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10 teacher & classroom techniques to encourage free thinking and collaboration in the classroom?

10 teacher & classroom techniques to encourage free thinking and collaboration in the classroom?

In this blog post Dave Keeling, Laughology trainer and consultant offers you his top 10 list of teacher thinking skills to create a more free thinking and collaborative environment in your classroom.


It would appear as an outsider looking in that education is quite literally going backwards. As the Conservatives cram us all into a scholastic Delorean and take us back to the days of O’levels, the stress of nailing it on the day/all your eggs in one basket approach to learning, I can’t help but sit here writing this with the words of Albert Einstein wringing in my ears,

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them”

What Einstein was promoting was the idea that our thinking, rather than being fixed, needs to be flexible, adaptable and versatile if we are to be successful, happy and fulfilled.This is especially pertinent for the younger generations as they are entering a world where they will face more change than anyone else has in the history of mankind. According to recent statistics they will have 10-14 jobs and 3-4 careers before they are 40 years old.

It is imperative then, for their emotional intelligence, health, well being and happiness that kids this century are encouraged and enabled to think for themselves. They need the confidence to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas so that they can un-learn and re-learn, have the confidence to change and not just cope with the 21st century but be happy and successful within it.

“In a world full of change the learners will inherit the earth, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” Eric Hoffer.

And so as the summer holidays open up before you and you sit in your garden, beach body ready, with alcohol in one hand a fistful of ideas in the other and at last some time for a bit of distance and perspective. I thought it would be useful to share my top 10 list of thinking skills in a bid to create a more free thinking and collaborative environment in your classroom.


1 – Hands free policy


80% of the questions asked in a classroom context are answered by 20% of the students.

Everyone has a contribution to make but some may need more time. A hands free policy, if set up at the beginning of the session informs students that at some point they may be asked to give a thought/feeling, or ask a question/make a statement. This technique will encourage thinking and will stop students switching off.

Another way of doing this is to number the students 1,2 and 3, then when posing a question you may suggest that you will be seeking a response from the number 1’s or perhaps 1 and 3’s or which ever configuration you choose. It’s a great way to keep the students engaged and on their toes.


2 – Understanding your brain!!


Confidence and empowerment are the keys to creating an atmosphere conducive to independent thinking. Whenever I work with students it’s imperative that they understand on a neurological level how outstanding they really are.

Things to remember about your brain

A - Intelligence is not fixed. You can grow your brain, it’s like a muscle, if you give it a work out regularly it gets more flexible and the synaptic connections become stronger, faster and quicker.

B - You have 3 three brains!! Reptilian brain (small and deals with basic survival), the limbic system (deals with emotion and memory) and The Neo Cortex (everything else).

C  - If we don’t know how many we’ve got then we are probably not using then. Even if we have a basic understanding of our minds it can begin to give us a better understanding of who we are and how we think.

For more info on the brain and how it works get a copy of Andrew Currans book ‘The Little Book of Big Stuff about The Brain’ or if you have an iPhone go to the App store and search for the free application 3D Brain. Find out more about the sessions we run for children and teachers on the amazing brain.


3 – RING


The formula for engagement according to Doctor Andrew Curran (mentioned above) Is that first and foremost a student needs to feel understood, if they feel understood then their self esteem grows, if their self esteem grows then they become more confident and if they become more confident then they are more likely to engage.

When engaging with students I have found the pneumonic of RING invaluable.
All my work is based on the four principles of RING which stands for Relevant, Interesting, Naughty and Giggle.

Think of a lesson you enjoyed most during your school career and I bet one or more of those factors were a part of it.

  • It was either relevant i.e: you were sat there thinking I need this, this is going to help me, and I can use this or see where it might link into my life.
  • It was just really interesting and caused you to want to find out more.
  • It was naughty or cheeky or risk taking or challenging. It made you feel like you were working outside the normal rules.
  • Or it was a giggle. We now know through science that if you are having a good time you brain releases chemicals called endorphins which not only make you feel good but also re-enforce the learning connections in your brain. Basically having a laugh aids your memory.

Think about it, if you learn something using one of the above you’ll remember it, if you learn something using all four, you will never forget it!!


4 – Blocks


There are three major blocks that come into play when we attempt and explore practical thinking:

i - Emotion - Sometimes we don’t actually think at all we just stick to and hold on to an intuitive emotional response or a gut instinct. Although this can sometimes be a positive and rewarding experience it can also lead to our thinking becoming stilted, clouded and fixed.

ii - Helplessness - Sometimes we simply don’t know how to think about something or we don’t know how to start. Clear instruction and time to share thinking are good ways to stop this barrier coming up.

iii - Confusion - We try and think about too much at once and then we end up thinking about everything at once which invariably leads to nothing getting done.


5 – Never accept “I don’t Know” as an answer


In my experience if we are to challenge a students thinking then we have to know what that child is thinking. Usually if a student says “I don’t know” it usually means that they are panicking and what they are actually saying is “get out of my face grown up”. There is a massive difference between not knowing and panicking.

Whenever a Student says to me “I don’t know” I always reply with “ Imagine you did know what would you say”, or “I don’t want to know what you know I want to know what you think”. This is a really useful technique as it immediately takes the pressure of the student and allows them to imaginatively respond.

The great thing with imagination/thinking is you can’t get it wrong it’s just whatever’s in your head. It also re-enforces in the student’s brain that they do have a contribution to make and that “I don’t know “more often than not is just a knee jerk reaction to pressure.


6– If you don’t know what you want how are you going to get it!!


Whenever I work with a group I will always ask them what they want to get from the session. In terms of thinking and memory it’s incredibly important that students enter a lesson with some idea of what they want from it. Otherwise, and more often than not, they leave with something they didn’t want or worse still nothing at all.

Another useful technique to employ at the start of a session is to ask the students to have a quick chat with the person next to them and to come up with three things they would like from the session and one thing they do not want.

For instance they may want a laugh, to learn something new and move around a bit, and they don’t want to be bored. (These are the usual answer s I get). At least now as a teacher you know what their expectation is and you can now begin to deliver it. This exercise quickly and effectively gets the students to think and focus on the lesson and learning and helps promote a collaborative atmosphere for everyone.


7 - Openers


It is always useful to have a locker full of thinking games and exercises which you can deploy whenever you feel necessary to enable students to think more creatively and more divergently.

Below are three of my favourites

i - If that’s the answer what’s the question?
Have something on the board ready, sometimes i will put up a number or sometimes I will write a strange phrase such as ‘Two nuns and an angry squirrel’ or ‘Quite a lot’ or ‘No’. It never ceases to amaze me how differently the student’s minds work and much hilarity normally ensues.

ii - Anagrammer
Simply place a long list of scrambled letters on the board. The challenge is for the students to find as many words within the list and then create a strange, surreal cheeky or really long sentence. Letters can only be used once unless they appear more than once.

iii - Well I never
Any relationship gets better the more we feed it and share of ourselves. This activity allows students to share stories, facts and experiences with the class that they will have not heard before. Announce to the class that they have two minutes to come up with a fact, story, or experience that the class does not know about them, the students then feed this back to the class.


8 – Closers


Revision is not an option and so it is always best that the class get to review the lesson that has just taken place. This is not only useful for re-call but can also help promote whole brain thinking and is tremendous fun. Below are three of my favourites

i - Tattoo review

The class are asked to think of one word that sums up the session and are then asked to write the word on the backs of their hands. Not only does this promote debate ( as people will ask why you have memory or Laughter or Courage on the back of your hand) If the word is still there in a month it will also help you identify who needs to wash more often!!

ii -  Initially Speaking

With five mins to go before the end of the lesson get the students to use their initials to come up with a catchy, useful phrase or set of key words from the lesson.

iii - 1-10

Ask the students to shout out a number between one and ten. Pick the first number you hear (say its 6) the students then have to make up a six word sentence that tell you what they remember, enjoyed, and learned about the lesson.


9 – 3 Before Me


This is a great technique which encourages students to be proactive in their thinking and learning. It also takes the pressure off you being the font of all knowledge. Simply put, If a student gets stuck before they come to you for help/guidance/support, they must first seek out the kid in the class who is brilliant at the chosen subject. If they are busy they can ask a mate for help and if that doesn’t bear any fruit then they must ask one other person in the class for help before coming to you.


10 – Question everything/always give it back


I am always a little dubious of people who don’t ask questions. For me as an educationalist questions are my key to playfulness, the ability to engage and collaborate with an audience. The more our audience tell us the more we as the educators/facilitators have to play with.
There is no phrase more exciting, empowering and illuminating than

“What do you think?”

For a hundred more ideas information and questions check out these books:

Rocket up Your Class
Invisible Teaching
The Little Book of Laughter

Happy Holidays :)

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