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Unlock the power of 'Sustained Shared Thinking' in your setting (cert-4-£1)

Updated: May 15, 2021

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What is Sustained Shared Thinking? (And what does it look like?)

The term ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’ can be intimidating for new or less experienced practitioners. In my experience as an early years lecturer and assessor, if I asked my students for an example of how they engage in Sustained Shared Thinking with children they’d often panic and not know how to answer. If, however, I asked them to give me an example of a memorable moment they’ve shared with a child they’d reel off an endless list of tales and anecdotes of their conversations and interactions with children, often commenting on the funny things children do and say. We’ve all done it...engaged in a conversation with a child about something...anything...and gained a real insight into the child’s thoughts, misconceptions, feelings and knowledge about a particular topic.

Recently, I was playing with my 4 year old daughter and we were pretending to eat different play foods, we had a long conversation about how veg is healthy etc, nothing out of the ordinary for us but when I mentioned that carrots help you see in the dark, she replied “A torch would be better!” After we’d had a little giggle together, the conversation then moved on from healthy eating to electricity and continued for several minutes until it came to a natural end.

As an early years educator, I’d have conversations like this with young children all the time. The common thread that ran through these types of conversations was that they were 2-way, naturally occurring and kept both of us interacting for a period of time. You could call it ‘chewing the fat’ or ‘having a chat’ - either way, what I was doing with these children was engaging in some form of ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’.

This was a very useful way of helping my students start to recognise what Sustained Shared Thinking can look like in its obvious form but what about the less obvious interactions that go on between children and adults, and between children themselves? Is it just verbal conversations that encourage Sustained Shared Thinking? The answer is ‘No!’

You could be forgiven for assuming that Sustained Shared Thinking requires speech to be valuable – it doesn’t. In this case, I find another helpful way to describe Sustained Shared Thinking as those moments with a child where everything else around you just ‘melts away’. You’re both so absorbed in the interaction, that all that matters in that moment is you, the child and what you’re doing together! And this can sometimes involve no speech at all!

What’s the official definition of Sustained Shared Thinking?

The term Sustained Shared Thinking as we know it officially came about following the EPPE project (2004) (Although the concept is much older than 2004 – more on that later)

‘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.’(The EPPE Project, 2004)

Let’s break this definition down:

Individuals – In this context this can be between one adult and one child, between one adult and more than one child, and between two or more children. (It is important for early years professionals to recognise when this is occurring between children and to not dominate the interaction themselves)

Work together‘Work’ can be anything - from building, pouring, arranging, connecting, sorting, discussing, exploring, evaluating (some will involve speech but some will not)

'together' implies it must be 2-way- not just the adult speaking “at” the child or vice versa.

In an intellectual way – again, I think this wording may intimidate less experienced practitioners - it doesn’t mean that it has to involve very advanced concepts or that the adult has to pull the conversation towards a more ‘intellectual’ direction, it just means that the interaction has to encourage ‘thinking’ – (and not necessarily about the right answers either!)

Etc – the interaction does not have to fall neatly into the 4 examples given - if it involves some ‘thinking’ but it’s not strictly problem solving, clarifying concepts, evaluating or extending narratives it can still count.

It must develop and extend – this is where the word ‘sustained’ comes the interaction needs to continue for more than a few moments in order for the child to really extend their thinking. You’ll have to use your discretion on this – some examples of Sustained Shared Thinking last a few minutes, some for much longer – as long as it takes for the ‘extended thinking’ to take place.

Sustained Shared Thinking or teaching and learning?

You might think that these episodes of Sustained Shared Thinking will provide the adult with the ideal opportunity to ‘teach’ children. Like me, when I first heard about Sustained Shared Thinking, you might be tempted to cram in lots of new vocabulary and use it as a chance to ‘educate’ the child. The problem with this approach is that is becomes more of an episode of ‘teaching and learning’ rather than a true episode of Sustained Shared Thinking. Don’t get me wrong – episodes of ‘teaching and learning’ are vital in early years but that’s what they are – episodes of teaching and learning, not Sustained Shared Thinking.

So, what’s the difference between an episode of teaching and learning and an episode of Sustained Shared Thinking? You can tell the difference because you will notice that during Sustained Shared Thinking both the early years practitioner and the child are exploring or discussing something as equals and at the child’s physical and developmental level. They are at eye level, bodies facing towards one another, both engaged equally, accompanied by the very subtle fact that the early years practitioner is using this interaction to gain as much insight into the child’s thinking as possible. The skillful adult will be asking appropriate questions to really try and get inside the child’s thought process rather than ‘test’ their knowledge about what’s right or wrong.

Once you are engaged in this deep experience together – you will be given exclusive access to the child’s individual experiences that will enrich your understanding of the child and their individual take on the world. It is a truly powerful tool that allows you a glimpse of the child’s unique perspective.

Some benefits of Sustained Shared Thinking that you might not have thought of:

Life-long learning

Another key thing to remember about Sustained Shared Thinking is that rather than helping children learn new things within the moment (which it inevitably does) it’s more valuable in terms of the way it shapes the child’s approach to the world around them. If children become used to engaging in Sustained Shared Thinking, that is, they are encouraged to be curious, to investigate, to explore and ponder, to get things wrong and have a go, then they are being shown how to be thinkers and explorers and problem solvers and it sets them up for life-long learning. During Sustained Shared Thinking the child isn’t directed towards particular answers, but they are encouraged to go on an exploratory journey and explore possibilities outside of what’s considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Quality of education

I’ve also found another less obvious but very powerful benefit of Sustained Shared Thinking is that you learn so much more about the child’s learning abilities. So often, a child would say something to me that blew me away, something about their understanding, knowledge or experience that I would not have otherwise found out without that one-one episode of Sustained Shared Thinking. In this case, Sustained Shared Thinking prevents us from under-estimating children’s understanding and abilities and prevents us from limiting what they can learn. A vital part of providing a quality education is ensuring the curriculum is challenging enough – I know myself that without certain episodes of Sustained Shared Thinking – I’d never have known about little Reggie’s interest in gardening and that he could identify almost every herb in our sensory garden whilst Molly had a fascination with anatomy and knew the correct anatomical names and position of all the major bones in the human skeleton. This of course helped me to plan a far more challenging and stimulating curriculum for these amazing children based on the interests!

Parents, carers and children are the real experts when it comes to Sustained Shared Thinking!

I found that encouraging episodes of Sustained Shared Thinking with key children reinforced my relationship with parents too because I was able to see what parents see. I was able to experience the sorts of one-one conversations and interactions more akin to those between parents and children at home. By engaging with children in nursery in a similar way to how parents do outside of nursery, you get to see ‘more’ of the child so it’s no coincidence that the EYFS refers to parents as ‘Children’s first and most enduring educators.’