When we use the term "thinking skills," we usually refer to an array of mental processes involving remembering information and ideas, processing that information, and then using it to solve problems. We sometimes forget that thinking is part of the process of gaining information through observing, listening, and reading. We use these abilities in the gathering of information. The skills of gathering information are of particular concern to us as teachers. In fact, the recent evidence that many children and adults learn more easily through one sense than through others has caused us to revise and extend our approaches to include more multisensory learning materials. Research and experience also inform us that learning to listen and to observe purposefully are trainable skills that can be acquired and improved through directed, structured practice over time.

We need to look at two different ways of learning. The first, we usually call rote learning. Rote learning means that information is memorized with little or no understanding of its meaning. For example, you may have learned a nonsense poem or song at some point in your life or learned to spell and pronounce words and had no idea of their meaning. Rote learning does not provide us with useful information, because if we have no idea of the meaning of what we have learned, we cannot conceive how to put it to use.

The second and more important way of learning begins with our understanding what we learn. The more "sense" we can make of something, the more it fits into patterns and stories in our minds, the more likely we are to remember it. Constructivism is the theory which explains that people come to understand new ideas and information by relating it to previous experiences. From a constructivist point of view, the way that new information is presented may be as important or even more important as the information itself, because it will determine how we make sense of the information or give it meaning. The quest to develop children as problem solvers in the social studies can be traced at least to the beginning of the twentieth century when a few innovative schools began to look at a life-centered problems approach as central to the curriculum. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the notion of learning to learn became crucial to every social studies program as an approach called the inquiry method was widely advocated. The inquiry classroom differed from traditional classrooms. The student was supposed to learn to ask questions, not just answer them. The teacher's role became less that of information provider and more that of coach and guide.

The term "thinking skills" refers to all of the mental processes that individuals use to obtain, make sense of, and retain information, as well as how they process and use that information as a basis for solving problems. The process of taking in the information likewise involves thinking skills, especially those related to observing, listening, and reading. Obtaining information and ideas is a sensory process and all of the senses are used in information gathering. Because there is substantial evidence that for many children and adults learning is easier through one sense than the others, teachers need to utilize multisensory learning materials wherever possible. Even so, learning to listen and observe purposefully are trainable skills acquired through directed, disciplined practice. Therefore, teachers need to help children acquire these important skills in a systematic and developmental way.

A term used to describe relating new ideas to experiences is schema. Schemata (the plural) are the various ways that we group ideas and knowledge in our minds. Our best chance at understanding new concepts is to tie features of those concepts to one or more of these schemata. To do this, we look for similarities, make assumptions, create analogies, and generally relate information to ourselves.

Another factor in comprehension is metacognition, an individual's awareness of his or her own thinking processes and of the thinking processes of the people with whom he or she is communicating. The term has come to be used to describe a person's awareness and understanding of the organizational patterns of reading material and of speakers. Research seems to support the notion that individuals who are able to form clear and accurate story maps of reading material or spoken material have a clearer overall understanding of that material. This, in turn, helps them to understand the meaning of specific parts of the communication as it relates to the organization and purposes.

To maximize student understanding teachers should provide story maps for students before they listen to, read, or view material. In effect, this means that teachers need to provide both sensitive and clear overviews of oral presentations, audiovisual programs, and reading material before students are exposed to it. Then, too, pointed reflective review of material will also help students develop their metacognitive skills. This may, in part, be why the body of research and experience in teaching has already demonstrated that such reviews increase learning and retention in a clearly measurable way. Such reviews generally involve teacher questioning, so that students become intellectually involved and, therefore, active in forming clearer cognitive maps of material covered.

Generally, teachers can help children to understand and remember information by following a few simple principles.

  • Associate the new information with experiences that the children have had in the past.
  • Connect each piece of new information to other pieces of information using a pattern that children can follow. (Sensory or visualizable patterns are best.)
  • Repeat the information and the patterns often.
  • Provide a shared purpose or use for the learning.
  • Give opportunities for practice with feedback.