A – Z of Thinking

Thinking is an act, at least in the sense that it is something one does. Certainly it is a different sort of act from the various ones we lump together as ‘physical’ – a difference signalled by the general account of thinking as ‘mental’ activity. But it makes perfectly good sense to break the activity down into particular ‘mental acts‘, or what are sometimes called ‘thinking moves’: making a prediction, forming an intention, recalling a name, etc., are obvious examples.

Have you ever wondered, though, how many different such thinking acts or moves there are?

I began wrestling with this question several years ago, when I became uncomfortable with the term ‘thinking skills‘ (at least when it was used rather thoughtlessly!) In fact, the more I questioned people on their understanding of the term, the more varied, if not vague, their accounts seemed.

Some of the clearest accounts, to be fair, referenced Bloom’s famous taxonomy of 1956, revised by Anderson in 2001. But even that, I felt, needed to be re-evaluated. It struck me as ironic that many teachers knew (or could just about remember) the 6 supposed levels of thinking (of which ‘knowledge’ or ‘remembering’ was the lowest). But fewer seemed to have a good understanding (2nd lowest) of the terms of the taxonomy, let alone the theory behind it. And it was the rare teacher who seemed confident of applying (3rd level) the theoretical framework to their teaching.

In short, I sought a scheme that would avoid the language of ‘levels’ and indeed of ‘skills’, and would focus on the basic acts or moves of thinking that human beings make on a regular basis.

I realised, of course, that there were very many verbs that we used to label such acts, but I aimed to cluster these into groups of (near) synonyms, and to select a key member from each group that would represent its central concept.

I had the rather ambitious notion, too, that I might be able to order the groups in some memorable way, and I set about trying to create an A – Z, more in hope than expectation.

When it occurred to me that my first four key members could be Think Ahead (later changed to Anticipate) and Think Back (or Backtrack), Connect and Disconnect, my hope turned to some excitement!

To cut a long story short, the ambition took, literally, years to fulfil, since the challenge grew as each letter was taken up. (E could have been Elaborate, Enquire, Envision, Estimate, Evaluate, Exaggerate, Examine, etc. In the end I went for Explain.) As you may imagine, there was much chopping and changing. But I did end up with a full A – Z, and only one ‘fudge’: there being no mental act beginning with X, I settled for (e)Xemplify.

The full scheme, as it turned out, had not 26 key verbs (or ‘memorable moves’) but 36, but I make no apology for extending in this way, since my aim was to produce a comprehensive as well as containable list.

An important part of my thinking (!) was that, without a full and commonly agreed list of the different acts of thinking that were either happening or hoped for in the classroom, the chances of their being recognised, reinforced and repeated were considerably reduced. In effect, this list enables, for the first time, a systematic and detailed approach to metacognition – thinking about thinking – in the classroom.

Quite how it can be introduced and used to make teaching and learning more focussed on developing thinking, rather than rote learning, is best discovered by experiential learning on my ‘Thinking Moves’ course. But if you are interested in having the complete list (which includes synonyms in an order of challenge, from pre-school to pre-University) please enter your email below.

N.B. You will be sent the list, together with some guidance about how you might use it, and will be contacted later for your feedback. Whilst the scheme itself is now ‘set in stone’, I am open to all sorts of comments and suggestions from practising teachers, who I believe will come up with many original ways of enabling learners to make good use of the list / tool themselves. The best of the suggestions will be shared on this site, along with the names of the teachers, their schools, and any students who have also contributed. (Thank you in advance!)

Copyright © 2017, Roger Sutcliffe, All rights reserved