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“So, my question for the CPD Jukebox is how do I get my class to think for themselves? Well, I think there's three things to think about when it comes to getting them to think for themselves.

One is that you need to get them to want to think for themselves.

Guess What’s in the Teacher’s Head

It's quite easy in school when it's all about passing exams, learning facts, learning what's in the test and playing the game of guess what's in the teacher's head, that children don't need to think for themselves - they just need to sit there and be passive enough in order to be able to learn and to remember, to regurgitate and then to move on.

So, there's not a great deal of incentive to get them to want to think for themselves so, the starting point is moving beyond that.

Essential Motivation

There's a number of things there. When I wrote the book Essential Motivation in the Classroom years ago, the starting point for getting children motivated from the inside and to want to think for themselves was what we used to call the WIIFM – What’s In It For Me.

So, how will your students benefit from thinking for themselves about the topic or about the subject that you're covering?

The Great Thinkers

But also, more generally, thinking for themselves like who are the great thinkers? Who are the people who have succeeded by and achieved by thinking for themselves? How can you share the stories of that?

And also, what about during the pandemic, because of the extent to which children had to learn to think for themselves and think independently and those who were able to do that were more successful and dealt better with the chaos and with the uncertainty of it all compared to those who were just sitting there waiting to be told what to do and expecting certain things to be sorted out for them?

Valuing the ‘Wrong’ Answer

So, the more you can talk up the idea of independent thinking, of thinking for themselves and share stories and model it and show how it can be done and, celebrate it as well.

So, that when a student comes up with an answer that you weren't expecting, rather than because it wasn't the one in your head and dismissing it , actually value it!

Think about it, reflect on it and ask where it came from. Really hold up the idea that that young people can think for themselves and show the children that not only is that okay, but that it’s actually a really good thing to do!

So, what's in it for me and how will I benefit from the thinking?

Celebrate it, look for it, seek it out, highlight it and model it yourself!

Learned Helplessness

Another way of getting them to think for themselves is to stop thinking for them and to stop doing the work for them.

It’s really easy to ask a question where you know the answer and if they don't get it to nudge them towards the answer that's in your head and to celebrate those children who get that answer (that’s in your head) and in turn make those who don’t get that sort of answer feel bad, although it’s not done deliberately.

Children can develop what’s called ‘learned helplessness’ - and according to some of the research the girls are more prone to this than the boys - but it’s the idea that if you don't know what to do, somebody will come and sort it out for you.

Think With Them Not for Them

So, the more we think for them, the more we do it for them, as opposed to with them, the more we rescue them when they're in trouble.

For example, if they’re in a class and they've got their hand up, this the child with their hand up meaning ‘I don't need to do any work, I don't need to think, it's up to the teacher now to sort this out for me’ and they might have their hand up for 10 minutes doing that or maybe the teaching assistant will come in and, if you don't have a great relationship with the TA or the TA hasn’t being fully trained then the TA ends up doing the thinking for them.

The Four Bs

One strategy that I came across years ago is the 4 Bs – Brain, Book, Buddy, Boss.

So before a child raises their hand up and asks “What do I have to do?”, have them think about it for themselves (Brain), and then ask is it in the book or is it on the board? (Book), asking a friend, asking a colleague, asking a peer (Buddy) and then boss, the teacher or maybe the TA.

But only when you've gone through the other B’s, do you get to the teacher. So, that you're structuring it in a way that they have to think for themselves, and they know they won't go in and get rescued by you.


Another version of that is Three Before Me. I want evidence that you've tried three different ways of unsticking yourself, of thinking it through, of working it out for yourself, of what it is you think you've got to do before you come to me.

And if I’ve you've got no evidence that you've done these other things, go away and then come back when you do.

Better Thinking From Better Questions

The third thing to think about when it comes to getting them to think for themselves is about the nature and the quality of the questions that you ask.

If you're forever asking closed, knowledge-based, memory-related sorts of questions, then it's memory that you're going to get and knowledge, which isn't necessarily anything to do with the thinking.

So, if you change the question to more open questions, for example rather than asking them a question and expecting an answer, give them an answer and ask them for five questions which will have that answer as the answer.

So, you're coming at it in a totally different way or, asking questions without any answers, asking questions that have lots of different answers.

My Brain Hurts

I can ask a class ‘What were what were the causes of World War One?’ because we've done that in the lesson or

I could say ‘Why didn't World War One happen in 1913 - why didn't it start in 1912?!’.

You're interrogating the same knowledge, but they do have to reframe it, rethink it and reposition themselves in order to get the answer and what you'll find with these more open and more challenging sorts of questions is they'll say things like “My brain hurts”.

And I don't hear children say “my brain hurts” when they're just going through the ropes learning, the memory, the, knowledge, the learning of the new stuff -  but when you really get them to twist and flick their brains with the things like the Thunks - you know is a broken down car parked? - all those sorts of things is when you really hear them thinking and you hear them saying my brain hurts!

And then, you know you're onto something when it comes to helping children think for themselves.”

You can check out all the other 'tracks' on our CPD Jukebox by clicking here.

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

About the author

Ian Gilbert

Ian Gilbert is an award-winning writer, editor, speaker, innovator and the founder of Independent Thinking. He has lived and worked in Europe, the Middle East, South America and Asia and is privileged to have such a global view of education and education systems.

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