For some time now, Rob Coe has been suggesting that a good proxy for students learning in lessons is that they “have to think hard”. This seemed eminently sensible and I’ve written about this formulation on a number of occasions, most recently here. I saw Rob speak at a conference on Friday and tweeted the following:

Rob suggested the answer might be as little as 10 minutes a day and that this might actually be fine. Think hard is, well, hard. It’s exhausting and as Dan Willingham says in Why Don’t Students Like School? we try to avoid it as often as we can and instead rely on what we’ve stored as background knowledge in long-term memory.

Today, the man himself got in touch and said this:

Now, Dan’s writing has been hugely influential on me personally as well as lots of others, so when he suggests an amendment, it’s worth taking seriously. So I started considering, what might be wrong with thinking hard being burdensome? Dan’s response was that there’s nothing wrong per se with the idea of a burden, but that this might not be an accurate description of the conditions for learning. He went on to speculate that ‘thinking hard’ can be incidental to the activity we’re engaged in. Thinking hard could be prompted in a variety of different ways and that the idea of ‘having to’ do something removed the likelihood that such thinking would be self-directed. Thinking hard, Dan said, could come about while being absorbed in reading, playing Minecraft or baking.

I’m not sure about this. I pointed out that ‘flow’ the state of being completely and effortlessly involved in the performance of an activity certainly leads to absorption, will no doubt involve some kind of thinking, but has been shown not to lead to improvements in skill level. In order to get better at a task we need to be in the cognitive stage (i.e. thinking hard, struggling). As soon as we enter the automatic stage, where thinking hard is no longer necessary, we stop improving. Josh Foer calls this ‘the OK Plateau’: as soon as we get good enough to perform a task without thinking too much about what we’re doing, improvement plateaus. Surely, absorption in a computer game, a book or a recipe is similar to this sort of flow state?

Maybe not. Dan certainly doesn’t seem to think so, but I’m not so sure. Let’s take the baking example. I enjoy cookery in general but tend to avoid baking because it involves so much precision: exact times and precise measurements are essential for optimum results. This requires an awful lot of attention and cross referencing between the mixing bowl and the recipe book. I have to think hard about what I’m doing but I would way I’m absorbed – baking successfully (for me at least) requires deliberate concentration and I’m ever prone to distraction and cognitive overload. I would say that I really “have to” think hard in order to bake anything halfway decent. Cooking a well-practised meal, on the other hand, is effortless. Because I’ve cooked hundreds of Thai curries I can practically make one on autopilot, because I’ve already done the thinking hard required to learn to do so.

I can certainly become absorbed in a book, but if I’m reading about something about which I’m unfamiliar I really “have to” concentrate. I often reread passages in order to make sure I’ve understood what’s being communicated and sometimes I have to break off from reading to really ponder the meaning. If I don’t force myself to think hard and allow my concentration to slip I’ll usually find that the last few pages have become a meaningless blur.

I’m not sure if I’ve fully understood Dan’s objections to the idea that we have to force ourselves to do the kind of effortful thinking required to really learn something, but I’m struggling to come u with an example of thinking hard being incidental to activity I’m engaged in.

You might argue that this discussion boils down to ‘mere semantics’ and that possibly we’re talking past each other. That may be, but in response I’d suggest and semantics – the study of meaning – is the most important thing of all. By thinking hard about meaning we can arrive at new and useful ways of seeing the world.