Research has shown that children are able to learn more between the ages of 0 and 3 than at any other time in their lives. They are natural-born learners – curious, creative, critical, independent thinkers. However, the first time that many begin to doubt themselves as learners is when they start formal education in schools. Are we as educators therefore stifling children’s natural learning behaviours and skills?


In many classrooms I visit, the children are constantly looking to the teacher for instruction. In terms of what they are expected to do and how it will be measured. They are reliant on their teachers for direction, reliant on their teachers for positive affirmation, and reliant on their teachers for the next steps. 


It seems to me that we are becoming successful at producing children who can successfully jump through hoops and pass tests. But are we enabling children to develop a real love for learning and who can think critically and creatively? Take time to consider your classroom environment and the extent to which you employ strategies that develop children’s thinking skills, and their self-esteem as learners.


1. Develop your children’s self-esteem

One of the most significant factors that is impacting children’s engagement and achievement is their self-esteem – how they see themselves as a learner. In this context, self-esteem can be viewed to be the difference between how they perceive themselves as a learner (perceived self) and what they consider to be the ideal learner (ideal self). This ideal self may reflect the child that is associated or seen to be the cleverest in the class. Your aim must be to close that perceptual gap and raise children’s self-esteem. To do this, you have to demonstrate that effort leads to success, not ability.  


Therefore, your language and interactions in the classroom have to be aspirational – that if children persist with something, they will achieve. Ensure that you are taking every opportunity for children to self-evaluate their learning and to critically compare their current performance with their previous performance. Ensure that children are not judging and comparing themselves against each other. Your aim is to build a learning and growth mentality. To enable children to believe in themselves and see themselves as learners.


2. Use evaluative praise

Make sure that when you praise a child, you are explaining exactly what the child has done well. This praise should be specific to the development of learning skills. This will enable them to build their understanding of what factors are enabling them to make progress in their learning. For example, often when we give feedback to children we may simply say, “Well done” or “Good answer”. However, are the children actually aware of what they did well or what was good about their answer? Make sure you make explicit what the child has done well and where that links to prior learning.  Understand the factors that impact individual children’s learning and articulate these – make clear what factors are leading the children to success and they will begin to internalise these skills for themselves.


3. Engage in learning conversations to encourage deeper thinking

We often feel as teachers that we have to provide feedback to every child’s response, but this can limit children’s thinking. Encourage children in your class to engage in learning conversations with each other. Give as many opportunities as possible to children to build on the responses of others. Facilitate chains of dialogue by inviting children to provide feedback to each other. It may also mean that you do not need to respond at all to a child’s answer. Take opportunities in your classroom to provide no responses to your children’s answers/comments and see what happens. You may find that the learning conversation becomes naturally extended as the child either builds on their original comment or that other children build upon the dialogue by sharing their ideas. The children will then become less reliant on feedback from their teachers. They will naturally begin to move away from looking for the ‘right’ answer and share their own thinking and learning more readily.


4. Take opportunities to model your own thinking

We cannot expect children to develop critical thinking skills if we aren’t modeling those thinking skills for them. Share your creativity, imagination, and thinking skills with the children and you will nurture creative, imaginative critical thinkers. Model the language you want children to learn and think about. Share what you feel about the learning activities your children are participating in as well as the thinking you are engaging in. Your own thinking and learning will add to the discussions in the classroom, and encourage children to share their own thinking. You will nurture an environment in which all children become confident in sharing their thinking and learning with each other.


5. Use metacognitive questioning with your children

Consider the extent to which your questioning encourages children to think about their thinking, and therefore learn about learning! Through asking metacognitive questions, you will enable your children to have a better understanding of the learning process, as well as their own self-reflections as learners. Essentially, you are giving children opportunities to learn about what effective and deep learning looks and feels like. Example questions may include:

  • Why did you choose to do it that way?

  • What did you say to yourself in your head?

  • When you find something tricky what helps you?

  • How do you know when you have really learned something?

  • Why do you think you were successful today?



By nurturing a ‘thinking classroom’, we are encouraging children to lead the learning process. We are enabling them to move away from an over-reliance on the teacher and to become more independent and therefore creative in their thinking and learning. Our aim must be to develop learning powers within our children and enable them to believe that through effort, they can succeed. If we can do that, we have developed lifelong learners.



Dr. Kulvarn Atwal FCCT has spent his entire career teaching and leading in East London schools and is currently Executive Head Teacher of Highlands and Uphall Primary Schools. Highlands was recently awarded the Mayor of London’s Schools for Success award for the fourth year in a row; one of only 12 primary or secondary schools in London to achieve this award. Kulvarn specialises in teacher professional learning. His doctoral thesis highlighted the factors that impact upon teacher engagement in professional learning activities, with a particular focus on workplace learning theories and action research. He has worked with educators across the world to develop expansive learning environments in schools. He has published his first book, ‘The Thinking School. Developing a Dynamic Learning Community’. He occasionally tweets at @thinkingschool2

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