by Hanna Vock

(Lecture on Nov. 8th, 2013 at the ÖZBF-Congress in Salzburg, Austria)


How does thinking relate to learning? Learning is:


    • gaining experience
    • collecting information
    • practising to think

In my experience it is mostly the first two points that are being tended to: gaining experience and conveying knowledge. The intentional promotion of thinking, in the sense of direct training, is being neglected. Especially the “collectors of information/knowledge” among the gifted need help and challenges in order to intellectually follow through and organise the vast amount of information they are constantly gathering in a meaningful way. Otherwise there is great danger of pell-mell in their minds.

Solid thinking skills help …

    • to critically evaluate the information gathered
    • to organise and structure the knowledge resulting from this
    • and they help to exploit the experience gained

This is generally true:
children think, learn and discover many things by themselves when playing, and they learn a lot from each other. These learning processes cannot be valued highly enough. Yet, I think – as opposed to many other pedagogues – that even at infant and pre-school age there should be more.
We adults, parents or kindergarten teachers, have a responsibility to support learning processes in a way that goes beyond just simply providing an environment that is conducive to learning.
This responsibility is even greater when it comes to gifted children; because gifted children
– are especially curious, they are able to memorise great amounts of knowledge – and
– they develop their thinking skills rapidly and at an early age.

An example:
the youngest child I ever saw to easily master Piaget’s experiment on quantity conservation was a boy age 3 years and 1 month.

This experiment involves two glasses of water: one filled with water next to another one that is empty, the empty one being narrower but taller. The water is poured from the first glass into the other one, which – being narrower but taller will fill up higher. A child who has not yet understood the conservation of quantity with regard to volume will only focus on how high the water stands and conclude that the newly filled glass now holds more water than the wider glass did earlier.

The boy who had just turned 3 answered the question “Is there more water in the glass now?” saying: “No, the same”. In order to further investigate the child’s thinking process it is now important to ask: “Why do you think so?” – “There was no extra water poured in.”
This was where it became clear that the little boy’s logical thinking was already clear and sharp as a razor blade.

What are the different types of thinking?

1. Projecting into the future.
This type of thinking occurs in its earliest form when the infant calms down and makes sucking moves as soon as the mother starts unbuttoning her blouse.

2. Thinking causality.
Example: Turning the light switch – lamp goes on. Once a child, for instance at the age of 6 months, has understood this particular relationship the child will look at the lamp any time the adult’s hand moves towards the switch.

3. Flexible thinking.
Gifted children will show this type of thinking at a very early stage: The boy with the glasses filled with water actually made the unprompted remark: “That would be the same with milk – and also with apple juice.” When I continued asking “And what about the little rocks?” the immediate reply was “Still the same – … or a little different: the rocks don’t fit the same way.”

4. Abstract thinking.
As soon as children begin to develop categories (generic terms), counting objects and correlating them, they are capable of abstract thinking.

5. Logical thinking.
“If 2 + 2 + 2 = 6, then that’s the same as 3 x 2. 4 x 2 is then 8.” That is what a boy (5;4) told me when we were talking about his favourite topic – numbers.
When I asked “Why so?” he replied: “It’s 1 x 2 more”.

Another example: “Is it going to snow today?” The answer a girl (3;2) gave me: “If there aren’t any clouds, it can’t be snowing.”

6. Projective thinking.
“If we are going to the forest tomorrow, I’ll have to put on my boots, I’m sure it’s muddy in the forest“ (boy, 4).
“Mum, it’s our turn bringing the dessert tomorrow; we could pick up some curd and fruit on the way home” (a 6 years old girl said to her not so well organised mother).

7. Critical, divergent (=deviant) thinking.
“I don’t like the ending of the story. The glittery fish could lend his glittering scales to another fish sometimes; that way the other fish could also be glittery – after all, one silver scale isn’t so nice looking.” (5 years old girl)

8. Creative thinking.
Coming up with an alternative ending to a story, as mentioned above, is, of course, in itself a creative thinking act. More generally speaking, though, the term creative thinking refers to a talent to produce many ideas.

9. Systematic thinking.
This is the ability to grasp a situation in its entirety and its details, to see the interrelationships.

10. Complex thinking.
Manifold changes and developments in a situation are being understood by keeping track of several determining factors simultaneously. Early chess playing or other strategic games could be an example.

How to identify thinking processes

In order to promote children’s thinking processes we have to know
– how they reason,
– what they are thinking
– and what they are thinking about.

Painting can be seen, handicraft work can be seen, we can see a child climbing and hear it singing – thinking is not visible, it cannot be detected immediately.

We have two ways of recognizing children’s thinking:
we can observe their actions and interpret them (as shown in the example of the light switch) or we can ask them about their thoughts.

A 6 years old girl: “In kindergarten nobody ever asked me what I was thinking about … they just always wanted me to play …”.

If we have an extraordinarily talented or even gifted child in the group, we can be sure that it is at any given time pondering at least one question intensely. “Question” in this context means an intellectual project, a theoretical, abstract question, a learning project …
If the child entrusts us with its question, this may well lead to quite useful ideas for a small group project. And this will in turn open up a terrain for the gifted child to come up with further ideas promoting the project: it exercises thinking.

How to promote thinking

‘I am interested in what you are thinking about’ applied to the example of the light switch would mean to go back and operate the switch again and to share the thrill of having understood the connection between the action and its result. Taking this to the next level would mean to let the child operate the switch a couple of times. This will also strengthen the child’s sense of self-efficacy and it would represent a chance for the child to further understand that turning the switch can also produce darkness.

The origin of creative thinking is often a problem that calls for a solution or a question the child wants answered.

An in-depth account of advancement where the ideas of a small girl were seized upon can be found in: Custom-fit Cognitive Advancement.

Gifted children will on the long run only share their thoughts and questions with the group and their kindergarten teacher if they can be sure that their statements are generally appreciated.
Why am I making this point?

A child who does a lot of thinking does seek the exchange of ideas, and strongly so … it even wants its ideas to be challenged. Yet, if this seems impossible in kindergarten the child will – possibly for good – refuse to let anybody in on its ideas and thoughts.

My time is quite limited in this lecture so I am going to demonstrate only one of the many possible methods of helping the children to exercise their thinking:

How to provoke thinking by asking questions

(Further methods to be found at the end of this article via links to other articles)

Does the child answer? With regard to the higher forms of thinking (logical, critical, divergent, complex) we can only find out what the child is thinking about if the child articulates itself verbally.
The gifted child will only answer our direct questions about its thoughts in a trusting atmosphere and if there is no danger of ridicule. To ensure such a safe situation is a principal responsibility in pedagogic work. It must be observed that many gifted children begin to compare themselves with other children and feel ashamed of “mistakes” (wrong answers) much earlier than do other children. So, if the child shows a tendency not to open up, do not resign, but keep bidding for its trust.

How to inquire:
Gifted children do not feel sufficiently challenged by questions that are too easy, they will rather be bewildered.

We know different ways of asking:

1. What?- / Where?- / Who?-Questions
The child gains knowledge.
The kindergarten teacher makes sure of the child’s knowledge, its experiences and what it can reproduce.

2. How did that happen?-Questions
The child wants to know what happened, it wants to make sure the other person saw the same thing.
The kindergarten teacher wants to contribute to the child’s recollection of an experience by having it give an account of an incident from its own point of view.

3. How does that work?-Questions
The child wants to understand the exact way something works and get explanations about it.
The kindergarten teacher wants to see whether the child has fully understood.

4. How can we do this?-Questions
The child wants to get or acquire a plan.
The kindergarten teacher suggests the child come up with a plan on its own.

5. Why?-Questions
The child is exploring causes.
The kindergarten teacher wants to know whether the child has identified the causes.

6. Yes?- / No?-Questions
The child desires a decision. (For instance: May I do this?)
The kindergarten teacher wants to evoke a decision by the child in favour of or against something. (For instance: Do you want to join in on the game?)

7. What do you think about it?-Questions
The child wants to know about everybody else’s opinion.
The kindergarten teacher wants to evoke an evaluation of an incident or some other fact.

8. Is it right this way?-Questions
The child wants to be sure, it wants to dissipate its insecurities.
The kindergarten teacher wants to evoke the child’s criticism.

9. Could this be different and if so, how?-Questions
The child seeks another (easier, better) solution.
The kindergarten teacher wants to evoke the child’s creativity, its divergent thinking.


It is not wrong if kindergarten teachers, too, practise making use of all these types of questions – and take into account the children’s thinking capabilities. Oftentimes only simple questions are being asked and some children – certainly the gifted among them – will be bored.

I would like to exemplify what I mean by simple (and more sophisticated) questions:

Think of the fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel”.
After the children have heard the fairy tale you conduct an activity game about the contents of the fairy tale.

You ask one or two simple questions with three choices of answers of which only one or two are correct.
“Where do the parents leave Hansel and Gretel behind – at the playground? – in the forest? – at their grandmother’s house?”

Then you ask one or two more questions directed at those children who need more difficult questions and can handle them.
For example:
“Why do the parents leave Hansel and Gretel behind all on their own in the forest?” – “Are they allowed to do so?”

With the easier questions you ascertain what the children have understood the story and how much they remember of it. Here every child can score if it has simply paid attention.
The more difficult questions will bring those children into the game who already dispose of higher thinking skills and you challenge them, getting them to do some thinking on their level.

You can play this based on all other stories or songs that are known to the children. For instance the St-Martin-Song or any story about Pippi Longstocking.

You can find further examples of quiz questions here (in German).

Feelings that go along with thinking

Am I right or am I wrong? Am I allowed to say this? What will everybody else think about it?
Gifted children experience such inhibitions, accompanying us all our lives or at least a great part of our lives, even at pre-school age.

The decisive aspect is now, how the children can deal with these inhibitions within the group.
It is up to us, the kindergarten teachers, and the parents whether or not the child will come up with the courage to stick by its thoughts – even if chances are that it is wrong – or whether it develops an attitude of demureness. Especially girls need our support in this respect.

A sense of ease and success in thinking is fun and motivating. The same goes for thinking as for any other sport: the more you practise, the better the guidance, the better you get at it.

Especially the gifted children will amaze and inspire us again and again if we engage in an authentic intellectual exchange with them.

See also: On Gifted Pre-School Children‘s Reasoning and Emotion

When children reflect upon thinking itself

Gifted children begin to have their very own thoughts about thinking very early on. Even though they are not yet able to put them in words, they do deal with questions like the following and generalise their experiences with them:

    • What are my thoughts, questions and insights worth?Who cares about them?
    • Is independent thinking welcome? Or should I better keep it to myself?
    • Am I allowed to be wrong? Am I allowed to make mistakes? What will happen if … ?
    • What good does it do if I think? Do my thoughts have any impact, can I effect anything by thinking?
    • How many right answers are there to a question (or to a problem)?
    • Am I successful and does it make me popular if I have further thoughts or if my thinking diverges from the usual?
    • Am I good at thinking?
    • Do the others think I am smart or stupid?
    • What good does it do me (or the others) if I share my thoughts and ideas?
      Does thinking get me anywhere with regard to the things I find important and the things I am interested in?

The conclusions the children come to – more or less consciously – will affect their well-being, their communicative conduct and their learning attitude.

Having positive experiences in these matters at kindergarten is important for the child. They can complement positive, encouraging experiences the child has had in the family or replace negative ones.


Read also:
Cognitive Advancement in Kindergarten. Gaining Knowledge, Practising the Act of Thinking (in German) (Chapter 4.2)
Checklist: Cognitive Advancement (Chapter 4.2)


Published in German: November 2013
Translation: Arno Zucknick
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see Imprint.

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