The early years sector is awash with jargon and buzz words, and while some of the new fads in terminology seem to add little to practitioners' knowledge and understanding, there is one phrase which is of fundamental importance - sustained shared thinking.
Although the term first came into common currency in the work of Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford and her colleagues on the Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY) study, most early years theorists value the adult-child interaction.
REPEY defines sustained shared thinking as an episode in which two or more individuals 'work together' in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities or extend a narrative. Both parties must contribute to the thinking, and it must develop and extend.
It is now explicitly stated in the EYFS (4.3) that sustained shared thinking should be a part of a child's creativity and critical thinking. It is also indirectly described in all of the six areas of learning and development.
But while sustained shared thinking is clearly at the heart of effective early years practice, it is clearly not an area about which all practitioners are wholly confident.
'Sustained shared thinking is not covered in most practitioners' basic training, although the Early Years Professional course will touch on it,' says early years consultant Marion Dowling.
'It is highlighted in both the Welsh framework and the EYFS as active critical thinking. In these frameworks, children's thinking is seen as very important, not least because if children are encouraged to make connections - to put two and two together - it involves higher-level learning, as opposed to just learning by rote.
'It is recognised now that babies are much more competent than previously thought and babies already have thinking mechanisms in place. They do not have to be taught how to think. Our job is to provide the scope and the environment to challenge them to think.'
Marion Dowling was the keynote speaker and ran a workshop on contexts for thinking at the annual Walsall Early Years Conference in May. Walsall Early Years advisory teacher Helen Sharp says, 'We run the conference over two days and invite all our early years practitioners, nursery and reception staff, practitioners from private, voluntary and independent settings and childminders. The focus this year was on the role of the adult in supporting learning.
'The response to Marion's keynote address was positive from everyone. I think "inspirational" was the word used most often. One lovely message was that we just need to have "normal conversations" with children, rather than death by questioning!'
Ms Dowling warns that children need time to think. 'In a course, I look at why it is so important to find ways of encouraging children to make choices and decisions. I look at the climate for thinking and the fact that children need opportunities and time for thinking.
'Sometimes adults ask too many questions. We need to hold back on the questioning and listen to the children's questions and let them take the lead. There is a place for adult intervention, but adults should never interfere with children's thinking.'
Next month: leadership.
THE EXPERT'S VIEW
Kathy Brodie, Early Years Professional and trainer, says, 'A good course will explain that sustained shared thinking is nothing new and it will explain the theory but be very practical.
'Thinking must develop and extend. People sometimes miss that point. They might work together with a child but do not grasp the point about extending and developing.
'Shared sustained thinking is at the core of all good practice and is key to childinitiated learning. You cannot extend the child if you do not know where the child is at.
'Sustained shared thinking does not just occur in pre-school. You can see it with a baby dropping a toy off the high chair.
'A key point to cover in a course is that you have to be an active listener. That means you must focus on the child and show with your body language that you are paying attention so you can follow the lead of the child. It is not a teaching opportunity. It is not about showing how clever you as an adult are.
'I was working with a little boy who was telling me he had gone on a boat. I thought I knew what he was saying - that he had been on a trip to North Wales - but when I really listened I twigged he had been to Sweden and he had been in an airplane and been on the sea, and there was so much he had to tell me. If I hadn't tuned in to him, he would have missed out and as a professional, I would have missed that opportunity to understand that child and his background.
'A good course will underline how the lead has to be with the child. The practitioner should not be hijacking it for a learning session. For example, you can have a child talking excitedly about a spider with a practitioner and another practitioner comes along and starts counting with the child the spider's legs and eyes and he turns off and hands it to the adult, saying, "Here, you have it" and walks away. He was telling the first person all about how and where he had found a real spider.
'Some people find documenting sustained shared thinking difficult. An effective course will give some ideas and suggestions. It is nice to have albums and the children's learning journeys available where the children can see them. Learning journeys are often stored on a high shelf. Put them on a low shelf - children like going through them and then ask to add a particularly good drawing to their journey.'
8 October - Developing Young Children's Capabilities as Creative Thinkers and Problem Solvers, led by Pat Brunton and Linda Thornton, held at Early Excellence, The Old School, Outane, Huddersfield, tel: 01422 31135
16 October - A short Saturday morning course, Developing Quality Provision for Outdoor Play - Creating Rich Contexts for Play and Thinking Outdoors, led by Jan White, held at Early Excellence.
21-22 October; 17-18 February 2011 - Fitting Not Flitting: Using schema theory to understand and plan for children's learning, held at the Pen Green Research Centre, Corby, www.pengreen.org, tel: 01536 443435
5 November - Exploring the Challenges of Effective Practice - Developing Young Children's Thinking, led by Paddy Beels OBE, held at Early Excellence.
11 November - Improving Adult-Child Interactions - A Focus on How to Support and Extend Children's Thinking, led by Julie Fisher, held at Early Excellence.
How to promote creative and critical thinking in the under fives, led by Yvonne Batson-Wright of Training Designs at venues and times to suit clients. Courses and workshops. tel: 0845 643 4231/07917 095 967 www.trainingdesigns.com
Thinking skills, one-day training conferences for local authorities and organisations led by Sally Featherstone and Ros Bayley of Opitus, tel: 01706 812702 www.opitus.uk.com
Supporting children's sustained shared thinking Offered by Acorn Childcare Training, £550 plus VAT for 20 people, tel: 0845 371 0953 www.childcaretraining.co.uk
You could think of running your own in-house training using bought-in materials: Exploring young children's thinking through their self-chosen activities is a training pack with a booklet and DVD developed by Marion Dowling for Early Education, cost £32.63. Tel: 020 7539 5400 www.early-education.org.uk
Supporting young children's sustained shared thinking, a training pack with a booklet and DVD developed by Marion Dowling for Early Education, cost £21.75, available from Early Education.