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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Designing a Thinking Curriculum

ACER review

Wilks, S (ed) (2005) Designing a Thinking Curriculum. Melbourne, Australia: ACER Press. RRP $34.95

Modern education has evolved well past the traditional conception of knowledge as a set of facts and figures to be memorised, revised and recited by rote. Nonetheless, while today’s model of education is based on learning as a process of knowledge construction and critical thinking, we still have some way to go before we perfect the practical integration of content and process to engage students, particularly in the middle years of schooling, in every aspect of their education.

The term ‘thinking curriculum’ was coined by Lauren Resnick in 1989. Resnick, and proponents of the thinking curriculum since her pioneering work, have focused on the need to engage students in an active process of constructing knowledge by linking intellectually stimulating content to real-world contexts. They recognise that there is a body of knowledge that students should understand if they are to be considered educated, and that students must have a solid grasp of foundation knowledge on which to base new learning. However, they also put forward the need for students to develop the ability to think for themselves if they are to succeed beyond school. While encouraging students to memorise facts from textbooks will fulfil the first requirement, it will not necessarily equip them to use this knowledge in any constructive way beyond passing a school examination.

Educators designing a thinking curriculum should focus on teaching students skills not in discrete elements or subject areas, but as whole tasks with purpose, relevance and interest outside the requirements of achieving a passing grade. The ideal would be to avoid the dreaded student question, ‘Why are we doing this?’ The thinking curriculum should inspire students’ self-motivated learning and equip them with cross-discipline skills in problem solving, self-monitoring, reading and study strategies and critical thinking.

Furthermore, theorists have posited that this model of learning must be applied to students as early as possible. Higher order thinking skills should be fostered in students before they reach secondary school. The potential of the thinking curriculum to engage particularly middle school students (Years 5 to 8) has been an important development. Australian research has found that little to no improvement occurs in the reading, writing, speaking and listening skills of students in these years due to their disengagement from the educational process (Hill & Russell 1999).

In fact, it was in response to these research findings that many theorists designed the curriculum strategies found in Designing a Thinking Curriculum. A compilation of essays edited by the University of Melbourne’s Susan Wilks, this book is a significant step forward in the development of effective pedagogy.

Designing a Thinking Curriculum responds to the challenge of disengagement in the middle years of schooling by providing education professionals with ideas for the implementation of the thinking curriculum in their schools. Aimed at curriculum coordinators, education authority policymakers and teachers, the book comprises commentary and advice from leading experts in the field. Teacher educators and curriculum consultants describe how they have been influenced by theorists, their use of appropriate cognitive theories and strategies they have developed that will assist teachers to foster higher order thinking skills in their students. The authors suggest strategies for accommodating a variety of student learning styles and provide guidelines for establishing supportive school structures to implement the curriculum.

The book opens with a comprehensive background to the thinking curriculum by editor Susan Wilks, herself a senior fellow in the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne and director of the TeeCh Project into Thinking and Enquiry – Educating for Creative Habits. Wilks examines the most influential theories and practices concerning thought and language that have contributed to the development of the thinking curriculum philosophy and the establishment of appropriate environments and learning tools in classrooms.

Wilks, along with curriculum consultant Colleen Abbott, then showcases the thinking curriculum as exemplified in the Community of Inquiry model, an approach that identifies three key areas for student engagement – reading, discussing and seeing – that can be developed across disciplines to foster higher-order thinking. Wilks’ colleague Clinton Golding extrapolates this model to a whole-school approach in his chapter, ‘Creating a thinking school’.

Subsequent chapters detail practical innovations in specific year levels and discipline areas. Teachers demonstrate how they have modelled their curriculums around ideas generated by students; linked substantive, real-world problems to curriculum content; ensured that students achieve deep knowledge and understanding; and fostered higher-order thinking through the use of technology, creativity, the visual arts and mathematical and scientific ideas.

Toni Meath, Special Programs Coordinator at Queensland’s Parkdale Secondary College, concentrates on ‘Using a thinking curriculum to guide learning in the middle years’, illustrating through examples of the State’s New Basics Project and her school’s Materials Technology unit. Jason Pietzner of Fitzroy High School similarly has made use of Queensland’s New Basics Productive Pedagogies, but also draws from Bloom’s Taxonomy, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory and Lipman’s Philosophy for Children to formulate what he calls a three storey intellect model, highlighting the importance of gathering, processing and applying knowledge for Year 5 students. David Reynolds of Princes Hill High School concentrates on the Year 8 curriculum, while Andrew Bawden of Overnewton Community College utilises theories of cognitive functioning to develop curriculum appropriate to adolescents in later middle years schooling.

Wilks examines the use of visual artworks as thinking tools, while Julie Hoskins of Ruyton Girls School demonstrates how the thinking curriculum can be applied to broaden the traditionally rigid discipline of mathematics. Neil Chenery of the Australian Academy of Design creates a curriculum for teaching both technical and creative skills in multimedia studies.

More controversial is Wilks’ treatment of the hot topic of assessment. Her chapter ‘Testing everyone?’ is critical of traditional examinations that privilege literacy and numeracy over critical thinking and creativity. The chapter includes close reading of flawed exam questions with simple suggestions for reform, as well as a discussion of the benefits of authentic assessment.

Designing a Thinking Curriculum is a comprehensive and practical guide based on sound pedagogy and will inspire, inform and motivate educators looking to implement a thinking curriculum.

This article was provided by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).


Subject Headings

Thought and thinking
Curriculum studies
Curriculum planning