Time for some ‘plane’ thinking?

Beginnings matter.  They are much in my mind, of course, as I embark on my first term as the leader of the School and, from the vantage point of a fortnight into term, I behold a diorama of impressions from a myriad encounters and events.

Beginnings matter because they set the tone, create expectations and establish our trajectory.  They encompass the preparations we make, the parameters we map out for ourselves (and, often, also for others) and the attitude of mind which we adopt in the face of challenges and opportunities.  We may think of them as the foundations for the work to come.  The depth and strength of these footings will set the limits on what is built above and, in the same way, the range and sophistication of the tool kit with which we embark on a new project will determine the reach and scope of what we can achieve.

What those foundations should consist of precisely has been a topic of enduring interest – and controversy – in the education world.  Mercifully, the old ‘knowledge versus skills’ debate seems now to have run out of steam, with all but a handful of protagonists (and those confined to the margins of the field), being able to agree that both are essential and that they are inseparably intertwined.  Teaching knowledge without skills? Pointless.  Teaching skills without knowledge? Impossible.

However, defining which skills should be taught, and how, remains a fertile area for discussion.   From de Bono’s hats to Bloom’s HOTS (or Higher Order Thinking Skills),  a veritable fusillade of theories awaits the teacher (or parent) who wishes to help young people build those learning foundations and it is important (if not always easy) to distinguish the worthwhile from the whimsical.  While the neatness of an alliterative trinity might, in itself, invite scepticism, the fundamental importance of creative, critical and collaborative thinking has now achieved a high level of acceptance.

Professor Matthew Lipman, a leading thinker in this field, illustrates the interplay of the first two aptly using the analogy of a pilot flying an aircraft, where creative thinking is acceleration and critical thinking is the application of the brakes.  The pilot, he says, must accelerate to keep the plane going forward but, from time to time, she must apply the brakes to maintain balance and stay on course.  We could add to this that collaborative thinking is equally vital – with the co-pilot, air traffic controller and ground crew all having to play their part to ensure a safe take-off and landing.

To this, in recent years, has been added a fourth C – caring thinking.  Caring thinking calls upon us to recognise the extent of our inter-dependence and the force of the impact our words and actions can have.  It emphasises the social and ethical dimensions to every sphere of human activity and refuses to see humane values as the price we are willing to pay for advantage in any quarter. While this strand has not yet, perhaps, achieved the currency of the other three as a key ingredient in a thinking skills curriculum, its relevance to education for the world as-it-is and the world as-it-will-be is very clear.  A simple example, extending Lipman’s analogy, will suffice. In the long shadow of 9/11 (and with the tragedy of Andreas Lubitz and the Germanwings Airbus still fresh in our minds), the consequence of licensing pilots who know how to fly but who do not care about their passengers has made an impression on every one of us.

With all this in mind, what better way to start the school year than with a hands-on, mind-expanding Skills Day which would bring all four of these crucial thinking skills into play?  This is exactly what the Senior School girls enjoyed on their first day in school – in a brilliant warm-up to the new term and an opportunity to polish up the contents of their thinking tool kit to go alongside the (newly-purchased?) pencil case and pristine school planner.  And, how pleasing it was to see CARING thinking given prominence in the programme for the day.  In a house-based, collaborative project, the girls were challenged to work in teams to create a money-making proposal which would pass the test of feasibility and viability – all in support of a charitable cause of their choosing.

Mrs Hill, who, with Mrs Peck and Mr Martin, coordinated the event, wrote as follows about her reflections on the day:

The charity deputies have been marvellous; they liaised with me and their charities during the holidays…  Everyone was fresh and full of enthusiasm on Thursday…   [This year], we altered the format of the day, with less time to come up with ideas, prepare and deliver a pitch so that a decision could be made before going to the various workshops, which meant girls could focus much more on specifics rather than a notional idea of a charity event; for example we now have a relevant risk assessment and finance plan from these workshops.

She paid tribute to the entire House leadership team for their energy and enthusiasm in directing the activities and helping the girls negotiate the many challenges of the day.

The final outcome for each House was:


House & team Chosen Charity Proposal
Artemis – Kate Clayson, Emily von Widekind, Sky Trenfield Carefree Northants Bag packing
Demeter – Jasmine Smellie, Rebecca Rayif, Vicky Eden Rethink Mental Illness Photo Booth Service
Hestia – Pankti Patel, Imogen Coningsby, Els Parton MND Christmas Fayre
Selene – Alice Malin, Louise Penn, Shona Gunn MIND Selene’s Salon


I had the good fortune to witness the final presentations of the day and was impressed by the passion and articulacy of the speakers, and the ingenuity and cogency of their proposals.


Meanwhile, for U4, Ms Heimfeld had lined up a very different – and equally holistic – challenge with the help of the Young Film Academy. Based in teams, the girls were asked to generate ideas for a film, refine these down to an achievable project and then work together to script, rehearse and enact their piece in a single day.  The caring dimension came through their conscious consideration of their target audience in choosing a theme and imagery, and in their attention to high production values at the editing stage, where the glamour of the film set seems far away.  The fruits of their endeavours were showcased in our very own Young Academy Awards event last Thursday, complete with Oscars, red carpet and glamorous gowns.  ‘Daddy’s Girl’ – a sensitive exploration of love and loss in wartime – emerged with the Best Picture award in an evening which celebrated the high calibre of work across the range.

Seeing the school year take off in this way – with serious fun in pursuit of deep learning and with caring thinking at the heart of the enterprise – I look forward with eager anticipation to seeing how the rest of the journey aboard Flight NHS 2015/16 unfolds.


Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress


Sources and further reading

Sarah Davey Chesters ‘The Socratic Classroom’

C J Simister ‘How to Teach Thinking and Learning Skills’ (aimed at teachers)

C J Simister ‘The Bright Stuff’ (aimed at parents)