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How Thunks Helped Us Survive Lockdown

Associate and Primary teacher Mark Creasy shares the many, many ways he uses Thunks and how they have been a godsend to keep his class thinking through lock down

Thunk: A beguiling question about everyday things that stops you in your tracks and helps you start to look at the world in a whole new light.

I’ve been using Thunks by Ian Gilbert as part of my teaching practice ever since I first came across them, following an Independent Thinking conference.

To me, they are an invaluable tool in investigating not so much what children think, but – much more importantly – how they think.

Seeing children explore questions, with the safety of there not being a right answer and, even better, not having to guess what’s in the teacher’s head, leads to great discussions and deeper senses of understanding.

This understanding comes from both how everyone in the class (adults included) perceive each other, but also how we see different aspects of the world around us.

Thunks provide a safe space for the children to explore their thinking and their perspectives in general.

Moreover, there’s also a safe space to be able to challenge, debate, negotiate, reframe and, importantly, disagree.

My Relationship with Thunks

I have used Thunks in a variety of ways in the past:

      • For Circle Time.
      • As a ‘learning break’ to refocus the children.
      • As a way to increase and improve discussion within a class, especially to deliberately sow discord.
      • To teach debating techniques, i.e. think about your answer, listen to others, think and consider your initial position, discuss and debate – which can’t fall back to ‘well you’re wrong and I’m right’ as there’s no right answer!
      • To increase engagement from more reluctant participants – especially those who are aware that certain children will ‘always’ be right (and faster than themselves!)
      • To introduce a topic or a theme.
      • As an assembly – perfect when you’re put on the spot!
      • For transition day activities, it’s the best way I know to get the children to show you their real selves.
      • As an interview lesson. I’ve done this three times when I was asked to ‘do something you want with a group of children from year x.’ Twice I got the job, the other I didn’t, which was just as well as, in the interview, I was asked about my choice of lesson. My response (which I’ve précised) was about seeing the children thinking and challenging them, to which I received, ‘We try not to overly encourage that, they need to learn what they need to know.’ I think both sides had a lucky escape!

And I can honestly say that the discussions, debates, disagreements – sometimes incredibly heated and passionate – that have emanated from these learning inputs remain long in my memory.

Thunks and Children

Ian Gilbert always describes Thunks as ‘questions to make your brain go ouch’. And, for me, possibly some of the most memorable moments with my classes over the years are those times when a child oscillates from one side of the debate to the other and then ends up as Callum once did with,

“I thought I knew what I thought, then I thought the opposite, then I changed again and now I don’t know. I know you said there isn’t an answer, but can you tell me if there is because my head is about to explode with all this thinking!”

True, some will be more like Harry,

“Please tell me you’re not asking one of those questions again, my brain can’t take it!”

Or, perhaps, my real favourite moments are best encapsulated by Talia,

“I don’t mind thinking, but I like being right more!”

Who was answered by her best friend Ruby with,

“I love these questions! I’m used to not being right – I’m never right – but no-one can tell me I’m wrong with a Thunk, plus I get time to think about my answer and that answer is my own.”

You see, Thunks are truly liberating for children, especially those who are SEND or not as able, or confident in the typical classroom Q&A environment.

Traditionally, and we all know the need to get on with learning as there’s lots to do, questioning will follow a similar ritual in class:

      • Teacher has an answer in their head.
      • Teacher asks class for answer to said question.
      • Teacher invites responses (hands up, random, whatever method they prefer).
      • Teacher stops when answer is given.
      • Repeat as necessary – usually to satisfy yourself that a) you’re using questioning (you’ve heard somewhere it’s important in lessons), b) you’ve included different children (tick off PPG/ SEND/ G&T – leave them till last so they can give the right answer) and c) you’ve filled enough time before ‘real teaching’ can recommence.

Sadly, too often, the attitudes in #5 still pervade. Despite extensive research from the likes of RosenshineZoe Elder and Hattie about the importance of questions and high quality, cognitive ones at that. For those not believing me, as Brualdi, 1998 (cited in Hattie) said:

“[Teachers ask] 200-300 per day, and the majority of these are low-level cognitive questions: 60% recall facts; 20% are procedural…… the majority of questions are about ‘the facts, just give me the facts’ and the students all know that the teacher knows the answer.”

Thunks don’t allow this. They force cognition. They force cognitive dissonance. They actively encourage discomfort – which, in my experience, is usually held most in the G&T, most able group, whom are ‘always’ rightest and fastest! (See Talia above.)

Thunks in the Classroom

Over the years I feel that I have honed how I use Thunks, especially now that I have a ‘Daily Circle Time’ whereby I not only check in with the children about their day/ weekend gone/ weekend to come/ evening/ etc, but we discuss and debate a Thunk. It works as follows:

      • Pose a Thunk.

I may rifle through the Thunks book and get a child to stop me, or they pick a number, or use A Tin of Thunks and get them to choose a card, or I pose one myself.

      • Thinking Time.

This is vital, I always introduce this as ‘I want your best answer, not your first answer.’

We all know the child whose hand shoots up, full of confidence with the absolute best answer within three seconds, regardless of the question being ‘What’s 1 + 1?’.

Or, ‘Considering all factors, across the post WW1 years, how fair is it to say that the Great Depression and the Allies treatment of Germany led to WW2?’

      • Invite responses.

For the uninitiated, Thunks have 5 possible answers: yes, no, both, neither, something else. Early on, you’ll need to remind the children of this as they will tend to go down the yes/ no option, but over time, I have found phrases such as, ‘It depends on x, y, z.’

And, ‘If you consider a, then I think…’

Or, even ‘To me, there are shades of answers as……’

      • Discussion and debate.

This will undoubtedly fall into two elements.

One, you will need to guide and provoke further responses – a Thunk never works if you allow the child to just answer and you move on, it’s designed for exploration and development, for challenge and justification – though this takes confidence and practice.

You will get it wrong, frequently, but persevere!

This phase will usually come when the children are new to Thunks, they are younger learners or at the start of a session before the children have warmed up.

Two, ideally, the children will do this for themselves, having been taught the appropriate discourse by you.

      • Conclusion and review.

At the end of the session – I find 20-30 minutes is the minimum time for one, starter question that will snowball and also require invocation of other questions – it is important to ‘wrap up’ the learning.

This cannot be in an attempt to frame what you agreed with, nor to highlight where people may have ‘misspoken’.

Instead, this is a great opportunity to point out to the children the true depth of their thinking, plus the potential for future learning and development – I also love ensuring the children ‘want more’!

All of this process follows the Socratic discourse model, which is so important in P4C (Philosophy for Children).

I think this is a great stimulus for children.

It can work across all subjects and, especially considering the focus on creativity and understanding throughout the National Curriculum, is a vital part of learning. I would recommend adding this element to your repertoire if it’s not there already.

Thunks in Lockdown

This is all well and good, but is this possible in the current circumstances?

Well, very early on in the lockdown I realised that, more than writing or maths or any other subject, my class needed as much human contact as a class as possible and to have true engagement with each other.

My class are incredibly sociable at school – they’re a Year 3 class, one out of two classes – in fact, unlike any other class at the school, it’s not unusual to see the entire class sitting together along the same table at lunch!

They needed to have this during this time. I just needed to create it!

To that end I committed to holding daily sessions with the class (we use Google Meets as a school) and I decided that we would use Thunks.

I can’t deny, despite having worked with Thunks for many years I was nervous as, not being in the controlled environment of a circle in a classroom, this had huge capacity to go wrong.

However, I knew it was what my class needed, it’s what they were used to and, most importantly, it would provide 30 minutes of normality in these extremely un-normal times.

As well as 30 minutes respite for parents!

We established clear rules:

      • I would post the Thunk along with the link to the meeting.
      • The children would arrive in the meeting on mute.
      • As other children arrived, they would continue thinking.
      • I would pose/ re-pose the question and then everyone would have 30 seconds of thinking time – any early hands up would be reminded of the first v best answer scenario!
      • I would invite responses and the children would raise their hands - the grid view is invaluable for this (the children have installed it too as it’s not automatic as in Zoom). This invite would normally be, “I’ll go to a, then b and then c.” This allows them to know that I’m coming to them, to be prepared and also not ‘freeze’ – which can happen, even if they’ve volunteered to answer!
      • Responders should try to reference other children, e.g. ‘I agree with x because…’ or ‘I agree in part with y because… however….’ And ‘I disagree with x because…’
      • I would delve deeper into their thinking with follow up questions designed to challenge and stimulate further discussion.
      • Even if they had been waiting for a while, they don’t unmute and blurt out an answer, nor do they take to the chat function and type in their response (we had to establish this rule after the first few sessions!) as they should be listening to each other.
      • We would be patient for anyone experiencing technical difficulties.

Despite my class having used Thunks in our classroom I decided to start slowly and remind the children how things worked. We had a few days of 'what colour is today?'

This gave the children security, as we’ve used it before, plus they also felt they could explain their answers and I could follow up with questions like:

      • “Is _____day always _________ ?”
      • “What colour was yesterday?”
      • “What shade of ________ is it?”
      • “Is that your favourite colour?” If it was, I’d ask, “So, is today your favourite day?” or “Why is it better than yesterday?” Or “What if tomorrow is even better, will you need a new favourite colour?”
      • “What needs to happen for today to turn ________ (any colour not said)?”

This is a rich seam to explore, plus it allows the children to develop their language around colour – there’s also the bonus for those who see blue as a positive colour for them and learning about people feeling ‘blue’.

Sometimes children will say the same colour – this is even better when it’s boys and related to their football teams – and I will explore if they are thinking the same colour. 

From this starting point, which allowed the children to remember the format, trial it in the virtual world and to be prepared to share their ideas in front of their parents (more on them in a minute) we were ready to ‘dive in’.

Thunks we have used during lockdown include:

      • Should you be the learning partner your learning partner deserves?
      • Could your pet think you were its pet?
      • Is being nice more important than being right?
      • Is a baby poor?
      • Can you be rude to yourself?
      • Did humans invent time?
      • If you go into a shop, read a whole magazine and then walk out have you stolen the magazine?

This to me proved that Thunks can work virtually, not just as a means to an end, but as a really focused and purposeful activity.

So much so, last week the children were lucky enough to have Ian Gilbert join us for our daily session to run Thunks live. Ian was aware of our rules and so posed this Thunk:

Should you say thank you to a robot waiter?

As expected, given the excitement of a visitor to the class, some hands went up quickly, but once the thinking and reflection time was up, the conversation flowed and through interactions with various children the initial question was developed through:

      • “Would you say thank you to the TV? The washing machine?”
      • “Would you say thank you to Alexa?” (Ian grassed me up on the fact that I do!)
      • “What about to a foreign person who doesn’t understand you?”

There were some amazing responses, all of which prompted further, deeper questioning, including:

      • “It doesn’t matter who it is you should be polite.”
      • “Saying thank you is more about you than who’s receiving it.”
      • “The robot is doing something for us, so yes.”
      • “No, because it’s a robot and they don’t understand.”
      • “My mum talks to the telly!”
      • “I imagine that the machines all talk to each other and know what they’re doing!”

And so, the questions and exploration developed:

      • “What if the robot wasn’t nice to us?”
      • “Does it matter if you say thank you rudely?”
      • “Would you say thank you to a slave?”
      • “Do machines have feelings?”
      • “Does Alexa have feelings?” *
      • “Are our feelings programmed in the same way?”
      • “Does that make the machines a who or what?”
      • “If it [or a foreign person] doesn’t understand you is it ok to swear at them?”
      • “What about if you made up a swear word, is that ok?”

Before we knew it half an hour had flown by, everyone had spoken, some several times, and Ian had included many follow up questions to probe deeper.

However, as with all Thunks sessions there the all-important takeaways, which came from the children themselves (making me, and their parents, so proud):

      1. Thank you isn’t just a word, how you say it is important.
      2. Saying 'thank you' is about you and your manners.
      3. Being nice and kind is always the right thing to do.

During this session the children explored a range of ideas, which weren’t labelled for them, but can all be drawn upon at a later date: humanity, what it means to be human, dealing with others, manners/ politeness (are they important?), how we interact, the type of society we want, the role of machines in our lives and the examples of parents.

The children’s feedback was amazing:

Phoebe: "Thank you Ian, that was so cool, I hope we can do it again."

Hassan: "Great meeting, my head hurts!"

Alex: "I loved that, can you ask Ian what is the inspiration behind Thunks?"

Several commented: "I'm not sure about saying thank you to a washing machine!"

Thunks and Parents

Throughout my time of using Thunks parents have always been supportive, especially as I explain what I’m doing and why, plus I’ve encouraged them to use them at home – they’re a perfect discussion point for dinnertime and provokes more than a salutary grunt in response!

I’ve had parents attend class to see them in action, but lockdown has given parents the opportunity to see how Thunks work.

In fact, the Thunks sessions haven’t really provided the respite I envisaged for the parents as so many come along and listen – I reckon quite a few of the parents in my class would like their own session! Plus, so many experienced the session with Ian.

I think they’re feedback says it all:

      • “I was so proud to see him taking part, I was expecting him to freeze.”
      • “I couldn’t believe how she thought about that, I’ve really underestimated her thinking. I won’t be letting her get away with ‘dunno’ any more.
      • “It’s given me a great way to engage with my kids, especially with this home learning, it’s something different to talk about, when there’s not really much to say.”
      • “Our lunch and dinner times have never been the same since we started using Thunks, I love them.”
      • Several parents have commented along the line of, “I wish I’d had them at school, no-one ever seemed interested in my opinion.”
      • But my favourite was the mum who confided in me, “Yes, I talk to the washing machine, but it’s only when I seem to swear at it does it work!” I did ask if she’d tried saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and she told me, “After listening to the kids, I will!”

So, yes Thunks are something that can be invaluable in the class, but as I have found out since March 23rd, they can also be one of the best things going in the current climate.

I have had children engage with their classmates in ways they never usually do:

      • Children who often think they’re too cool to volunteer now doing so and being articulate and developed in their answers.
      • Children who are nervous to answer or prefer to copy their peers for the ‘right answer’ now don’t do this.
      • Children who had to be first to respond now listen.
      • Children who struggled to cope with others disagreeing now manage it.

My challenge is maintaining that whenever lockdown is lifted, but it will be worth it. [ITL]

To find out more about booking Mark Creasy for your school, college or organisation call us on 01267 211432 or drop us an email on

About the author

Mark Creasy

Mark is a primary and special school teacher who also has experience in secondary - a rare breed. He is the author of Unhomework and Independent Thinking on Primary Teaching and is always full of ideas to help teachers save time and energy as they really stretch their children.

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