The 3 theories of ‘thinking’.


Here Joe Warren explains how teachers can get the best from all of the many ‘theories of thinking’ without over thinking it all…

How do we think? How do we learn? How do our brains function? What indeed is intelligence?

Of all people, teachers have the most to gain if these huge questions were given clear answers. The reality is that these questions cannot be answered without straying into emotive responses, political arguments and bitter disagreements. Sadly, this means that we teachers miss out. We are cautious. We do not want to commit to a sensible sounding theory only to find later that it has become as popular as a rat running through a restaurant. There are so many theories too. It is too easy to get lost in a maze of mindsets, Mozart effects or multiple intelligences.

The good news is that every teacher can gain from the well of theories about thinking without getting into a pickle over it. Like caring for a Gremlin, there are just 3 simple rules to follow and thinking theories turn into a fruitful forest of practical strategies for teachers to pick. (Not feeding after midnight is not one of the rules)

How teachers should approach thinking theories.

  1. You don’t have to pick a side.

    Many teachers are drawn into thinking that by adopting strategies suggested by a particular theory, that they are signing up, becoming supporters and accepting the theory as their home team. We are encouraged to see these theories as ‘philosophies’. Of course, we can be much more scientific about it all. Scientific theories after all are only as good as the evidence, the method and the circumstances in which they were tested. They are not beliefs, and we do not need to believe them. We can though, try out strategies suggested by them and see for ourselves the impacts on our students learning and make our own assessments.

  2. Know what you’re looking for.

    It has been most helpful for me to group the main theories of intelligence into 3 groups. The theories in each group are not necessarily linked or related but have a common theme and suggest a similar set of useful teaching strategies. I’ve found once you know which group a ‘thinking theory’ belongs to, you will know which strategies and approaches it can offer you. Each group has its own set and I will discuss each and how they can benefit us, starting with group 1 in this post.

  3. Dip but don’t dive.

    The main concern I have with how theories of thinking influence our profession is that they have a danger of becoming over exposed, over used and relied on too heavily. I’ve seen NQTs given planning sheets forcing them to record the thinking skills their students are going to use as if they could read their pupils minds mid-lesson. I have seen lead teams insist on reference to types of thinking in every lesson, with teachers having to tell their pupils that they are now thinking in a particular way, at every turn. Things can be taken too far. Thinking theories are very valuable, but all good teachers know the value of diversity and how to take a little from each pool.

So, with these three rules clear in our minds, here is the first of my 3 main types of thinking theory all teachers should know about and what they have to offer us teachers.

Group 1: Thinking is a set of skills

In a nutshell:
The thinking processes that go on in our minds are a set of skills. Different skills allow us to think in different ways and reach different ideas and opinions. The important point is that skills can be taught; they can be developed and can be improved. The different ‘types’ of thinking each come with characteristics and outcomes. Most helpfully these theories tend to suggest prompts we can use to encourage and develop each skill – and therefore each type of thinking.

You can spot these theories as they tend to tell us the ways in which we are able to think form a hierarchical pattern with lower order or simpler thinking processes at the base and higher-order a more complex thinking processes towards the apex. Some though give each skill equal footing and encourage us to learn and use them all. They have gone in and out of favour, been revised, recoloured and revisited, but there is something enduringly worthy about them all.

Classic examples include:  Bloom’s taxonomy, DeBono’s thinking hats, mathematical reasoning and computational thinking.

Great for teachers for:
Inspiring your questions. Planning strong, challenging and surprising questions to ask in your lessons.

These theories of thinking become so much more helpful for teachers if we replace ‘thinking’ skills with ‘questioning’ skills. If we plan our questions in lessons to prompt the distinct types of thinking then we are arriving at a situation where our questioning strategies are more varied, more structured, more targeted and much more engaging. In a lesson, De Bono’s work tells us to put on the yellow hat to ask what are the positives and values of a topic. Bloom’s levels of thinking are accompanied by question sets and keywords to prompt each one. All are enduringly useful strategies for engaging our students.

During training courses, I show how thinking skills can be used to help us generate deeper and more challenging and engaging questions and for this I use the thinking skills suggested by Georgie Beasley. Former headteacher Georgie Beasley simplifies things down to an intuitive and manageable 5 key skills. Her books are linked to the previous more structured curriculum but that matters not as her 5 skills approach is so elegant and so clear it remains relevant and her books are still a mine of great ideas. Mostly though her 5 skills lend themselves to certain questions so clearly and readily .With just the thinking skill definitions in front of them I find most teachers rise to the challenge of generating wonderful questions that would enhance any lesson. Here is an example from one course where I challenged the group to create questions inspired be each skill on the simplest of subjects: the 9 times table and the tale of ‘The 3 Little Pigs’. The table gives the thinking skills definition so you can challenge yourself to apply to your subject and flex your own ‘turning thinking into questioning skills’.

Thinking skill
Using this skill the student has to…
Processing Recall known facts.
Question examples…
What is 9 x 1, 9 x 2? How many pigs were there? What was their problem?
Reasoning Explain or justify their answers.
Which one is the odd one out… 9, 90 or 99? Straw, sticks or wood?


Do you always get an odd number when you times by 9?

Why did some of the houses blow down? Why do you think the first pig used straw for his house?

Enquiry Research or discover. Experiment or test.
What pattern do you get if you colour the 9 times table on a 100 square? What pattern can you notice if you count the squares on either side of the multiple? Can you know if the answer will be odd or even for any number times 9?


What is the strongest material: straw, sticks or brick? How could you test each fairly? Which one breaks the easiest? What else would you need to build each house as well as the main material of straw, sticks or brick?

Creative Change, design or reimagining a given situation
If the pigs shared their straw, sticks and bricks how would the story be different?


Draw a wolf proof house.

On Nonagon Lane, all the houses are 9 sided shapes (instead of the usual 4 or 5) Design some Nonagon Lane houses. How many sides are there all together? Are any houses symmetrical?

Evaluation Measure items against (given or self-derived) criteria.
What method would you use for 90, 900 or the 99 times tables? What would be the best way to multiply any 3-digit number by 9?


What if the 3 pigs made boats, who would have the best?

Remember the rules:   Keep your focus on how your questioning can be inspired and you’ll avoid this group’s little issues: DeBono’s hats went through a recolouring process when the association of the black hat with negativity was brought into question. There are suggestions in some theories that not all people are capable of attaining all skills.  There is no standard definitions for these skills in any case: ‘Reasoning’ could be the ability to work through problems in your head, and apply to different situations, or ability to give your opinions or explanations, or predict what may come next. It all depends which theory you are reading.  However, whatever you call it, we would be happy for our students to do any of these things.

More good things to ‘think’ about: Apart from strengthening our questioning strategies, the ideas that there are distinct types of thinking and each can be developed and improved are very useful for teachers. They help us to introduce more variety to our tasks and lesson activities. They raise our expectations of what our students can achieve and the questions they can answer. They give us a set of criteria we can use to check how far our provision and planning reaches. But most of it all, by encouraging several types of thinking and to ask different types of questions, these theories encourage us to take risks. Now go and add enquiry and creative questions to your next lesson…

In the next post I look at Group 2 which suggest we all have ‘Parallel Intelligences’ and pick out how teachers can get the best from these theories.

Joe Warren trains for JMC in developing independent learners, stretching more able pupils, growth mindsets, high order thinking skills and computing and computational thinking.

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