Intentional teaching using the practice of sustained shared thinking

HomeEarly childhood education resourcesIntentional teaching in early childhood educationIntentional teaching using the practice of sustained shared thinking

Intentional teaching using the practice of sustained shared thinking

HomeEarly childhood education resourcesIntentional teaching in early childhood educationIntentional teaching using the practice of sustained shared thinking

By Dr Vicki Hargraves 

In our webinar Associate Professor Sue Cherrington (Victoria University of Wellington) and Dr Tara McLaughlin (Massey University) advocated for the use of intentional teaching approaches, especially in regard to promoting episodes of sustained shared thinking with children. Here are some of their key insights:  

Intentional teaching is an appropriate pedagogy for young children in play-based settings 

Intentional teaching refers to the responsibility of the teacher to be intentional, planful and deliberate about the supports they provide to further children’s learning. It involves teachers being alongside children, finding moments within interactions with children to extend and elaborate on what children are doing and interests them in order to strengthen learning possibilities, rather than a heavily didactic, teacher-directed approach. Intentional teachers also often provide a mix of different play types and play support, so that, for example, unstructured free play can be combined with occasional adult-guided playful learning activity. Intentional teaching can help teachers to ensure that children experience the breadth and depth of the learning outcomes of Te Whāriki, even if children are not initiating these experiences themselves. 

Sustained shared thinking supports children’s language skills and cognitive skills 

Sustained shared thinking is defined as instances where two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity or extend a narrativei. In an early childhood setting, typically a teacher and one to two children come together and engage in a sustained episode in which they are equally engaged as partners in the thinking, and the children’s thinking is extended and elaborated on. Sustained shared thinking differs from strategies such as co-construction because it is associated with specific goals such as intentional teaching around language development, cognition, and metacognition (understanding their own thinking and thought processes). Despite being infreqent, episodes of sustained shared thinking were the defining feature that differentiated a high quality setting from a lower quality setting in the UK study which coined the term ‘sustained shared thinking’. 

Sustained shared thinking can be promoted in particular ways 

Sustained shared thinking requires teachers to know children’s interests, how they respond in different situations, and what excites them in order to develop deep engagements and interactions. Environments that are more open-ended and exploratory and that create opportunities for wonder facilitate episodes of sustained shared thinking more readily. Sustained shared thinking is more likely to occur in small groups where teachers join children in their self-chosen activities or experiences, and where teachers have the space and time to talk and think with children without interruption.  

Meaningful, extended, back and forth conversation, and talk that is more learning-focused or thinking-focused, can be promoted when teachers: 

  • use open-ended questions about what children think about a situation and why 
  • value children’s emerging working theories whether they are scientifically accurate or not 
  • model thinking processes and share their own thoughts 
  • provide lots of wait-time for children to respond  

One important way to achieve rich episodes of sustained shared thinking is through shared story book reading, as it provides lots of opportunities for children and teachers to be talking and thinking together about what’s happening and why, and what might happen next. Another important way to encourage opportunities for sustained shared thinking is to provide a broad range of experiences for children by inviting people into the setting on a regular basis, going on excursions around the local community, and revisiting learning stories.  

Using rough draft rather than final draft speech opens up thinking 

When people talk in hesitant, questioning ways that show they do not know all the answers (‘rough draft speech’), it makes it easier for others to contribute to the conversation than if they use ‘final draft speech’ in which explanations and answers appear clear-cut and final. It can be helpful to use rough draft speech with children by wondering, stopping and starting, sounding hesitant and non-committal (‘maybe’) in order to open up conversation. When teachers ask some questions but not too many and offer some descriptive observations about what they see coupled with more wondering, they make room for children’s perspectives. Young children in particular take their lead from adults, so if a teacher closes the conversation by explaining exactly what is going on, children will just accept that explanation and miss an opportunity to think for themselves. 

Curiosity and exploration can be promoted right from the earliest years 

Important foundations for sustained shared thinking that can be supported with the youngest children include the development of language, back-and-forth interactions, and opportunities to express themselves and be heard. Teachers can foster and encourage curiosity and exploration in young children, using language as a precursor for sustained shared thinking. It is also important to focus on the relational aspect of sustained shared thinking, as young children gain confidence as explorers when they have a strong relationship and secure attachment with a teacher and their emotional wellbeing is supported.  


[1] Siraj, I., Kingston, D. & Melhuish, E. (2015). Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale for 2-5-year-olds Provision. London, United Kingdom: Trentham Books.

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