Sustained shared thinking in EYFS – What it is and activities to try

  • Sustained shared thinking in EYFS – What it is and activities to try

Kathy Brodie explores the value of sustained shared thinking, a powerful tool available to every early years practitioner…

Sustained shared thinking (SST) is free, needs no equipment and can be achieved by skilled practitioners.

It’s not a new idea or something ‘extra’ you have to do. Actually, it’s probably something that you’re doing all the time already.

Sustained shared thinking definition

In basic terms, SST describes those lovely, in-depth conversations that you have with children about anything and everything.

The term ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’ comes from REPEY research in 2002 and was then used by Kathy Sylva et al as a measure of quality in seminal Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) research in 2004.

SST was first mentioned in the 2008 Early Years Foundation Stage, under creativity and critical thinking.

It also appears in the Development Matters non-statutory curriculum guidance for the EYFS, which calls SST “especially powerful.”

Formally, it is defined as:

[A]n 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. (Sylva et al, 2004: 36)

To fully understand the impact that SST can have, we need to consider each phrase individually:

[A]n episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’

SST is something that happens between two or more people. This will most frequently be between an adult and a child, but it may also be between children, if one child is a ‘more knowledgeable other’ (Vygotsky, 1978).

The use of the phrase ‘work together’ underlines the emphasis on it being an active and creative process.

Both parties must contribute to the thinking

This is not the traditional ‘teacher’ role, where information is presented by the teacher to be simply absorbed, unquestioned by the child.

This is a true two-way exchange with information flowing both ways, so the teacher also learns from the child. This is the ‘shared’ element of SST.

An intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc

The ‘thinking’ element of SST is provided by the content of the conversation and the thought process that goes into it.

This may be a practical problem or a theoretical one, such as ‘How many bricks do I need to build this tower?’ or ‘How much does the moon weigh?’

As the ‘etc’ in this part of the definition suggests, this is not an exhaustive list and SST can be applied to everything we do in any setting, at any time.

[A]nd it must develop and extend

This is the sustained part of SST. A problem might be solved, or a concept is explained, but the deep-level learning that stays with children and can be built upon occurs when the thinking is extended.

This embeds the knowledge and helps to make it transferable to other circumstances and situations.

In summary, SST conversations are in-depth, extended and genuine conversations that can be between adult and child or child and child.

Joint thinking and learning must take place.

Why is sustained shared thinking important?

SST is important because it supports children’s deep level learning.

Laevers (2005: 3) explains deep level learning as the “paradigm shift through which more of the complexities of the world […] can be experienced and become meaningful”.

Thus, deep-level learning encourages children not to simply learn facts, but also to think critically, and supports a positive learning disposition.

SST supports this in three ways: encouraging, modelling and extending children’s thinking.

Firstly, thinking is encouraged by valuing and taking time to understand the child’s perspective or ideas.

This creates a virtuous cycle, where a child feels safe to propose more ideas or views.
Secondly, practitioners model thinking by demonstrating their thought processes ‘out loud’.

This gives children a structure or framework that they can then use for themselves.

Interestingly, practitioners will have different thought processes, so children will have a range of models by talking to different practitioners.
Thirdly, thought is extended, for both participants, as knowledge is verbally flowing between the two people.

How to achieve sustained shared thinking

It is quite daunting to think that you should be having an in-depth, thought-provoking conversation with every child in your class every day.

However, this can be achieved with a little planning and organisation.

The biggest hurdle is time. A meaningful conversation will take time, preferably undisturbed, so you can concentrate on what the child is telling you.

This does not have to be in a separate room or even during class time. This could be whilst lining up to go outside, while your child is helping you to clear away the paint pots or simply walking down the corridor together.

Once you have made the initial connection, ‘sustaining’ the thinking can be easier.
By setting some ground rules and having all practitioners working towards the same aim will help you get some undisturbed time.

For example, other practitioners could be made aware that you intend to engage some children in SST during the session, so could help by ensuring you are not disturbed.
Encouraging all the children in your class to be ‘sustained shared thinkers’ means that they can then help each other.

This can be done by modelling the methods yourself and encouraging children to join in the conversations, supporting the less confident children by being available, although not interrupting, and grouping children with a more knowledgeable other in the class.

Children who hear and see thoughtful, sustained conversations are more likely to replicate these types of conversations.

Learning to practise sustained shared thinking

In many respects this is a skill that does not need to be ‘taught’ to practitioners.

Most people enter the profession because they enjoy being with young children, talking with them and sharing ideas, so they already understand the importance of SST.

Peer observations can be a strong method for learning how to practise SST, particularly for those who have not been in an environment where it is encouraged.

If practitioners are willing, and with suitable permissions, you could use video recordings of SST to demonstrate effective interactions between adults and children.

SST should be valued as a skill, be seen as a powerful educational tool and not be seen as ‘just chatting’ with children.

Practitioners should feel comfortable and be inspired to spend time talking with those in their care.

Sustained shared thinking in summary

SST is something that good-quality practitioners have always been doing.

There’s more of a focus on SST as a process since the EPPE research demonstrated how it significantly supported children’s learning and development.

By carefully organising time and having a mutual understanding of the aims of SST, practitioners can work together to support each other.
The thinking and knowledge that results from this can be used to inform planning and assessment, raise a child’s self-esteem and encourage good thinking habits.

Now read about how you can ensure that practitioners in your setting embed sustained shared thinking in their everyday practice.

Further reading

Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2012).

Deep-level-learning and the Experiential Approach in Early Childhood and Primary Education – Laevers, F. (KU Leuven, 2005)

Mind in Society – Vygotsky, L. (HUP, 1978)

Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional and trainer based in East Cheshire. She has worked in both nurseries and schools, and today specialises in the Early Years Foundation Stage and special educational needs. Visit kathybrodie.com