Activating Hard Thinking

The Durrington Research School team are writing a series of eight blogs about The Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review recently published by Evidence Based Education.  The report is the first step in the development of the organisation’s ‘Great Teaching Toolkit’. The aim of this project is to transform teacher professional development by creating a feedback system that encourages continual improvement. This first report lays out a model of teaching learning; it will be followed later by a set of tools that will help provide teachers with diagnostic feedback as they work towards specific goals; it will culminate in the development of networks of educators who will generate, share and apply the evidence. 

Half of our blogs, published on our Durrington Research School sister site, will be examining the evidence reviews included at the end of each chapter, while the blogs on Class Teaching will be more focused on interpreting the advice for teachers.  This week we will be considering the implications of dimension four, ‘Activating Hard Thinking’. The review divides this dimension into six elements:

  1. Structuring
  2. Explaining
  3. Questioning
  4. Interacting
  5. Embedding
  6. Activating

These six elements help to shape a framework for great classroom practice, that will cause students to think hard.  This is important, because thinking hard strengthens memory. Teaching is a complex process though and unsurprisingly, these elements overlap, interact and influence each other.  In this post, we will pose some reflective questions for each of the six elements in this dimension.  Hopefully this will be useful for  individual teachers or teams of teachers, who are reflecting on their teaching.


  1. Alongside sharing learning goals with students, do you also share examples of the kinds of problems, tasks and questions they will be able to do, as well as examples of work that demonstrates them?
  2. Do you share with students where the learning fits into the wider curriculum?
  3. When planning tasks do you give thought to ensuring that the tasks are hard enough to move them forward, but not so hard that they cannot cope, given their existing knowledge?
  4. Do tasks promote deep thinking rather than surface thinking e.g. focusing on abstraction, generalisation and the connectedness and flexibility of ideas, rather than just the reproduction of facts?
  5. Do you sequence the tasks you set, so that knowledge and skills are accessible and developed as required?
  6. Do you spend time thinking about how you will scaffold a task for the range of students in your class, including those students with SEND and low attainers?
  7. Do you think about how you will know when these ideas and procedures are secure and fluent, enabling you to remove the scaffolding?


  1. Do you understand ‘Cognitive Load Theory’ and use this to break complex ideas or procedures into smaller steps, when presenting new material?
  2. Linked to this, do you think about how to minimise extraneous, irrelevant or distracting input (from the content or the environment) when presenting new material?
  3. Do you think about how you will modify or create new schemas (a network of connected ‘bits’ of knowledge) by connecting new ideas you are explaining to existing knowledge?
  4. Do you prepare your students for new knowledge by ensuring that their existing schemas are well-connected, fluent and accessible?


  1. Rather than thinking about the number of questions you ask, do you think about the balance between questions that promote deep and surface thinking (deeper thinking can be defined as more integrated, coherent and at a higher level of abstraction)?
  2. Do you think about the purpose of your questioning – (a) to promote thinking (b) to assess understanding?
  3. Does your questioning require students to give explanations and justifications for their answers, describe their thinking process, elaborate on their answers explore implications, ‘what-ifs’ and connections with other ideas?
  4. Do you ask questions or provide prompts, that provide an insight into whether students have grasped the required knowledge?
  5. Do you have strategies for checking the responses of all students, not just a few?
  6. Do your questions really discriminate between those who know and those who don’t?
  7. Do you use their responses to your questions to plan and adapt your future teaching?


  1. Do you use feedback about how students are performing on a task to inform the decisions you make as a teacher e.g. reteach or move on?
  2. Does your feedback help to clarify or emphasise goals or success criteria?
  3. Does your feedback make any gap between the actual and desired levels of performance clear to students?
  4. Does your feedback attribute potential success or failure to reasons the student can control e.g. effort or strategy choice?
  5. Does your feedback indicate productive next steps for students?


  1. Do you provide opportunities for students to practise any procedures that are regularly required to be fluent and accurate?
  2. Initially, do you monitor and guide this practice, to stop errors becoming embedded?
  3. Do you ‘distribute’ or ‘space’ practice over time, with deliberate gaps in between for forgetting?
  4. Do you provide opportunities for low-stakes tests/quizzes that require students to recall information from memory?
  5. Do these retrieval tests/quizzes require deep and connected thinking?
  6. Do you support other effective learning strategies such as interleaving, varying the conditions of practice, elaboration and self-explanation?


  1. Once you have directly taught what needs to be understood, do you aim to wean students off this dependency on the teacher – but only when appropriate to do so?
  2. Do you understand that using problem-solving as a teaching strategy is overwhelming and inefficient for students who do not have the required background knowledge?
  3. Do you avoid using strategies that work for novice learners e.g. presenting limited, structured content and worked examples, with expert learners, allowing them to tackle whole problems instead?
  4. Do you explicitly teach metacognitive strategies that will support students with planning, monitoring and evaluating their own learning?
  5. Do you ensure that these metacognitive strategies are taught within the context of the content they are learning?
  6. Do you describe and model your own planning and self-regulation strategies when tackling a complex task?

Posted by Shaun Allison

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