Think Hard

think hard

We are talking a great deal about the importance of high expectations, challenge for all and effort, at our school at the moment.  Rather than thinking about them in isolation though, we should probably be considering them as being very much interlinked.  We want to have high expectations of our students, and for them to have high expectations of themselves and we seek to do this by planning and delivering challenging lessons.  In order for students to get the most out of these challenging lessons, they need to be approaching them with maximum effort, a key part of which is demonstrating resilience and determination when confronted with this challenging work (as discussed at our last INSET day).

willingham quote

This all seems like a perfectly good focus to be having – for all the right reasons.  It also links very closely to what Daniel Willingham says about learning – that in order to remember something i.e. learn it, we need to think hard about it.  John Hattie supports this line of thinking too.  He says that the art of great teaching is knowing when to go from surface to deep learning i.e. moving from knowing ‘stuff’ to being able to link ‘the stuff’ together and use it to solve more complex problems.  Teachers can get this wrong by spending too little time on the surface knowledge, before expecting students to on to the deep learning e.g. students won’t be able to explain changes of state such as evaporation and condensation, if they don’t really understand the particle states of matter.  Similarly, they might spend too long on the surface learning and never really stretch their students by moving on to the deep learning. Hinge questions are a great way of judging this ‘surface to deep tipping point’ – Harry Fletcher-Wood has written some great blogs about them, including this one.

So, getting them to ‘think hard’ is important – but it’s also very hard for them to do and so probably not done enough.  I was reminded of this when teaching my Y10 class last week.  We were going through some questions:

Q: Why do we need carbohydrates and fats in our diet?

Pretty much all of them were able to tell me that these two were important because they released energy.  Great!

Q:  Why do we need protein in our diet?

Again – no problem.  Most of them were happy to share that this was for growth and repair.  Marvellous.

There was then another part of the question:

Q:  What’s the link between these two in the diet?

They struggled with this.  They found it hard to link the two ideas i.e. that the energy released from the carbohydrates is then used to build proteins for growth and repair.  So, going back to Hattie, their surface knowledge was secure, but their deep learning wasn’t.  Unfortunately this was towards the end of the lesson and they weren’t really in the mood for demonstrating resilience and sticking with the struggle!  They just accepted that they couldn’t do it, because it was hard.  So, I want to address this!

diet struggle

With this in mind, my next lesson with them will start with the slide above!  We will discuss the question, unpick it, share ideas about it then and then they will attempt to answer the question.  We will then deconstruct some of their written answers and then I will then model an exemplar answer on the board for them to write out – John Tomsett has written a great blog on this here.

Following this, I’m going to ensure that I incorporate more ‘think hard’ questions like this into my lessons – but more importantly, I’m going to make it explicit that it’s a ‘think hard’ question, hence the little graphic in the bottom right.  Clearly, this is a pre-planned question, that I’ll expect the students to respond to in writing.  This is different from the verbal questioning that takes place all the time in lessons, that usually can’t be planned for as it is usually framed around student responses (and we all know how unpredictable they can be!)  Obviously by doing more structured ‘think hard’ questions like this, more frequently, the requirement for them to be ‘thinking’ should help their learning.  It will also provide our brightest students with a regular diet of challenging questions.  However, I’m going to make it explicit for a number of reasons:

  1. In our book ‘Making every lesson count’ we talk about ‘scaling up’ (p21).  This is about making the work slightly harder than they actually need to know – so dipping into GCSE at KS3 and A level at GCSE – and telling them this.  This is a great way of raising their aspirations, as the hardest stuff they need to know is not the hardest stuff they know – and this makes them feel good.
  2. The ‘anchoring effect’ is a powerful cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) – read more about this here.  So if we start the lesson with a hard question like this (that they already have the knowledge to answer, from last lesson), the challenging content will be the reference point for their understanding of the topic.
  3. By telling them it’s hard, I’m also telling them that it’s going to be OK to struggle with this – in fact, we’ll struggle with it together and it will be alright!
  4. By thinking about these ‘think hard’ questions in my planning, it will make me think about the surface knowledge they will need to be embedded, in order to answer them – so I’ll be more aware of the ‘surface to deep tipping point’ mentioned earlier.
  5. Experiencing success with these challenging questions, will support their intrinsic motivation – students don’t just get motivated because we tell them to:


So, that’s my plan – to make sure I incorporate and make explicit, more ‘think hard’ questions into my teaching.  Please join me and share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


think hard


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10 Responses to Think Hard

  1. Lee says:

    Very thought provoking and well explained.
    I agree with many ideas you discuss here.
    Stretching students by teaching them more than they need.
    Using their surface knowledge to help them to develop their deeper understanding.
    Using the weaknesses apparent from the previous lesson to plan the next steps.
    I also agree with the fact that you tell your students that something is challenging.

    I do however think instilling resilience in young learners is very challenging, keep up the good work.

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