On independent thinking

If your brain hurts as you read this article about thinking, teaching and learning, Ian Gilbert has done his job. Go on – have a go, but you’ll have to think for yourself – he won’t give you the answers.

Something unique?

When billionaire co-founder of China’s Ali Baba, Jack Ma, was asked what he thought were the skills we needed to be teaching children these days, one of the first ones he mentioned was ‘independent thinking’.

Ma, a trained teacher, had been asked at the 2018 Davos gathering what we should be teaching if, as he had just claimed, we needed to stop teaching the things that put us in competition with the machines, a competition we will of course lose. Adding skills such as art, sport, teamwork, values and belief to the list, he ended by saying:

‘We have to teach something unique, so that a machine can never catch up with us‘

The challenge then, for teachers everywhere, is whether we are actually teaching children something unique? To be unique? Or could it be argued that the very act of schooling is by design a process of levelling, of alignment, one in which the ones who end most like everyone else, most like their teachers, are the ones we deem the most successful?

Singapore visit

I had similar thoughts in my head on my first visit to Singapore a few years ago to deliver a ‘masterclass’ on thinking at the request of the British Council. Despite the education ministry’s push there over the years to ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ , it was clear that a great deal of emphasis was still placed on the ‘Guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ game followed closely by the ‘Is it in the test?’ question. Yet, my work in education over the last 25 years or more has focused on asking questions for which there is no answer. Or rather, for which the answer may be yes, no, neither, both or something else altogether.

So, as I entered the school hall to deliver my masterclass in a state girls school where I would be working with a group of 20 students observed by around 60 teachers, I was, understandably, nervous.

My approach grew out of my work in encouraging schools to consider Philosophy for Children, a thinking skills programme  developed by Professor Matthew Lipman in the US in the 70s and one of the few thinking skills approaches that comes out well when its effectiveness is researched academically (the other being CASE – Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education developed by Adey and Shayer out of London’s King’s College).

The right kind of questions

The nature of my work over the years had involved visiting many schools working with children and teachers from Reception to VIth Form, but for short ‘introductory bursts’, something that prohibited me from employing the true P4C methodology (sit in a circle known as a ‘community of enquiry’, read a stimulus going round the circle, spend time thinking of questions, record the questions on the board then democratically choose which question to start with. All I had time to do by way of set up was get them in a circle). Added to that was my natural professional laziness (at Independent Thinking we call the Singaporean approach ‘Lazy Teaching’ – check out Jim Smith’s best-selling Lazy Teacher’s Handbook for more ideas here). Why spend time, money and trees preparing handouts when with a bit of independent thinking, I could be making children’s brains hurt far more quickly and with no physical resources whatsoever? From this starting point, Thunks were born (although for the life of me I cannot recall the point at which I started to call them Thunks).


The best way for me describe a Thunk is to share some examples with you and give you some time to either a) think about them yourself quietly or b) start an argument in the staff room with them:

• Is a broken-down car parked?
• Should you bully a bully?
• Can you wash a hole?
• Does a mirror stop working when the lights go out?
• Can you touch the wind?
• If I borrow a million pounds am I a millionaire?
• Is there more future than past?
• Can you have the last word by saying nothing?
• Should you say ‘thank you’ to a robot waiter?

The effects of thunking

Over the years and across the world, working with children of all backgrounds and academic abilities and in all sorts of schools, I always notice the same effects when using such questions:

1. Children who don’t normally speak in class suddenly come into their own. Maybe it’s the fact that they can’t be wrong that emancipates them from fear? Maybe.

2. Children who are usually the first with the answer in a more traditional ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ game struggle most. Maybe it’s the fact that they can’t be right that grips them with fear? Maybe.

3. Children very quickly say, ‘My brain hurts’, something I cannot claim to have heard in other lessons in quite the same way (and I used to be a French teacher and learning a language in your teens is hard). Indeed, current views on teaching would imply that making children’s brain hurt is a bad thing, that we are forcing on them too much of a ‘cognitive load’, something that is detrimental to their learning. Maybe.

Is thinking learning?

But then teaching children to think for themselves is not actually teaching them anything. I would argue strongly that you can think without learning in the same way that you can learn without thinking. And teaching to the test, because it is on the syllabus, because we’ve always done it or whatever justification is offered – such approaches are the very embodiment of learning without thinking.

School is a game with the score measured in exam results, we all know that. The children who learn the rules succeed. The teachers who play by the rules succeed. Even Singapore’s ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ push has been stymied by the fact that everyone is still measured by the results of the game. In the end, I came away from Singapore better understanding two truths about the nature of education and thinking:

The girls were brilliant thinkers. But their government will never know that because that is not what it asks of them.

The country that gets the assessment system right – that reengineers it to accommodate creativity, teamwork, technology and independent thinking – will win.


Ian Gilbert is an educator, entrepreneur, award-winning writer and editor and one of the IB Magazine’s 15 leading educational ‘visionaries’ for his work on teaching children to think for themselves.

He has lived and worked in the UK, the Middle East, South America, Asia and is currently based in the Netherlands. Over 25 years ago, he set up Independent Thinking, a network of practitioners and innovators in education to work with schools across the world.


Feature Image24 hours in Singapore by Baet Yeok Kuan. photosforyou – Pixabay

“24 Hours in Singapore is an interactive audio sculpture installation that acts as an audio time capsule capturing sounds of Singapore. With the passage of time, this sculpture will serve as a remembrance of the rich intangible heritage of our daily lives in Singapore circa 2015. The installation’s audio recordings feature familiar sounds of everyday people, places and scenes, from the sounds of traffic in suburban heartlands and MRT trains to the daily chatter in wet markets and coffee shops”. Public Art Trust

Other Images:  protowink, geralt, F1Digitals – Pixabay & arifriyanto – Unsplash

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