Ten ideas for getting children to THINK

Let’s get this straight. Children have incalculable potential as thinking machines. Too often we reduce this down to a standardised IQ score. But if scores do motivate you, tell the children this:

They have 100 billion brain cells, or neurons. Each neuron can connect to 10,000 other neurons, which creates about 1000 trillion connections or information signals. We can call these ‘thoughts’. So you might say they have a computational capacity of 1000 trillion. If you wanted to write this number down, you would need a piece of paper that stretches to the moon and back fourteen times.

So let’s get thinking. Here are ten ideas for some early morning thinking, just after registration.

1. Time travel

Tell your students that the stationery cupboard in the corner of the classroom is not a cupboard at all, it is a… time machine.

You have been dabbling with time travel technology over the holidays, and watched Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Day Out. After several failed attempts, now you’ve cracked it. The machinery is a bit clunky and the speed of travel isn’t all that fast, but it is a time machine. Set the dials (the light switch panel on the wall) to a specific date – for a neat experiment, I recommend ‘this time next week’. Tell the children that because the machinery is primitive, it may take a while to get there, probably around seven days’ travel.

‘So, who is coming with me to the future?’

Someone may say, ‘If we wait there with you for seven days and then exit, we will be walking into the present because it’s taken a week to get us to this time next week!’

If so, you can say, ‘Ok, if it took just three minutes to get to this time next week, would it be a time machine then?’

If they say, ‘Yes, of course!’ then you can tell them this:

‘If we wait in there for 3 minutes and come out into this time next week, it will still be our present, because we have experienced the 3 minutes it took to get there. Everyone else we see will be experiencing their own present time – so in what way have we travelled to the future?’

2. The Operating theatre

Tell your students that the stationery cupboard in the corner of the classroom is not a cupboard at all, it is an…. operating theatre.

You have been dabbling with brain surgery over the holidays and learned a lot about the happy and sad chemicals in our brains. You have managed to isolate and remove the capacity for feeling any form of sadness. This means you will only ever feel happy, forever.

The operation is painless, non-intrusive, carried out using laser surgery and only takes about twenty minutes. ‘So, who is up for the operation?’

If the children suggest, ‘But if we never feel sadness we won’t be able to sympathise with our friends, which may mean eventually we will have no friends left,’ you can point out, ‘Yes, and you will be happy about that.’

3. Free will

The concept of ‘free will versus everything is pre-ordained’ is an interesting Pandora’s Box to open with the children, but a tricky concept for some to grasp. So, I boil it down to pudding choices.

Today there will be chocolate pudding or yoghurt at school. I choose chocolate pudding. Was that my free choice or was I always destined to choose that? Was it pre-ordained in the stars that I would choose chocolate pudding that day?

I could try and beat the system, of course. I could queue up, reciting ‘Chocolate pudding, chocolate pudding…’ many times over in my head and then, at the last minute, opt for yoghurt. But was I always destined to make the last-minute change?

4. The great Polo mint debate

What makes a Polo special? Is it its white, crispy mintiness, or is it the hole in the middle? If it is the hole in the centre that makes a Polo unique, what is that hole exactly? Have you paid for that hole? What have you actually paid for? And is it only the hole in the middle that makes the classic Polo shape? If it was, then one Polo mint would cover the entire surface of the planet. Surely it is the space around the ring that makes it a ring too? If so, where does that space stop? And how much of that space have you paid for?

5. Where is the meaning of words actually located?

If I am texting I sometimes shorten words. Take the word ‘people’ for example. I can remove the ‘o’ and it still retains its meaning in a text (peple). I can probably remove the first ‘e’ too (pple) and the reader may still get the meaning, in context. I may even be able to remove the second ‘e’ (ppl) and the reader will get the gist in a sentence. But if I remove the first ‘p’ then the meaning of people has vanished (pl). But surely the meaning of people is not located in the letter ‘p’, is it?

Now let’s take the word ‘teapot’. If I say the word teapot aloud, listeners may immediately conjure up an image of a teapot. The chances are no one will have the same teapot; they will all be slightly different, in colour, shape, design and so on. Lots of different teapots. But I didn’t say ‘teapots’ I only said one. One teapot. So where is the meaning of that word located? In the letters, the sound or the image conjured up? I cannot pour tea from the word teapot. It cannot hold anything, it is just a few letters put together.

Does it work in reverse? If you look at a teapot, do you think of the word teapot?

6. Making metaphors

Many children find it difficult deciphering metaphors in poetry or creating their own fresh metaphors beyond the usual clichés. Here’s a way of making metaphors real.

Invite the children to sit in a circle (well, no, actually to form a circle by sitting in the shape of one together, rather than sitting ‘in one’, to be exact!).

Hold up a pencil and recite the following statement, with your eyes firmly closed:

In my mind, I can see, the object in my hand could be….

Feel the pencil-ness of the pencil, its shape, texture, weight and so on. The attributes of the pencil may mean it could be something else. A telegraph pole for Borrowers? A giant’s toothpick? A piece of driftwood?

Pass the pencil around the circle and invite others to have a go, beginning with the same statement each time (with their eyes closed to what the object actually is). Repeat the game with other objects, e.g.: a football, a piece of cardboard, a piece of tree bark, a pebble.

The potentiality of things is what interests poets and writers. This exercise enables the children to reconnect with their younger selves, back to a time when a stick was a sword and the world was less literal, but full of real and imaginary realms sitting side by side.

7. Confusion is a ball of string

Ontological metaphors use physical objects to articulate abstract concepts or feelings. For example, anger is often represented by liquid in a test-tube:

I am at boiling point; simmer down; I had steam coming out of my ears; I was bubbling with rage!

Other ontological metaphors include:

Confusion is a ball of string:

I’ve lost the thread; I’m in knots over this; we need to untangle this

Love is a fire:

He has the hots for you; we need to cool things; she’s gone cold on me; I had my fingers burnt.

Encourage the children to think of other examples of phrases for which these metaphors ring true. Then invite them to create new objects and new metaphors!

Orientational metaphors take an abstract feeling and place it on an orientation so we can understand it more easily:

Happy is up:

I’m over the moon; I’m having a high time; I feel up today; I’m on cloud nine

Sad is down:

I’m down in the dumps; I feel low today; you look down.

Encourage the children to think of new ways of representing happiness or sadness (e.g. over here / over there; inside / outside) and new metaphors which make sense of them.

8. Odd-one-out

If I choose a strawberry, an orange and a deck-chair, which is the odd-one-out? If the children suggest it is the deck-chair because the other two are fruits, you can suggest it was the orange, because the deck-chair was red.

Encourage the children to think of their own three objects, where the odd-one-out may not be so obvious. Could you then take the same three objects and find a different odd-one-out for a different reason?

9. What colour is Tuesday?

There is no correct answer to this, it depends entirely on what the children think. For the synesthetic students in the room, there will be a quick and easy solution: blue or red etc. For others, it may represent activities they engage in, moods they feel that day or some other external stimulus. If some children choose the same colour, you can investigate to see if their reasons are the same.

What does Sunday sound like?

Again, for some children this may be a quick question. For others, it may again be linked to activities they have that day or other experiences at home.

(You can enjoy similarly delicious questions like this one in Ian Gilbert’s fabulous book, The Little Book of Thunks).  

10. On a blank sheet of paper, type:

The statement on the other side of this page is true.

Now on the reverse side, type:

The statement on the other side of this page is false.

Enjoy the ensuing debate! In the past, I had one child tell me that ‘this paper should spontaneously combust, because it simply cannot exist.’ Fabulous.

(Thank you, Martin Cohen’s 101 Philosophy Problems for this particular one).

Liberating the young thinker

These ideas help us to emphasise to children that there is not always a right or wrong answer and that their job is not always to guess the correct answer in their teacher’s head. This can be very liberating for the young thinker and encourage, rather than prevent, creative thinking!

I will post more teaching ideas, once you have had chance to give your brain a rest now.

Thank you for reading.




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