American, Samuel McNerney says this,
It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.”
The separation of thinkers and doers in education has called up both snobbish intellectualism and ignorant anti-intellectualism. However, viewed from Clare’s sense of creativity, neither position matters has she grows her vision from remaining deeply connected to how children participate (or don’t) in conversations with their first teachers, their parents.
In fact, I believe she demonstrates how writers and artists (a term she resists) use the basic processes which we all use in our human communications and interactions. I say this not to diminish her unique talents but to raise the importance of the creative powers we all possess.
It follows then, that as a curriculum designer I can do something about strategically placing band-aids on the complex body of human learning. Yes, there are thousands of small cuts that damage our collective view of our creative potential. On the other hand, the heroism of dealing with flesh wounds (shown wonderfully by Monty Python) has to be better than cynically festering over the job being too big to fix.
Picking up on trends
Therefore, identifying the small but strategic role you play as a parent, teacher and, through a learned agency, when you’re a student can’t be overstated. To begin with, we know, for instance, that critical and creative thinking have been identified as vital 21st Century Skills, Enterprise Skills and part of the suite of skills for being an entrepreneur. However, we also know that details around labels like thinking skills get hazy, depending on where you’re sourcing the information.
This is when we need systems and institutions to tell us what’s what. In Australia, that means looking to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and our State-run education department (e.g. for me in Melbourne it’s the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority).
But let’s be clear. These documents are created for educators, to enable them to fulfil their legal responsibilities under the Education Act. The language and structure you’ll find in them are for the maintenance of professional standards against which teachers and school leaders are performance managed. And to make matters even more complex, the teaching of thinking skills is not viewed as a separate subject but as a capability that needs to be fostered within every learning area and topic taught.
By contrast, as I imagine the needs of parents (Clare and her generation), I know that answering the question about what they need to know about the thinking skills is left hanging. What can the same documents tell them about helping their children be more employable and have a good life? Furthermore, as millennials, what have they experienced in their own primary or secondary schooling which will assist them to apply thinking skills in a learning context?
Bring on expert knowledge, right?
The answer to the last question is … very little. Consequently, over the last four years, I’ve briefed Clare on many aspects of the educational trends that impact the teaching and learning thinking skills in schools and the wider community. Unremarkably, I’ve focused on trends in which I had some first-hand experience. Namely,
The Philosophy For Children’s movement and its positive contribution to shifting how educators and the wider public view children as potentially great thinkers… as young philosophers in fact.
Cognitive scientific research that has been responsible for bringing to light theories such as the Conceptual Metaphor Theory, Computational Thinking and AI, plus a whole band of approaches labelled ‘brain-friendly’ teaching and learning strategies.
Clare’s response to my pedagogical briefings can be best summed up as ‘thanks but no thanks’. In other words, thanks for letting me know that there are serious brains focused on the issue of how kids learn thinking skills but no thanks … I don’t reckon any of this makes the slightest difference to me as I can’t see HOW it helps me in parenting my kids. 4
This is how I learn that nothing less than going to the source of the problem will suffice. That we need curricula that help in the building of trusted spaces in which educators, parents and children continually meet and listen to each other’s thinking. And in the practice of listening to and speaking thoughts out loud, the foundational action of critical and creative thinking skills is put in place as doing the thinking - embodied, personalised and connecting to both school and home contexts.
The Young Philosophers Series & its thinking skills solution.
Ironically, the approach that has emerged has come from the realisation of simply letting be and welcoming highly original solutions to well-entrenched problems. This has been for me the hallmark of the last four years, sitting on the frontline view of working in a startup business driven by one writer’s creative talent. Not only does Clare’s passion bear the responsibility of finding the bulk of the funding for the project, but it drives towards inclusively co-create publications with an array of other talents.
For instance, Clare created the second book of the Young Philosophers Series Why In The World Are You Here? with illustrator Yongho Moon and eight other visual artists, who interpreted the nine islands in the story through different media.
Announcing Everything World
It was this mix of education-that’s-not-school-education that Clare invented Everything World, the theme park for the mind. Ultimately, she announced something remarkable for a writer, that books and stories are not enough. Context is more important. And so she looked for the space in which she and her children could play, listen to stories, draw over books and harness the power of philosophical discussions. She proposed to them… what if the mind was an exciting theme park, each ride and attraction embodying what it means to do the thinking.
Most importantly, at the core of our approach is how we will use the mandatory learning progressions on critical and creative thinking without parents having to do any teaching other than a model for children that they are curious and passionate about what their children think, feel and show. All that might amount to doing one thing, clearing the kitchen table.
Meanwhile, classroom experiences foster ways that children can tell stories of making progress using the critical and creative thinking learning progression. The starting point can occur at any point in the curriculum.
For instance, I imagine myself back at the beginning of my career, introducing a drama program in a new school that is moving to join two single-sex schools into one large co-educational one. As a teacher, I have been made aware that drama is the ‘soft’ way that the school leaders want to enable the blending of two school cultures into a new integrated way. I create a Lunchtime Theatre Festival to view what drama experiences and knowledge of the elements of drama already exist in my students. I discuss with them the criteria set out in the Critical and Creative Thinking elaborations for their choice of skit or short play they will present at the Festival.
In essence, what transpires respects the starting point for the visit to a theme park of the mind whether it’s drama, history, science, mathematics or health education. However, the three types of resources absolutely honour the need for parents and students to have philosophical conversations. To that end, it is our work to invite families to access an invitation to subscribe to the Everything World learning platform on which they find:
1: A large map of Everything World, a philosophical theme park of the mind
Entrance to the park begins in The Mirror Maze Of Oneself, which is the catalyst of thinking out loud together. Students are invited to keep a journal that records their developing understanding of thinking interactions along the way.
For example, the purpose of the Mirror Maze is to get children used to asking questions - good questions, silly questions, hard questions and knowing what exactly are philosophical questions. Students are given agency to continue conversations that they begin in the classroom at home and vice versa. The cultural and legal boundaries are dealt with upfront as part of the thinking skills negotiations.
2. The Four Books Of The Young Philosophers Series
Each book shows an important state of mind, of what it means to use critical and creative thinking.
The Bumper Cars Of Everyone/ The Book With No Story
The attraction of THE BUMPER CARS OF EVERYONE is based upon a book Clare wrote called THE BOOK WITH NO STORY. What makes these creature-rides so interesting is that they all THINK very differently, and what's fabulous is that there are 52 of them.
The Lake Of Meaning/ Why In The World Are We Here?
Once you start thinking in the theme park of the mind about WHO YOU ARE, WHO YOU ARE NOT, and WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT EVERYONE ELSE, you can begin to really investigate WHERE you are. As you read the ATLAS of Why In The World Are We Here? natural questions will occur. Feel free to write and draw all over the words and artwork as you explore this text as a family.
The Wonder Wheel Of Contradiction/ The One Thing And Anothers
Surely you may have noticed by now, that most people you know and love, are, well, both one thing and the exact opposite at once. They go in opposite directions at once and then wonder why we have so many problems. With that idea in mind, the Wonder Wheel Of Contradiction is a much-tested and tried adventure. What happens on the ride is based on two aliens, Rio and Huxley from The Planet of Stuff. Clare tell their story in The One Thing And Anothers
The Ghost Train Of Change/ The Fake Dictionary
The ghost train always tells a historical story written by a child. It operates like a traditional cart, rolling through a haunted house, but the “ghosts” and the whole frightening experience is created through hologram-like-visuals so that they can be changed by whoever is in charge of telling the story that day. This ride is based on THE FAKE DICTIONARY. The point of the book is that someone, somewhere, somehow made up a particular word to be meaningful and useful.
3. Clare At The Kitchen Table Guides
The guides for activities around the attractions all begin with activities Clare has devised for her own children.
So this is our north star. And this is what we would like to realize.
Clare has full intentions that maybe one day she'll find the billionaire who will fund this theme park as a physical reality. Nonetheless its imaginative qualities are strong enough in themselves.
And so our north star here is the thing that drives us to create entertaining resources for parents and children that will support better communications between home and school. But what drives us is helping parents boost their kids' creative thinking. It’s about what they can do as a parent now.
What drives us is creating an emotionally satisfying space, with engaging activities that they can use over and over again. Our aim is to nurture them as higher order thinkers, thinking deeply as a way of life and not the homework they have to get through. The world needs curious thinkers for the future.
Exploring complex ideas CAN be served up in bite sized chunks. So, we want to apply what neuroscientists tell us make a healthy brain. By avoiding cognitive overload, we can all give ourselves and our children the best chance to succeed at learning new ideas.
So, by setting up family time surprises, we believe we will help families keep children engaged. Surprise is at the heart of creating a sense of quick wins of Everything World resources through accessing to our resource library - white papers that signpost new trends to visual aids created in the style of beautiful designs by our creative team.
A learning progression is a continuum that maps key stages in the development of a learning domain (e.g. literacy and numeracy) from simple beginnings through to complex interpretations and applications.
I worked in the Assessment and Reporting Branch of the Education Department of Western Australia introduced thinking skills in 1995.
Apeirophobia is the excessive fear of infinity and the uncountable, causing discomfort and sometimes panic attacks from thoughts of the infinity. It normally starts in adolescence, but in some rare cases, it can start before then.
Interestingly, thanks but no thanks is also the response teachers display when great slabs of curriculum knowledge are piled on them in the hope of improving their teaching.