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Sustained Shared Thinking – how important is it?


Sustained shared thinking has been defined as

” an 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” Siraj-Blatchford et al (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY), Dfes.

This is not a new concept, just a new name. Most early years theorist value the adult/child interaction, from Vygotsky’s social interaction and more knowledgeable other; Bruner’s discovery learning; Piaget constructivism right through to Lave’s situated learning.

But what does it look like in real life, in the setting or school? It is those wonderful times that you get when you are totally absorbed with a child, whether is is in conversation or in an activity, with a genuine interest on both parts to find out more. The sort of thing that, often, you just have to tell someone else – “Josh and I have just had the best conversation about his grandad’s pigeons”, “come and look everyone, we’ve made this!” – those times when you come away thoughtful and you may find yourself thinking about the conversation later on in a quiet moment.

These can happen anytime, anywhere and only requires time and interest on the part of both participants. It can be on a one to one, but can also happen in small groups, especially when there is shared group interest. The important aspect is the ‘meeting of of minds’  and subsequent learning that occurs on both sides.

The practitioner has the opportunity to learn extensive amounts about how the child sees the world, their level of cognitive development, schemas, community and self esteem (to name but a few!). The child may learn things such as social interaction techniques, how to think creatively, cause and effect and factual information.

If the theories about sustained shared thinking have been around for such a long time, and they broadly agree it is a good thing, why is this important to practitioners now? The answer is because it is now explicitly stated in the EYFS that sustained shared thinking should be a part of a child’s creativity and critical thinking (EYFS 4.3). It is also indirectly described in all of the six areas of learning and development (EYFS 4.4). This is because the longitudinal research project EPPE clearly identified that the ‘most effective settings encourage sustained shared thinking’ and that it is a ‘necessary pre-requisite for the most effective settings’.

Don’t forget, sustained shared thinking can also occur between peer groups as well, especially in settings where the older age groups are allowed to mix freely with the younger ones. Even with babies the thinking process can be shared, but instead of verbal language the practitioner has to be guided by the expressions and body language of the baby.

Time is often an aspect which is not discussed. If you are having an in depth discussion, one to one, with a child, then the other children will still need caring for by someone. If the practitioner extends the activity so the thinking and discovery can be ‘sustained’ then there may be implications for the rest of the timetable (such as lunch times!). However, these are not excuses. Good practitioners should be flexible enough to work around this.

Therefore, the answer to “how important is sustained shared thinking?” is that it is fundamental to how practitioners approach children’s learning and development. This is supported by theorists and research. And it doesn’t cost a penny – how often can you say that about such a powerful learning tool?

NOTE: You can also buy my book all about Sustained Shared Thinking from Amazon or other good book sellers, such as Madeleine Lindley

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  • Susanna Gillberg Apr 6,2015 at 12:03 pm

    Hi! Thank you so much for your answer! That really helped me. :)

  • Susanna Gillberg Apr 4,2015 at 1:34 pm

    I´m doing my Early Childhood Education´s Master´s Thesis at the moment (in Finland, at the University of Helsinki) and it´s about children thinking together. Most of my referencies are like Neil Mercer, Karen Littleton etc. (http://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/), but now I found this “sustained shared thinking”. I haven´t read much about it yet, but I was wondering if you happen to know if it´s about the same thing as “thinking together” or not? There are definitely some similarities, but is it just the same thing with different words (is there some cultural differencies maybe), or…? :)

    • Kathy Apr 4,2015 at 4:23 pm

      Hi Susanna,
      Many thanks indeed for contacting me.
      There are many similarities between Sustained Shared Thinking and Thinking Together, especially around the shared knowledge and co-constructed solutions.

      However, the difference is that Sustained Shared Thinking can be encouraged from birth. For example, a baby and a practitioner can have shared attention watching a toy. When baby looks to the practitioner to pick up the toy, the practitioner picks up the toy, smiling and making eye contact as he/she does so, passing the toy to the baby. The baby looks at another toy, turns to the practitioner, smiles and reaches out. The practitioner retrieves the toy.
      This is an example of sustained (continues for some time) shared (joint interest and understanding) thinking (problem solving – getting the toy).

      A more subtle difference is that Thinking Together is much more structured and is taught to children, whereas Sustained Shared Thinking is a (vital) part of a practitioner’s good practice tool kit. Rather than teaching this to children, it is role modelled and encouraged at all times and throughout the whole environment.

      Hope that helps a bit,
      Best regards


  • Helen Bailey Jan 7,2015 at 8:56 pm

    Thank you Kathy for the response. You have given me further areas to consider as part of my study. Mantle has given our children a purpose to their learning and they act upon problems that are presented to them within the drama. The children have power within their learning and express ideas and opinions. However as you state sustained shared thinking is a two way process and we rarely work on the “what are YOU going to do” it is now what are “WE” going to do. The language we use with the children is very important in establishing it is not them and us. As a team of experts we are in this together. This gives the children more confidence in their approach to learning and experimenting with different ideas and concepts. Thanks again for the response I maybe in touch again!

  • Helen Bailey Jan 6,2015 at 8:10 am

    Hi Kathy,

    I have just read all the responses to SST and would be interested in your view on whole class SST. I am currently completing a degree and my study this year is based on SST. We are a Mantle of the a Expert training school and use drama within our learning. A lot of this is whole class drama, hence the reason for asking about SST as a whole class. I look forward to your response.

    • Kathy Jan 7,2015 at 3:23 pm

      Hi Helen,
      Many thanks for your comment.
      The pedagogy and reflective practice around Mantle of the Expert dovetail very well with the core ideas of SST. That is, that the children are seen as knowledgeable, with a contribution to make. The heart of SST is that it is a two way process (unlike the traditional ‘Sage on the Stage’ where there is not recognition of prior knowledge or learning from the children). Another big similarity is that SST is an holistic pedagogy, threaded through all areas of learning and development.
      I would imagine that you are already engaging in SST as a whole class, for example when discussing how a dramatic piece is going to be brought to life by the class. This is a form of problem solving and creativity that is part of the definition of SST. Problem solving, in this sense, can be thought of as the creative development needed to choose who will doing what and when. Similarly, ‘extending the narrative’ could be those occasions where children propose their own ideas to develop and extend the drama.
      Obviously, there are some limitations to having a whole class input all at once. Ensuring every voice is heard and every idea is respected is more difficult in a large group than in a 1:1 or a small group. However, with sensitive and careful management (and with children who have been supported to listen to each other) this can be achieved. It may be that this is developed from smaller groups of children engaging in SST, who then come together as a whole afterwards.
      The critical aspect will be whether the thinking is Sustained. Once an idea, concept or problem has been identified, is it fully explored? Is there an extension of ideas and a deepening of knowledge?
      A very interesting idea all round – thank you Helen!

      Best regards


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  • Michael Jones Sep 1,2014 at 4:13 pm

    HI Kathy
    This is probably the most succinct and informative account of SST I have read so far. Thank you for mentioning babies. This applies to children with speech and language delay and those with severe additional needs. If we assume (as is often the case in published examples of SST) that the children will already have good language skills, then we are suggesting that you have to develop children’s language first before you can have the detailed conversations.
    I also like the way you point out that lengthy conversations need to have adults who have time to take part in them. It was new for me to read that SST can take place BETWEEN children (of course it can!)
    Thank you very much!
    Michael Jones

    • Kathy Sep 1,2014 at 7:45 pm

      Hi Michael,

      Many thanks for your kind comments.
      As you can see – I’m a big fan of Sustained Shared Thinking.
      I was really interested to read your article in Nursery World in February about being ‘In the Moment’ and the Planted Adult. There is quite a lot of cross-over pedagogy there!
      Very best regards


  • Anne Purdon Jan 13,2014 at 8:44 pm

    Hi I have written a dissertation for my MA on sustained shared thinking. Here is an article I wrote on this topic:
    Purdon, A. (2013) How practitioners promote sustained shared thinking, Early Years Educator, Vol 15, No 8, Dec2013, p38-44

    • Kathy Mar 7,2014 at 9:06 pm

      Hi Anne,
      Many thanks for sharing this – I did see the article in EYE, very good information and some really interesting perspectives!

  • Steph Oct 28,2012 at 12:22 pm

    Hi, im hoping to do my dissertaion on ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’ and i was hoping to reference you within it. I was wondering how i would reference your work, for example, when was this website first published.


  • AroojFarooq Oct 10,2012 at 9:19 pm

    Hi I read your article it helped me to clear my vision on SST .is there evidence which proves that screen based learning can help to enhance sustained shared thinking if you how ? Regards arooj

  • Steve Jun 9,2012 at 4:57 pm

    I have previously attended a workshop with staff on ‘Shared thinking’ and found it very interesting regarding pedagogy in ECE and immediately thought ‘sustained interactions’, ‘shared understandings’, ‘social learning theory’ = development of identity’ & ‘social & emotional development’ as a whole…your thoughts?

    peAce & hAPinESs

    • Kathy Jun 12,2012 at 10:32 am


      Many thanks for your comment.

      Sustained shared thinking is definitely a building block for personal, social and emotional development. See also Jane’s post about sustained shared thinking supporting children who have had traumatic experiences. Shared understandings is often the ‘X’ factor missing from less able practitioners!

      Best regards


  • Kathy Feb 6,2012 at 5:21 pm

    Hi Jin,
    Thanks for your kind comments.

    The EPPE team have written a book called Early Childhood Matters which you can get from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Early-Childhood-Matters-Kathy-Sylva/dp/0415482437 I’m unaware of any research journals at this time, but will let you know if I find some!

    Best of luck with your research


  • Jin Lu Jan 27,2012 at 1:52 am

    This is a clear explanation about ‘sustaned shared thinking” in young children’s education. I am currently doing some research about this area, and wondering you have any more related articles or research journals that can be shared.

  • Kathy May 9,2014 at 1:21 pm

    Many thanks for the info – I’ll be reviewing this in the very near future!
    Best regards


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