NWU-Vaal: Helping schools to become thinking communities

Anjonet Jordaan -- Thu, 04/09/2015 - 16:48

NWU-Vaal: Helping schools to become thinking communities

As the world becomes more complex and demanding, many educators recognise that preparing learners for life after school must include an education that provides the necessary tools to engage in lifelong learning.

The Schools as Thinking Communities project of the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University (NWU) aims to train and support South African pre-service and in-service teachers to apply and infuse well-established approaches to the teaching of thinking skills and strategies, as well as dispositions to learn and think across the curriculum.

This is done to enable learners to develop the propensity of skilfully and mindfully applying cognitive tools when confronted with general and academic-related problems and challenges. Preparing students to simply know knowledge is no longer sufficient to equip them with what they need to face a world that changes faster than most can adapt.

Cognitive skills and dispositions that will always be valued and in demand are clear and convincing writing and speech; productive collaboration; analysis, synthesis and evaluation of continuous growing amounts of information; solving challenging and complex problems; and focusing on and performing tasks with persistence and accuracy. These can only be imparted by teachers equipped to model these skills and dispositions, and can provide learners with opportunities to develop effective thinking skills as part of a well-rounded education.

Despite the National Department of Education’s strong cognitive focus on teaching and learning since 1997 – with the formulation of critical and developmental outcomes that have to be achieved at all levels of education – these outcomes appear not to have become reality in South African classrooms yet. Teachers should be equipped with knowledge and skills to implement and advance a cognitive approach to teaching and learning across the curriculum.

Currently, the Schools as Thinking Communities project focuses on three schools in the D7 and D8 District of the Gauteng Department of Education that embarked on their journey to become a Thinking Community under guidance and supervision of Prof Mary Grosser.

An important aspect of teaching in a school that decides to become a thinking community is that learners should be encouraged to become smarter at thinking by developing a questioning disposition. Learners should learn that they do not only have to wait for questions to be posed to them.

Snapshot into cognitive learning in practice

Grade 4 to 8 learners taking part in the project were challenged to take part in a competition that focused on the learners formulating and answering at least five of their own questions linked to selected topics that were dealt with in some of their subjects during the first and second quarter of the 2014 school year.

An important criterion for assessing the learners’ work was that the formulation of the questions had to indicate what knowledge about the selected topic they regard as important, and the phrasing of the question had to involve different modes or levels of thinking.


Emphasis is on more than just good grades

During March 2014, a survey done among 120 parents at the school noted the development of skills and dispositions among their children since the school embarked on their journey to become a thinking community; these included:

  • Increased motivation for attending to schoolwork
  • Greater precision and accuracy when completing tasks
  • Being positive about school
  • Improvement in academic performance
  • A questioning attitude or disposition
  • An eagerness to talk more about the strategies their teachers use during teaching in the classroom

*Prof Mary Grosser heads up the Holistic Learner Development in Diverse Contexts sub-programme within the Optentia Research Focus Area. The focus area is based on the Vaal Triangle Campus (Vanderbijlpark, Gauteng) of North-West University. Prof Grosser is also the current president of IACESA (International Association for Cognitive Education in Southern Africa), which aims to promote the use and research into cognitive education in Southern Africa.