Through card games such as Pit, students learn about prioritising and setting goals.
"Don't believe everything you hear."
"Sometimes, we need to be patient to win."
"I prefer to examine all the evidence before I make the final decision."
Wise words gleaned from lessons in life? Not exactly - these are some of the skills that Xinmin Secondary School students are explicitly taught when they are in Secondary 1. Through playing board games and card games, students learn not to jump to hasty conclusions. They also learn to strategise as they carefully analyse the pros and cons of each situation before deciding on a course of action.
Part of the formal school curriculum for both Express and Normal stream students, the Analytical Thinking Skills (ATS) programme is taught over two semesters. Each one-hour lesson has a 20:1 student-teacher ratio to ensure optimal learning, say the school's ATS coordinators, Mrs Belinda Goh and Mr Yip Minghao. "We wanted a sustainable programme that not only improves students' academic performance across disciplines, but also nurtures them into analytical thinkers," Mrs Goh elaborates. "As many of tomorrow's problems and jobs cannot be predicted or taught today, analytical thinkers are in a better position to fit into a creative economy."
A debriefing session, also called "consolidation and extension", takes place at the end of each ATS lesson to reinforce the lessons learnt.
Play hard, think hard
Xinmin Secondary School was one of three secondary and three primary schools involved in a major study in 2008-2009 to determine if ATS had an impact on students' academic performance. Having received positive feedback from its own teachers and students, the school implemented a customised ATS programme in 2009.
Over the two-semester curriculum, Sec 1 students play games that build up their thinking skills. A typical session starts with a five-minute introduction by the teacher, followed by 30 minutes of play, and concluding with a "consolidation and extension" session at the end of the hour. Referring to the latter, Mr Yip explains, "It is important to set aside some time to reinforce what they have learned."
The school has a team of 16 trained ATS teachers who deliver the lessons. "We use Socratic questioning to nurture higher-order thinking," Mr Yip adds. Socratic questioning is a systematic style of questioning that focuses on fundamental concepts and principles. It does not provide students with the answers. Instead, "it articulates what is in the mind and encourages students to think deeper so that they internalise the concepts," says Mrs Goh.
To optimise learning, ATS lessons have a comfortable 20:1 student:teacher ratio.
As the school's ATS teachers teach different academic subjects, what the students learn about analytical thinking skills in Sec 1 is constantly reinforced during their lessons. For example, the game "Werewolves" requires players to detect the person role-playing the werewolf in their midst through questioning and logical deduction. This can be applied to an argumentative essay in an English lesson, where students must develop an argument based on facts presented in a logical sequence; as English teacher Mrs Goh notes, "the claim [topic sentence] must be supported by relevant evidence." Similarly, Science teacher Mr Yip points out that in experiments conducted during Science lessons, "the conclusion must be based on the results of the experiment - that is, on verifiable facts."
Believe it or not
Students welcome the ATS lessons. "They were fun. I also learned skills like forward planning," says Sec 2 student Tang Soon Weng Daniel of the ATS lessons he attended last year. "When I played Giza (a board game set in ancient Egypt), I had to decide if I wanted to lose five points, so that I could build a Sphinx worth 25 points that could later help me win the game."
The board game Blokus requires critical and forward thinking as players develop a strategy to place their pieces.
"ATS lessons have helped me most in History," says Sec 2 student Ng Kia Hwee Bernice. "I learned that not all things said by people are true, so we must have evidence before we make the decision to believe them or not."
Thinking tools like the SWOT analysis can be used by students to analyse their own Strengths and Weaknesses, as well as Opportunities and Threats, whether in the context of their academic studies or personal life. At home, parents can likewise provide opportunities for children to practise these tools. For example, the SWOT and Cost-Benefit analyses can be used in the planning of a family vacation or purchase of a big-ticket household item. Students can also apply their knowledge of primary and secondary goals, and how to go about prioritising them.
As the school trains more teachers to teach ATS, it hopes to achieve a target of 32 ATS teachers by 2013 so that it can extend the programme for another semester instead of just two. "This will give us more time to consolidate the students' learning and show how their learning can be extended to academic subjects and their lives," explains Mr Yip.