Tom Bennett

Home » Uncategorized » I think, therefore I learn: Why Thinking Skills are a pointless waste of time

I think, therefore I learn: Why Thinking Skills are a pointless waste of time


Black Belt in Bloom’s. Can’t spell ‘Taxonomy’.

Here’s my James Randi challenge to educators: Thinking Skills don’t exist, at least, not in the way we are led to believe. Despite the fact that many schools like to flush precious resources on Thinking Skills days, they only serve to give teachers the illusion of what is often, terrifyingly called ‘deep learning’ (God save us). They are the phantom limbs of learning. They are a quite perfect waste of time, which is bad enough in the schools of the middle classes, but disastrous for any child who already starts with an economic disadvantage. The con is on.   
Now a proposition of that magnitude is going to take some propping up, so before anyone pops a vein, I’ll issue the caveats. I don’t mean that thinking doesn’t exist. Descartes did a tidy job of showing us that it was perhaps the only truth that we could reasonably claim as being intuitively demonstrable. My man, who farted? buzzer sounds for the relatively modern claim that there are a specific set of skills that can be taught independently of the factual content of a topic, and that they can be taught in a meaningful way.
The first problem is that there is no consensus about what such a set of skills might even resemble. I get into a lot of arguments with indignant Thinking Skill fundamentalists who are perfectly happy to give me their definition of Thinking Skills, but who are then unable to show me why their taxonomy is superior (or even different) to alternatives. Before I discuss TS with anyone, I have to say, ‘Wait, what do you mean, first of all?’ So there’s that.
Worse than that wobbly leg is that there isn’t a table at all. What evidence is there to suggest that thinking skills exist as a discrete discipline of their own? I’m happy to advise at this point: none. It’s an ontological invention. There is neither empirical evidence of their existence, nor are they demonstrably true by appealing to reason alone. As the Torquemada of Humanism, Richard Dawkins is tirelessly fond of pointing out, the burden of justification lies with those who assert the existence of the entity.
So that’s a pretty big strike against them. But because I don’t like to leave a job half done, I’m going to kick the non-existent skills when they’re down: they assume that children need to be taught how to think. Which is completely absurd. Children don’t need to be taught how to think. No one does. We think constantly. It’s a pre requisite of consciousness, of cognition, of awareness. The very experience of experiencing, is thinking. It’s the one thing I don’t have to ask my kids to do. It’s like teaching them to have a pulse.
What do people even mean when they say we have to teach thinking skills? Usually they mean ‘to think in a certain way’, or more commonly, ‘to agree with what I think,’ but that has often been the ambition of educational reform: not to teach children to be more intelligent than their tutors, but to conform to their specifications. Ironically, many people determined to inspire a generation of free-thinkers do so in a way that attempts to commit them to conformity.
Kill me.
As with most abstract, abstruse objectives of well-meant but essentially misguided reformers, demonstrating this in the concrete is the way to dispel smoke and shatter mirrors. Let’s pick a skill. Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them…well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit’s guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don’t fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.
Eventually they develop the abilities you are looking for, but none of it happens without the dissemination of facts: facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious. Knowledge is best learned in context. Context is a web of knowledge placed in an appropriate order. Children need to be told this stuff, otherwise you condemn them to perpetually repeat the efforts of the past. Which is fine, if you want culture and science to freeze at exactly the point at which you started this pointless, precious project.
These skills can’t be taught, separately from content. They certainly can’t be assessed on it. We don’t even know what they are. They can’t be meaningfully demonstrated without the possession of knowledge. Let’s stop wasting time teaching something as tangible as Tinkerbell, and invest the time our children so desperately need on things they need to know. Let them deal with the thinking. They’re fine on their own with that bit.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Quick reply:
    Argument 1. For many concepts no final definition can be given (“ask” Socrates). This does not mean the concept – or similarities – can be recknognized.
    Argument 2. Everybody knows how to breathe, still this does not lead to the conclusion that some people can improve the way they breath
    Argument 3. Strange argument and at least inconsistent with argument 1. Who said that thinking is always without content? (straw man fallacy?).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Tom's method does exactly what Argument 2 suggests.

  3. Sue Sims says:


    1. Do you mean 'cannot be recognised'?
    2. Do you mean 'cannot improve the way they breathe'?

    Perhaps you need to improve your thinking skills:-)

  4. Sue Sims says:


    1. Do you mean 'cannot be recognised'?
    2. Do you mean 'cannot improve the way they breathe'?

    Perhaps you need to improve your thinking skills:-)

  5. Sue Sims says:


    1. Do you mean 'cannot be recognised'?
    2. Do you mean 'cannot improve the way they breathe'?

    Perhaps you need to improve your thinking skills:-)

  6. Anonymous says:

    There is an idea that studetns lack skill when they actually lack knowledge. I finally realised that my students' comments that a source was reliable because it was from a newspaper was not made because students lack skill in source analysis, that they are not sufficiently critical. In fact they simply dont know that you cant believe everything you read in the papers.

  7. Anonymous says:

    With history sourcework what is apparently a skill turns out to be knowledge of events etc combined with knowledge of things like human motivation. I can teach technique to get the marks but it is a lack of knowledge that means students appear uncritical of spurces and they will only get better when they know more, which I am best placed to tell them.

  8. AWilliamz says:

    Is all this stuff about thinking skills just a back lash against a non classroom based misconception that teachers are some how not teaching how to think about their subject by umm teaching their subject. Perhaps it is a paucity in understanding what education actually is that leads to all this nonsense. I think many people think that teachers just stand at the front of the classroom talking and then getting students to copy some stuff off the board. If that was all that happened then maybe just maybe you could see why people might be attracted to stuff like 'Thinking skills' but why they could not understand that thinking should be happening in every classroom and can only make sense within some kind of context I don't know.

  9. vpletap says:

    This is mostly right, with one (recent) exception. A general thinking skill was used in promoting effective geography education.


  10. Anonymous says:

    'Thinking Skills' is yet another example of 'trickle-down',faddish thinking. 1: University professor in some sort of -ology comes up with Concept. 2: Concept is picked up in media circles 3: Pointless non-classroom-based educational professional looking to justify salary promotes concept 4: Concept becomes some sort of centralised policy 5: conformist SMT's promote Concept as 'NEXT BIG THING' 6: Intelligent teachers keep heads down, take what little benefit (if any) Concept offers, and wait for cycle to repeat.

    I think 'thinking skills' is really about promoting a sort of authority-lite education, founded on the fallacious belief that children, if only given the right sort of encouragement, will blossom into free-thinking independent learners; while their teachers (all lightly-paid, overworked NQT's?) beam on proudly. I find if I don't teach my kids stuff, they generally don't know stuff, and can't think beyond shallow media cliche. Funny, that.

  11. Sue Sims says:

    “I find if I don't teach my kids stuff, they generally don't know stuff.” Absolutely true. The problem, of course, is that teaching them stuff frequently means they still don't know stuff. I'm trying at the moment to 'revise' the English Language material my AO2 students need for the exam they're sitting on the 22nd, only to find that many of them have as much knowledge as they would have had if I'd never taught it at all. It seems to me that a lot of the educational wackadiddle foisted on to us during the last 30 years stems from a laudable desire to prevent this happening – so far, in vain.

    The students who do best are those who follow the old-fashioned routine of reading through notes, checking up on areas they're unsure of, testing themselves, writing practice essays, and all those boring things which we all did in our day. The ones who do worst are those who sit in class waiting to be entertained, who love 'group work' because it enables them to sit back and let an enthusiast do all the work, and who will be quick to blame the teacher when they don't get an A*.

    End of (rather irrelevant) grumble, and off to school. Sigh.

  12. Tim says:

    I think your argument is sound, if a little polemic. A whole industry grew up in the late 90s around the misunderstanding (some of it wilful) of breakthroughs in cognitive science. New Thinking Skills Gurus sprung up like nettles and many of their untested ideas were used uncritically in classrooms. As a profession we do like to jump on band wagons.

    I think the emotion intelligence stuff was even worse, SEAL etc. but that's a whole other debate.

    For me, the best part of your article was at the end, when you'd finished ranting. “These skills can't be taught, separately from content. They certainly can't be assessed on it. We don't even know what they are. They can't be meaningfully demonstrated without the possession of knowledge.” This is a truth of education that should be enshrined as a maxim, agreed and understood by all educators. Context is everything, trying to teach skills (thinking or otherwise) or 'facts' – dates, names, concepts – without a meaningful context is inefficient and ineffective. Those who so fervently promote synthetic phonics (the latest band wagon) should bear this in mind.

  13. Having just read your more recent post re The Khan Academy, it seems strange that I can completely agree with you about that, but equally completely disagree with you on this!

    I spent many years successfully teaching what were essentially thinking skills, though they were not called that at the time. There was a programme of continuity and progression over a period of 3, 5 or 7 years placed within a wide variety of increasingly personalised contexts, and over time the students displayed substantial progress in their ability to confront complex open-ended problem-solving challenges. So I would have to say that it is possible to teach thinking skills, and most worthwhile, particularly if we hope to develop a generation of people able to 'think for themselves' in an increasingly unpredictable changing world. It is true to say, however, that the the course was not allied to the delivery of a specified body of knowledge, such as History.

    However, such a course does need to be done properly, and I suspect that part of the problem is that in many schools it is not delivered in a coherent and relevent way. So maybe it is a bit like the Khan Academy – the potential is great, but the reality is often disappointing.

  14. Greg Ashman says:

    This is one of the best blog posts that I have read for some time. May I exhort more of you out there to put some piece of educational whimsy to the sword. Remember Occam's razor; entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. We don't need goblins and trolls to explain how the world works and we don't need their equivalents in education.

  15. Can you explain why the processes listed in the graphic subtitled “kill me” are not worth trying to develop explicitly in children? Are you suggesting we should make no attempt at all to develop processes such as these, and assume that they will be developed as a consequence of good old-fashioned chalk and talk? Are they worthy of development at all in your view? Are all these processes as equally developed in your students as their pulse?

    Nobody is saying these things can be taught “independently of context” – I agree with the previous commenter that this is a straw man argument. Some contexts are better than others – however their development is not generally very well served by traditional subject disciplines and teaching methods. The parallel notion that skills cannot be transferred to other contexts is fallacious also – see research by Diane Halpern for example – however the process of transfer does need to be carefully communicated and managed.

    Problematising the fact that there is no “consensus” is also a bit bizarre. Is consensus realistic or even desirable? But in fact there is a fair amount of overlap – your “kill me” list for example is very similar to the sorts of things Guy Claxton talks about, and Art Costa, and the guys at the RSA… lots of them also feature in Hattie also… any processes that drive learning basically. Sitting and listening to your teacher expound on the quality of historical sources may be one, but there are many others that have been shown to bear fruit.

    Your assertion that thinking skills are unproven is also odd. Are you familiar with the “Thinking Together” programme, for example? With others, Professor Neil Mercer at Cambridge University has developed a model of “exploratory talk” where through working and talking together in constructive ways, kids work together to spur one another on to achieve and learn more than they would alone. Such talk in which “reasoning is visible” can be viewed as a “social mode of thinking”. Since the processes of speaking and listening are monitored and mediated by thought – one would hope – these skills can thus be viewed as an extended form of thinking skills. These methods have been found to raise formal attainment scores in tightly designed randomised controlled studies… in other words through developing their “thinking” kids come to learn more of those things that they “so desperately need to know”.

  16. Anonymous says:

    thanks for sharing.

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