Making them think hard

willingham quote

Tonight’s 15 minute forum was led by Director of Humanities, Martyn Simmonds.  Martyn has been thinking about how he can use the idea of ‘think hard’ questions, to stretch and challenge students with high starting points.  When teaching these students, you don’t need to use any different approach – the teaching principles are the same, they need to be made to ‘think hard’.  However, because their starting point is that much higher, you need to be secure with the subject content, to really push them on.

This is further supported by the article ‘What will improve a students’ memory?‘ by Daniel Willingham.  He makes the following three points:

  • Our memories are formed by the pieces of information that we really think about.
  • We cannot remember everything.
  • The ‘cues’ that we use to retrieve our memories help us to access a greater level of information.

So, to remember things we need to think about them, but how can we get them thinking really deeply?  John Hattie talks about this in terms of moving students from surface learning i.e. knowing the key knowledge, to deep learning i.e. being able to relate and link this knowledge together.


The graphic above, from the marvellous Mary Myatt, suggests that we are a challenge seeking species!  This doesn’t always appear to be the case with a number of students, whose fixed mindset means they avoid challenges, as this means they don’t risk failure – they are scared of getting it wrong.  This can be particularly true of higher attaining students who have got there, with a limited amount of effort – but could still do better.  So, we need to help students feel comfortable with being challenged if they are to tackle ‘think hard’ questions – and we want them to do this, as that will support their learning.  This is why it’s important to make the ‘think hard’ questions explicit i.e. “this question is really hard and you’re going to struggle with it, but that’s perfectly normally and you’ll learn from it”.  This gives them the message that struggle is OK.

thinkhard4An important aspect of this approach is ‘scaling up’.  By that, we mean teaching to a higher level, than you normally would with that particular class.  In KS3, we have done this in the re-write of our curriculum, as a part of our ‘assessment without levels’ work.  We have raised the bar of expectation in KS3 and have brought down a number of topics from KS4 into the KS3 curriculum.  The students are coping well with this and achieving well.  The question is, do we do the same at KS4?  Do we naturally ‘scale up’ at KS4 and go beyond what is normally expected at that stage?  Or do we tend to stick to the ceiling placed on us by the specification?  As a minimum at KS4, we should be very confident with the subject content of the specification, especially at the higher level, and also be very familiar with the hardest questions they will encounter in their exams.  We can develop this further, by scrutinising the examiners’ reports and making sure we know the common mistakes students make with these hard questions.  Only then can we effectively frame ‘think hard’ questions in KS4, in our day to day teaching.


In his own subject (geography), Martyn has noticed how this translates into student performance with different types of questions – with students who have a high starting point.  The question on the right (yellow) requires knowledge recall, that the students seem to perform well with.  However, the question on the left (green) requires some harder thinking, as at least three key concepts (destructive plate boundaries, ocean trench formation and fold mountain formation) need to be linked together in a cohesive manner.  Student performance with these questions is not so good, so in order for students to get better at these questions, Martyn is incorporating more ‘think hard’ questions i.e. questions that require students to link ideas together, into his day to day teaching.

If we want to improve the performance of our students with high starting points, we must ensure that we get them to ‘think hard’ – by planning questions that are challenging for them to tackle in lessons.  In geography, this requires students to link different concepts together, as described above.  Other subjects need to think about how to do this within their context.

To summarise:

  • Do you know what students with a high starting point should know and be able to do in your subject?
  • Do you cover this adequately in your teaching and ‘scale up’ in both KS3 and 4?
  • Do you know the hardest questions they will be expected to answer in their exams, in your subject?
  • Do you know the common mistakes and misconceptions students have related to these areas – and pre-empt these in your teaching?
  • Do you plan specific ‘think hard’ questions for students to do in lessons, in order to support their learning in these areas?

think hard




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3 Responses to Making them think hard

  1. Pingback: Keeping it simple | Class Teaching

  2. Pingback: Another Six Things – Stretching the High Starters | Class Teaching

  3. Pingback: Getting gritty with year 7 | Class Teaching

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