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 in...so 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:
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.’
One of my favourite early years books ‘Young Children Learning’ by Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes highlights this. The book gives an account of a research project in the 1980s whereby tape-recordings were made of the conversations of four-year-old girls. They were taped in the mornings when they were at nursery school and in the afternoons at home with their mothers. The research found that at home with their mothers, the children were able to “express their puzzlement, pursue the questions and issues that mattered to them [...] they had a thirst for understanding within supportive and varied contexts.” (Tizard and Hughes, 1984)
Tizard and Hughes (1984) described these types of interactions between parents and children as ‘passages of intellectual search’. In sharp contrast, they found that the conversations between these same children and their nursery teachers “lacked the richness, depth and variety which characterized the home conversations” (Tizard and Hughes, 1984)
The findings state that in the nursery setting “the questioning, puzzling child which the researchers were so taken with at home was gone: in her place was a child who, when talking to staff, seemed subdued, and whose conversations with adults were mainly restricted to answering questions rather than asking them”. (Tizard and Hughes, 1984)
I’m aware that we have come a long way since the 1980s but its intriguing to see that the real experts in Sustained Shared Thinking during this study were the children themselves and their parents. I feel that what Tizard and Hughes (1984) referred to as ‘passages of intellectual search’ translates perfectly to what we now understand to be Sustained Shared Thinking. And I personally feel we have a lot to learn from the children themselves as little apprentices with an inner drive for exploration and their parents who (quite rightly) have an advantage over early years professionals because they not only share history with the child but generally have more opportunity for one-one attention at home (but not always), coupled with the fact that interactions at home are usually of great meaning to the child because they are embedded in the child’s day-to-day home life - More on how to involve parents in your settings approach to Sustained Shared Thinking later.
How to develop a whole setting approach to Sustained Shared Thinking
I often find that more experienced practitioners engage in Sustained Shared Thinking very naturally and instinctively. However, this doesn’t mean it’s instinctive for every practitioner, especially when the concept of Sustained Shared Thinking is fairly new to them.
I’m often asked by early years leaders how they can help their new or less experienced practitioners engage in Sustained Shared Thinking more successfully. Here’s what I tell them:
1. Use loose parts play
By encouraging open-ended play, heuristic play, treasure baskets, tinker trays, discovery play – (whatever you prefer to call it) you are encouraging children to be curious, to consider ideas, to think critically and explore. Loose parts play is great because it has no right or wrong answers and it sparks those moments of awe and wonder upon which the principles of Sustained Shared Thinking are based.
2. Don’t over- focus on asking questions (even open-questions)
I always explain to new practitioners that our interactions with children should never make the child feel ‘tested’. This can put too much pressure on a child to feel like they have to get the right answer and it can cause them to shut down.
We are told all the time to ask open questions but, in my experience, even these - especially ‘why’ questions can actually interfere with high quality interactions and Sustained Shared Thinking. I always suggest to new practitioners that struggle with Sustained Shared Thinking or open questioning to focus on a different method of interaction until the questioning comes more naturally. For example – just provide a (non-intrusive) running commentary of what the child is doing or just think out loud yourself – model being a thinker and just go with the flow of the moment. You could focus on joining in physically using minimal words – it still counts as Sustained Shared Thinking if it leads to further experimentation, ideas and thinking.
3. Develop a Sustained Shared Thinking radar
Help practitioners recognise the spark that ignites the episode of Sustained Shared Thinking. And help practitioners recognise when others are engaging in this too and to support this where possible. The thing about Sustained Shared Thinking is you never know when it’s going to strike – it could be in the queue for the toilet, during the home time routine or just as you’re about to read a story to the whole group. We’ve all been there – you spot the perfect opportunity for a high quality interaction with a child and you dive in full of enthusiasm and excitement just before you have to divert your attention from the child involved to answer the door or deal with an accident or mop up a spill. Meanwhile the child loses interest and the moment of magic is gone!
I recommend having a completely open setting approach to Sustained Shared Thinking so that other practitioners can recognise when Sustained Shared Thinking is possibly occurring and the protocol for supporting this where possible. I suggest if you notice an interaction between your colleague and a child, just hover close by, being vigilant for distractions and dealing with issues that arise nearby in a bid to help each other engage in Sustained Shared Thinking for as long as possible.
4. Peer observations and parental involvement
The best way to learn about Sustained Shared Thinking is to see it in action!
I thoroughly recommend encouraging your new or less experienced practitioners to watch the members of your team who are strong at Sustained Shared Thinking. If possible, give the practitioners time out of ratio to observe each other and discuss their findings straight afterwards. It’s really useful to film good examples of Sustained Shared Thinking to help train your staff (with parental consent from the children involved of course). This way they can watch the footage together and reflect on what made it a good example and discuss how to apply this to their own practice. This will also help the more experienced practitioner reflect on why they do what they do, further consolidating their own understanding of Sustained Shared Thinking.
If its appropriate, and only with a careful and sensitive approach involving the correct permissions and consent, invite parents to help develop some training videos in the setting. They are experts in their own children after all and you’ll be amazed at the excellent examples of Sustained Shared Thinking you will gather just by filming children with their enthusiastic mums, dads, carers, grannies or grandpas in the book corner! (It’s important to ask sensitively – this could be far too much pressure for some parents/carers where as others are far more confident and would be happy to be filmed – use your tact here!)
It’s helpful to explain to new or less experienced practitioners that even the most seasoned professional won’t get Sustained Shared Thinking right all the time. Sometimes, children have their own agenda and inner drive that isn’t always made available to us as adults. In these instances – the child’s thought processes remain internal and its up to us to recognise and respect this.
I’m very lucky in my work to have seen hundreds of different setting’s approaches to Sustained Shared Thinking and the biggest barrier by far is ...TIME.
In an ideal world, Sustained Shared Thinking basically takes the adult out of ratio because all they should be doing is focusing on that one-one interaction for several minutes. I completely understand that this is not an ideal world and it is not going to happen all the time in busy settings where ratios are delicately balanced. I’ve even seen unsuccessful attempts at Sustained Shared Thinking in outstanding settings. You’d think that generous ratios and well-organised, calm environments that are normally conducive to one-one interactions would be all you need for Sustained Shared Thinking to occur, but sometimes, you’re just having ‘one of those days’ (You know the days? – when everything seems to go haywire – or “when the wheels fall off” as I used to put it!)*
* I say this in jest of course - the children were always perfectly happy and safe - but I’d need a long lie-down at the end of the day – I’m sure you can relate! *
Anyway, I digress - So a realistic, pragmatic approach is always useful here – if Sustained Shared Thinking is possible in the moment - go for it, if it’s not appropriate and you have to sacrifice an episode of Sustained Shared Thinking for more practical tasks then don’t beat yourself up about it – you can only try your best. Just continue to reflect and adjust until you get the right balance. Have a discussion with your leader, try to think of the best approach for your setting, staff and children. And remember – you’re an early years professional - multitasking is your middle name! If it means that occasionally you are attempting Sustained Shared Thinking whilst supervising outdoor play, listening out for the doorbell, managing behaviour, greeting parents and carrying out dynamic risk assessments then so be it! Some Sustained Shared Thinking is better than none as long as you also have those moments of calm when you can fully immerse yourself in Sustained Shared Thinking and reap the full benefits as a result of doing it properly.
Once you’ve got Sustained Shared Thinking properly embedded, almost as a ‘way of life’ within your setting, the benefits are endless! You will know the children so much more as a result of Sustained Shared Thinking, which will help with behaviour management, transitions, emotional literacy, communication, teaching and learning - in fact all areas of the EYFS will be enhanced!
As for early years professionals - it is equally beneficial for you too! I hope you’re as thrilled as I was to find out that Sustained Shared Thinking can help with that dreaded paperwork! (Forgive the assumption, but I’m yet to meet an early years practitioner that entered into early years because they liked paperwork.) You’ll find that writing up observations and children’s trackers will become easier because of how much more you know about the child as a result of repeated episodes of Sustained Shared Thinking.
You’ll also be able to plan for their interests more fully because the Sustained Shared Thinking will reveal the underlying reasons for showing an interest in something, it will unveil their fascinations, fixations and even schemas that determine why they are interested in a particular theme or concept- making it much easier to plan extension activities and next steps!
So go ahead! Revive your passion for Sustained Shared Thinking and enjoy your journey to enhancing this wonderfully powerful tool!
Brodie, K (2004). ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’ Oxon: Routledge
Tizard, B and Hughes, M (1984). ‘Young Children Learning’ Oxford: Fontana Original
Sylva, K et al (2004). ‘The EPPE Project’. Nottingham: DfES Publications
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