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Clear Thinking Case Study


Britain’s schools get lessons in Concept Thinking
from Singapore”

The UK came a horrifying 28th in the international league of pupil achievement in maths. Shanghai was top, Singapore second. But now something is being done to address the problem – we’re going to teach our children to THINK, which means learning about concepts in maths, science, and English. Concept Thinking. That’s what the Asian ‘tigers’ are good at, and why their economies are growing fast whilst Britain’s is flat.

This Story looks at how our education system is (at last) beginning to think in the right way about education and learn from others about certain successful ways how to teach.

Key points of the Story

The need for Concept Thinking - at any age

A government review of school national curriculum has established the need to teach core concepts in maths, science, and English at an earlier age, ie in primary school. The idea is that children will gain a better understanding of a subject by studying the key elements in greater depth. Pupils will also better understand how to apply their knowledge once they understand the underlying concepts. This is Concept Thinking, which we believe is fundamental to learning, innovation, problem solving, and clear thinking at any age.

Compared to the Asian ‘tiger’ economies, it seems that our children don’t really understand what they are being taught. So the government invited experts from countries like Singapore and South Korea to advise how they teach children to think.

Understanding the Concepts in Maths, Science, and English


For example, in maths pupils with be taught the concepts of equations at a much earlier age, whilst tools (such as pie charts) were moved to secondary school. In science, they will learn about the concept of Force (eg gravity) at age 6 or 7. And English teaching will focus more on reading, and across a broader range of books. This approach, it is hoped, will help us compete better in the future. In Singapore, pupils do calculations in primary schools that are currently learned at the highest standard of GCSE in England.


Analysis and Lessons

Concept Thinking ... Visualisation ... Meaning and Precision in Language ...
Flawed Concept

What is Concept Thinking and why is it so important?


Concept Thinking is vitally important yet little understood. It is the fundamental building block of knowledge, and the communication of knowledge. If you can't define something you will struggle to explain it to others.

This is especially important in business. Yet many managers struggle to even define key concepts such as ‘Strategy’ and ‘Design’, words they use every day. Many find it difficult to define the word ‘concept’ itself.

What’s ½ divided by ¼?

In a test, many teachers got this ‘simple’ calculation wrong. We’ve tried it on several business professionals with the same result, even accountants. The reason is because children are not taught the concept of ‘division’ properly in school and they take that vagueness into their adult life. When we rephrase the question to make the concept of division more obvious people get the correct answer immediately.

 Visualising, not learning by rote

Einstein once said “My skill does not lie in mathematical calculation, but rather in visualising effects.” The language we use, and visualisation, are tremendous aids to understanding and using concepts. In Singapore pupils are taught to think visually, to put a picture in their minds of a concept. They are also encouraged to look for patterns and number sense. Recognising patterns is another essential aspect of Concept Thinking. People get the fractions calculation (above) wrong because they were taught to remember facts (learning by rote) not to think and visualise concepts – the meaning.

Memory can play tricks and it gets less and less reliable as you get older. A picture, a visualisation, gives a more permanent and valuable understanding. In fact, we all have photographic memories. Tests have demonstrated that people can pick out up to 98% of pictures from over 1000 they were shown a short time before, and 70% three days later.

The importance of Meaning and Precision in Language


We believe that UK schools have often struggled in the most fundamental aspect of teaching English – learning the precise meaning/s and applications of words. The result is that when people get a job they are stuck with their own personal perceptions of what words were intended to mean and will consequently struggle to give precise definitions, explanations, or descriptions.  

A classic example is when people are asked to explain something. Many use vague language such as “Well, it is like …” or “It is about …” rather than what it actually is. This is exacerbated by the modern habit of using the word ‘like’ for virtually everything. We recently asked a supplier what type of tree a piece of wood came from and he replied: “Oh, it is like oak.” It wasn’t like oak, it was oak.

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