Theory and practice

Part 1: What Is Sustained Shared Thinking? – With Kathy Brodie

More than just any old conversation
Children illustrating what sustained shared thinking is
June 12, 2019
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Sustained Shared Thinking usually takes the form of a conversation with a child where you work together, both contributing ideas and coming to conclusions together.
  • Children learn to be more curious and find their own solutions, while adults learn about a child’s understanding and knowledge.
  • In the first of a two-article series, we asked Kathy Brodie to help us guide you through the theory, why it matters, and what it looks like in practice.
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“Once you have the experience and once you’re secure and confident in it, then absolutely everything can be done through Sustained Shared Thinking.”

Sustained Shared Thinking is more than just another tool to Kathy Brodie. Once you get it right, she thinks it’s a concept that can run through every single part of your practice, helping to explore and support every key area of learning.

Kathy worked in the early years sector for over 15 years, now running the globally recognised Early Years TV, and writing some of the most influential early years books out there, including her bestseller about Sustained Shared Thinking. She first came across Sustained Shared Thinking during a course she took in 2008, and as for many others, the focus on natural, instinctive relationships between adult and child instantly chimed with her.

That’s why, when we wanted to learn more about the theory, there was only one person to call…

What is Sustained Shared Thinking?

In the simplest sense, Sustained Shared Thinking is best described as one of those moments with a child where everything else around you just stops.

You’re so absorbed with the conversation or exploration, that the act of working together and taking in what you’re learning about the child is all that matters.

“It’s not necessarily a new idea,” explains Kathy, “those interactions have been around ever since there have been children. But Sustained Shared Thinking is packaged in a way that just clicks with me.”

The official definition of Sustained Shared Thinking can be found in the two influential studies that birthed it, Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY), and The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE). The studies, which looked into the development of thousands of children, explain Sustained Shared Thinking as:

“An episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative, etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend.”

- Kathy Brodie, Early Years TV Creator, Author, and Trainer.

The big ideas

There are some key elements in there:

  • Working together – The teacher isn’t just presenting information for the child to learn. It’s a partnership, and information flows both ways.
  • An intellectual way – The thinking can be practical or theoretical, but it should involve deep thinking and coming to solutions or conclusions.
  • Etc. – The four activities listed in the definition are not all that counts. There’s room in the definition for you to apply your own experience and understanding.
  • Develop and extend – Sustained Shared Thinking can’t be a short dialogue. The thinking has to be extended to make sure deep-level thinking takes place and the interaction is memorable for the child.

Another couple of key features are active listening and positive questioning. That means that you’re really deeply engaging with what the child is doing or saying on their level, and that you’re asking the right questions (more on that in part two).

And what does it look like in practice?

Kathy has described Sustained Shared Thinking in the past as ‘those lovely, in-depth conversations that you have with children about anything and everything’. But to an outsider, what does that look like in practice?

“You’ll see Sustained Shared Thinking in the body language,” Kathy explains, “The child and practitioner will have very positive body language, usually turned towards one another, with the practitioner down at the child’s height. They’ll either have good eye contact, or they’ll both be focusing on the thing they’re investigating, communicating about it together.”

So far so good. But what about the conversation itself? According to Kathy, it should be a genuine dialogue, rather than another chance to cram as much vocabulary into the conversation as possible.

“The verbal transaction is at the child’s level too,” she explains, “the practitioner isn’t using the opportunity to try and push the language level, but instead using words that help them to communicate with the child in the best way.”

It should look from the outside like both parties are truly engaged, and any question and answer simply comes from the fact that the practitioner truly wants to learn about the child and their thinking. That’s what helps the practitioner to build a better picture of the child’s experience.

If you’re still struggling to see what sort of interaction this might be, here’s a great example from REPEY:

BOY: [Who has been watching various items floating on water], “Look at the fir cone. There’s bubbles of air coming out.”
NURSERY OFFICER: “It’s spinning around.” [Modelling curiosity and desire to investigate further] BOY: “That’s ‘cos it’s got air in it.”
NURSERY OFFICER: [Picks up the fir cone and shows the children how the scales go round the fir cone in a spiral, turning the fir cone round with a winding action], “When the air comes out in bubbles it makes the fir cone spin around.”
GIRL: [Uses a plastic tube to blow into the water], “Look bubbles.”
NURSERY OFFICER: “What are you putting into the water to make bubbles?……What’s coming out of the tube?”
GIRL: “Air.”

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Why is Sustained Shared Thinking so powerful?

One of the reasons why Sustained Shared Thinking is so highly regarded is because of the influential research that supports it.

“It comes from a place of robust research,” agrees Kathy, “but it also comes from a place of thought from those researchers. It wasn’t just quickly arrived at, and I think that shows in the definition.”

Here’s just a few examples found in the EPPE and REPEY that support the effectiveness of Sustained Shared Thinking:

  • ‘More sustained shared thinking was observed in settings where children made the most progress.’ (EPPE, p. 5)
  • ‘…adult-child interactions that involve some element of ‘sustained shared thinking’…may be especially valuable in terms of children’s learning.’ (REPEY, p.10)
  • ‘…periods of ‘sustained shared thinking’ are a necessary prerequisite for the most effective early years settings.’ (REPEY, p.11)
  • ‘Open-ended questioning and modelling were associated with better cognitive achievement.’ (EPPE p. 6)

There are many reasons why Sustained Shared Thinking is so well regarded in the studies. It generally leads to deep-level learning, that is, learning as more than just remembering facts. It encourages key skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and curiosity, skills which lead children to be good life-long learners.

According to Kathy, there are three main reasons why Sustained Shared Thinking has these powerful effects:

  • It encourages the act of thinking, by valuing and taking the time to understand the child’s perspective. It makes the child feel safe to propose ideas.
  • Practitioners model thinking by demonstrating thought processes out loud.
  • Thought is extended far beyond the child’s existing ideas, because both parties are sharing knowledge and understanding with each other.

But it’s not only the child that gains from Sustained Shared Thinking. There’s lots in it for you too.

“It’s not just the adult teaching the child, but often in these interactions it can be the child teaching the adult,” says Kathy. “It opens your eyes to children’s potential and prevents you from limiting it. Every so often they will say something that you never knew they could understand, or they share experiences you never knew they had. It opens up your eyes to possibilities and stops you capping their learning. That’s why it’s so powerful.”

“You can just see that lightbulb moment children get when they discover something new, that feeling of ‘Oh wow, now I see why that happens’. That is so exciting as a practitioner, when a child’s face lights up because they’ve made a new connection. For me Sustained Shared Thinking underpins all that, the learning, the role of play, the role of teaching – it draws it all together.”

- Kathy Brodie, Early Years TV Creator, Author, and Trainer.

That’s it for part one of our guide to Sustained Shared Thinking with Kathy Brodie. What next? Well, now we know about the power of Sustained Shared Thinking, it’s time to talk about how you can promote more of it at your setting…

Ready for part two?

Part two is all about how to promote more Sustained Shared Thinking in your setting, starting with your practitioners…

Read part two now

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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