episode 30 - Sustained shared thinking for more meaningful conversations with children

Sustained Shared Thinking for More Meaningful Conversations with Children

This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #30“Sustained shared thinking for more meaningful conversations with children”

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Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.


In this week’s episode we unpack the concept of sustained shared thinking that focuses on active listening and positive questioning as a pedagogical approach. In our conversation with Kathy Brody, an early-years consultant based in England, we talk about the importance of having intentional conversations with children that explores interactive dialogue and builds problem-solving skills, rather than focusing on the right answer. We discussed the research that proves the efficacy of the approach and its practical applications in the classroom. Kathy has also authored the book “Sustained Shared Thinking” as a resource for teachers who are interested in the approach.

If you’re looking for inspiration on how to have more meaningful conversations in and out of the classroom, then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.


Kathy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

Kathy BRODIE: Hi, Ron, thank you very much indeed for having me on. It’s a great honour.

SPREEUWENBERG: So, Kathy, you’re the author or co-author of several books related to early-childhood education. But because we only have so much time today we’re just going to focus on one of those books, and the topic there being sustained shared thinking in the early years. Can you start off by telling us what sustains shared thinking is?

BRODIE: Of course, Ron, and what a lovely subject to be starting off with, as well. Sustained thinking: those lovely conversations that you have with children, where you’re both concentrating, you’re both really invested in that conversation. You’re both really concentrating on what’s happening. It’s the sort of conversations that are happening all the time, up and down the country right now, and it’s really enjoyable moments. You might go back to the staffroom afterwards and say, “You’ll never guess what he’s just told me.” And those little conversations that you have, those really in-depth things.

Sustained shared thinking does have a formal definition, of course, as well, which I’m just going to run through and then just dissect a little bit so we can understand the thinking behind it. So the formal definition for sustained thinking is: 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. And that was the definition that Kathy Sylva and her research team gave for sustained shared thinking in 2004.

I just want to unpack that just a little bit, because there’s an awful lot of words in there. So first of all, it’s an episode in which two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way. And that’s really important, the intellectual part. It’s not simply a conversation where you’re saying, “Do you want the red bike?” “Yes, please, I’ll have the right bike.” It’s more than that. It’s working out something together, whatever that might be, in an intellectual way. There’s got to be some thinking behind it. And that conversation might be to solve a problem: “How are we going to get all these toys out of the shed?” It might be to clarify a concept: “So why do you think that ice floats on water? What’s your thoughts on floating?” It might be to evaluate activity: “How could we make this even better? What can we add to this activity to improve it?” Or it might be to extend a narrative. So that might be to have a conversation, start with the child and then inquire a little bit more: “Do you know a bit more about dinosaurs? Do you know any of the dinosaurs’ names?”

And there’s an et cetera in the definition. And there’s a reason why there’s an et cetera, because it covers so many different things that you couldn’t actually define everything, every sort of conversation that you have. And what that saying is that it’s open-ended, that it’s lots and lots of different things. And you might have a sustained piece of sustained shared thinking about something else altogether, and that’s fine, even if it’s not described in that definition.

The second sentence says that, “Both parties must contribute to thinking. It must develop and extend.” And by “both parties” it usually means adult and child. Although I must stress that sustained shared thinking can happen between children as well. You might have a more knowledgeable other. But in this case, taking adult and child, both parties must contribute to thinking and it must develop and extend.

So, again, it’s not just those real short conversations. It’s really in-depth, where you both have to think about something, and where you actually come out of it thinking differently than when you went into that conversation. You can see from all of that that it’s actually quite a complex thing that you’re doing, even though you’ve just sat and had a really nice little five-minute chat in the reading area with your child. You’ve actually done something quite complex there.

Interestingly, when Kathy Sylva – when they did the research, they wrote a book afterwards called Early Childhood Matters. And in that book they detailed how “sustained shared thinking” as a phrase came about. One of the things that they said was that they could have called it “sustained shared dialogue”, because it’s a dialogue, or “sustained shared speech”, because it’s a speech. But they particularly wanted the word “thinking” in there because it’s really important to have that two-way flow of information, that kind of exchange of ideas. And that came out of the research.

Kathy Sylver, why did she embark on this research, do you think? Why did she feel this was an important subject?

Well, it’s got a really interesting history. It comes from the E.P.P.E.: the Effective Provision of Preschool Education project. That was a massive research project that was done in 1997. It was started off government-funded, and at the time it was the biggest in Europe that was going on, longitudinal study. And when I talk “big” it was 3,000 children. They had six local authorities, which are like counties. They covered nursery classes, playgroups, private daycare, homeschooled – all sorts of different children in all sorts of different circumstances.

And they followed those children for five years to see what’s happened. Those children that went to a preschool, how did they develop differently that maybe those that didn’t ever attend a preschool? Did it matter what sort of preschool they attended? And the whole idea was really to look at it, because at that time in ‘97 the whole day-nursery concept was kind of exploding and we would encourage more and more to use day nursery so parents could go out to work. And I think there was a little bit of concern about: “We’re embarking on this journey. We’ve got no idea where it’s going to take us. What is it that we need to know before we get this massive ball rolling?”

So that was kind of like the background to the research. When they when they disseminate all this information – and they had tons and tons, there was loads of really good findings – but sustained shared thinking was one of the findings that came out of it. What they found, in essence, was that if a child went to a quality preschool or high quality setting, whether that was a playgroup or a preschool or nursery school or whatever, but if they went to a quality setting then it did make a difference to that child’s development.

Of course the problem there is, how do you define “quality”? And we know that it’s notoriously difficult, you know, even now when we talk about a quality setting, is that what the government decides is quality? It’s really difficult. But one of the things that they defined as “quality” was, one of the things that was common to all those settings was that they all embarked on sustained shared thinking. It didn’t matter whether you were a playgroup or mums-and-tots, a nursery school – those practitioners, those teachers were getting down and listening to the children, talking to them and really spending that time having that sustained shared thinking between themselves and the children. And that was one of the definers of quality for them.

Why do you think that quality is associated with sustained shared thinking? Why is this beneficial to improving outcomes for children, for example?

One of the biggest things, of course, is that you can tune in to children. You can really understand that thinking processes because children are thinking the whole time. There’s never a time when they’re not thinking about something. But we can’t say that, obviously. So that dialogue, that sustained shared thinking, gives us a chance to see where their thinking is going, to kind of see inside their heads and understand what their thinking is and what their understanding is. So part of it is tuning into the child, really understanding where they’re up to, where we need maybe to help them improve in some way, and also maybe where they’re exceeding and we didn’t know. So and part of it is tuning the child.

But the other part is, also, we know – and we know as adults – that if you spend quality time with people, if you take that time to actually listen to them, actively, if you take time to actually get down and ask what they are interested in, then you build up those fantastic relationships. Children become more confident, they have greater self-esteem. And all of those things, all of that personal, social, emotional development all starts to click into place. And that sets them up for life. These are life skills that they will then go on to use when they start school. They’ve got great resilience. We know things are going to go wrong – life just doesn’t run smoothly. But that resilience, that bounce-back ability, is so important when things do go wrong. They’re able to push themselves off and say, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to have another go at that.” And the building up of all that personal, socio-emotional development is so important, and sustained thinking really supports that. And that’s what the research shows as well.

Got it. That makes a ton of sense. So taking a step away from the research and the science and the benefits, let’s start to talk a little bit more about sustained shared thinking in practice. If I’m an early childhood educator, a preschool teacher, what skills and expertise do I need to initiate, encourage and facilitate sustained shared thinking in my center or in my classroom?

Just taking this one at a time, then: To initiate sustained shared thinking – so this is before when the children are first coming to the classroom, maybe, or it’s after lunch and you’ve got an opportunity to spend that bit of time with a child or with a group of children. To initiate it you need to be able to tune into children. You need to know their interests. You need to understand what it is that’s going to light a fire, what is it that’s really going to grab their attention. So to initiate it you need to be on the child’s level. Very rarely – although, sometimes – but very rarely does sustained shared thinking occur when the practitioner or the teacher says, “Oh, I’ve got a great idea. You can come and join my idea.” It nearly always happens when a sensitive practitioner or sensitive teacher gets down to the children and understands what it is that they want to do.

So the first thing to initiate is to tune into the children. And sometimes that actually might mean standing back and just having a little bit of a watch, a little bit of an observe, rather than jumping straight in there and saying, “I’ve got 10 minutes to have a conversation. Let’s do this now.” It might actually be that you need to stand back a bit. So that’s an issue to initiate it.

To encourage sustained shared thinking, the environment needs to be right. And I’m not talking about the physical environment – the tables and chairs. I’m talking about the emotional environment, where listening to each other is valued, where every opinion is sincerely listened to. And that’s child-to-child as well. That’s encouraged by the teachers. The whole environment of being able to share thoughts and without fear of ridicule, and supportively, and to sort of – even if it sounds a bit strange at first – when you pick that little bit and say, “Can you tell me a bit more about that?” Rather than just dismissing out of hand an opinion or an idea.

So the environment needs to be there. And that’s between practitioners as well. And where I’ve seen it work the best is where we’ve got practitioners talking to each other. You’ve got teachers saying to each other, “How can we solve this problem?” And doing it in front of the children so that they have it modeled for them, so that they know that adults don’t have all the answers all the time. And they can see how to solve those problems, clarify those concepts.

And once you’ve initiated it, encouraged it, facilitating it and encouraging it even more, practitioners need to develop those skills. It’s quite tricky to be able to talk to children, blocking everything else out and really concentrate on what that child is saying and understanding the thinking behind it. Because that takes a bit of time, as well, just to unravel whilst you’ve got a dozen other children running around you and you just watching out to make sure nobody falls off the climbing frame and all of that sort of thing.

So sometimes to facilitate it you need to maybe have a meeting together with the teachers all together, and talk to them and say, “This is something that I want to develop in this setting. This is something that will be worthwhile for our classroom. How can we make this happen?” And I’ve seen it work in a number of ways. I’ve seen teachers who have been ratio’d out during the afternoon or during the morning so they’ve got time. They don’t have to do anything else except chat with the children. I’ve seen it happen where they have, like, a signal: they have a hat or they just put their hand up because this conversation is going on with a child and they don’t want it to stop. But something over there needs sorting out. So they’ve just indicated to their partner in the room: “Can you sort that out? Because I’m just engaged in this.”

So really the two halves of the skillset that you need there are active listening and positive questioning. And that’s a skill set that you need really for sustained shared thinking.

One of the things that really strikes me when you speak more about it is, it’s really intuitive. When you talk about it, it’s really obvious. You know, “Why haven’t we been doing this? Why isn’t everyone doing this?

It also strikes me that it would be very difficult to implement in practice. And some of the things that you mention in terms of ways to facilitate it, you do have to be quite proactive in terms of thinking how you’re going to work with your educators if you’re an administrator. Or if you’re an early-childhood educator in the classroom, how you’re going to work with your peers to have an environment where you can practice sustained shared thinking. So what are some of the strategies or tips that you have for educators who want to implement this in their classrooms?

There’s a few things, really. The first thing is to practice that active listening. And the active listening is all about blocking out those external thoughts, the little thoughts are going on the back of your mind: “What am I going to have for my tea? I need to go get lunch.” All that sort of thing. But to really be that in the moment, all part of that kind of mindfulness set with the children, and actually really try and understand their thinking.

So to practice active listening, and it is a skill you need to practice. As human beings who spend a lot of time multitasking – and more and more-so – active listening is about actually being there with that child, what we used to maybe call “quality time” but it’s actually been there.

And so the other half of that equation is the positive questioning. Lots of open-ended questions, sort of the “what, where, when and how” types. I would urge caution on the “why” question, because very often if you ask the question “Why?” that can make people – adults and children – very defensive. If I come in and say, “Why have you done that?” – [in response] “I’m having to justify myself.” And children feel like that, too. But lots of open-ended questions.

Think about the questions that you’re asking. Are you just asking a question in order to get an answer, or are you genuinely interested? So if you come in and say, “What color is this pencil?”, you know it’s red. The child knows it’s red. We know that there’s a right or wrong answer. But if you said, “What can you tell me about this pencil?” then child might say, “It’s red, it’s sharp, it’s long,” and you might get a lot more information rather than, “Yeah, it’s red.” That’s more of sustained that you need.

In terms of actually in the classroom, you really hit it on the head there. You do need the time and you need to be able to do it as a group, as a setting. Educators need to get together understand that sustained shared thinking is so natural. It is happening all the time. But we need to be conscious of it and we need to value it. One of my big hates is if you go into a setting and they say, “Oh, yes, she’s just joking with the children.” Just talking with the children? She’s having a brilliant conversation about what they’ve just built. They’re not just… it’s got to be valued, and possibly recorded as well.

The problem with sustained shared thinking is it is very fleeting, that it is a process. It’s not a product. You’re not going to walk away with a painting at the end of it necessarily. And it’s something that just happens. And unless you’re really good at remembering things, it’s gone. So to consider how we might capture that, and that might be a piece of video or piece of audio, or to say to your partner, “I just need a couple of minutes to make notes on that because that was a really lovely conversation. I just want to make sure that’s recorded.”

And that all comes part of the value in sustained shared thinking, really understanding its part of your pedagogy and what you do in your setting to support children. It’s not just chatting with the children.

And finally to encourage children to do it as well, with each other, to solve problems rather than seeing a problem going on. They’re fighting about how they’re going to set up the obstacle course and they want it done this way. To actually go in and encourage that negotiation, to solve that problem together and show children, model to them how to listen to each other and how to negotiate and how to clarify those concepts together. And if you can get the children partaking sustained shared thinking between themselves you’ve got some really strong pedagogy going on there.

And if they can constantly question, and they [are] constantly thinking, that metacognition that’s going on in there – thinking about their thinking – so much the better. Because, again, that’s a life skill that would take them through to school and take through the whole of their life, that thinking-about-thinking.

That’s a good point. The children almost learn by doing sustained shared thinking in the classroom at a very young age, at the sort of preschool level. They learn how to have those deeper, more genuine conversations and relationships with people going forward, I guess, too, right?

Absolutely, if it’s encouraged and they’re in the right environment and if they feel secure to do so. I would love to say it happens in every setting but I know it doesn’t. There are still places out there where they feel that what they need to do is to teach children their colors and numbers, their shapes, their letters, but not to teach them how to query or how to question or how to solve problems.

And we know from the research and we know from experience that’s so short-term, that when they do hit the first problem or they see something that’s slightly different, they can’t solve it because they haven’t been given those skills.

I find that this is also a very timely conversation, because one thing that you mentioned which struck me was about active listening and how difficult that is and with a lot of the multitasking that everyone’s always trying to do. Because in the world we’re living in there are so many distractions. We’re all very busy, and especially with technology we’re always checking updates and this-and-that. So kind of like sitting down and having those more focused and deeper conversations and purposely spending time with children and with other people is something that’s a very relevant point of conversation in 2017.


Absolutely. And as you say with technology exploding as it is and even the youngest children being exposed to screens and things, they need to understand the idea of switching off as much as we do, I think.

Totally, totally. So if somebody wanted to go to learn more about sustained shared thinking, where would they go to find more information?

I’ve got several articles on my website: KathyBrody.com. And that talks about the importance of sustaining shared thinking and how you can support it. In some of those I talk further about active listening and positive questioning and some of those skill sets. And you can get the book Sustained Shared Thinking from Amazon.com, or Amazon.co.uk, depending where you are. Or listeners can go on EarlyYearsTraining.org.uk. And I’ve got an online sustained shared thinking course which takes you in much more detail through all those different skillsets, and how you can actually implement that in practice. It’s a very practical kind of course. And I’ve got some other courses on there as well, if you want to have a look at that on Early Years Training. And I’ll be very happy to hear from anybody on Twitter. I like Twitter a lot. My Twitter is, @KathyBrody, all one word.

Awesome. Kathy, this has been a really great conversation. I think it’s a super interesting topic that is not only timely – and very intuitive, when you go through the specifics – I think it’s something that people can take with them on every journey in their life and on all sorts of conversations and all their relationships, not just in the classroom but beyond, which I think speaks to the validity and the credibility of this concept of sustained shared thinking. So thank you so much for joining us on the show today.

You’re very welcome, Ron. It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you about sustained thinking today.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.