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Clear Thinking Case Study of the Month

The Story

June 2011

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

The UK comes a horrifying 28th in the international league of pupil achievement in maths. Shanghai is 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 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 has invited experts from countries like Singapore and South Korea to advise our schools on how to 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) will be 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 thinking about the concept, or fundamental idea, behind something. What it is. All nouns are concepts. You can think about the concept of something physical such as ‘a table’, or ‘a chair’ (try completing the sentence “A table is …”). Or something abstract, such as ‘hope’. It can be both, such as ‘art’.

Most people don’t think too much about the concept of a table. But if you are designing a new table your absolute start point should be to understand the concept of a table – what a table is. In fact Concept Thinking is the most important Thinking Style of all. If you can understand the concept of some ‘thing’, then you can define it and work out how to use it, or improve it.

This is especially important in business. Yet many managers struggle to even define key concepts like ‘Strategy’ and ‘Design’, words they use every day. Many find it difficult to define the word ‘concept’. If you can’t clearly define something, you will probably have problems understanding it and applying it.

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 an accountant. 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 (“How many quarters are there in a half?”) 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 failed badly in the most fundamental aspect of teaching English – learning the precise meaning/s 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 firewood 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.

The Big Society (flawed) concept

David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, has dreamt up a new concept called the Big Society. Unfortunately, this is a concept still in development – he hasn’t yet figured out what it means exactly and consequently is having immense difficulty explaining it and selling it. The basic idea of saving costs by asking the public to do much of the work currently done by paid public sector workers and managers is, we believe, a classic example of a ‘flawed concept’.

This idea may be attractive to the government but is highly unlikely to prove practical to any significant scale. Doing work for charity is one thing, taking responsibility for consequences is quite another.

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