A few days ago, I wrote about a brief online discussion I had with Dan Willingham on the importance of thinking hard. In the comments, Greg Ashman pointed out that thinking hard cannot be the only way in which learning happens, how else, he asks, would we explain the success of Zig Englemann’s Direct Instruction programme? Although I’m not totally convinced that students receiving Direct Instruction don’t have to think hard, it’s certainly true to say that they’re not expected to struggle.

Think also about rote memorisation. Most people would probably agree that memorising your times tables doesn’t requires thinking hard. Instead it relies on repetition to hammer an idea into long-term memory.

I’m going to suggest that, for the purposes of this post, we try to accept three things (you can always argue the toss later if you don’t like them):

  1. Learning requires a change in long term memory.
  2. Thinking takes place in working memory, focussed on the interplay between the environment and what we retrieve from long-term memory.
  3. By and large, we tend to remember things we think about. (If you can’t remember something you were thinking about then it’s probably true to say you didn’t learn it.)

Now, if these things are true, it perhaps follows that, although we might remember some things we don’t consciously pay attention to, we’re more likely to remember things we think about. It also makes a certain kind of sense that thinking hard might provoke better possibilities for long-term memory changes than ‘thinking a bit’ or ‘not thinking much’.

Rob Coe’s formulation, “Learning happens when people have to think hard” isn’t meant to be a precise description of how learning happens, it’s just an idea for a useful proxy we might look for in our lessons. As he says, “Obviously, this is over-simplistic, vague and not original. But if it helps teachers to ask questions like, ‘Where in this lesson will students have to think hard?’ it may be useful.”

And this is, I think, is the point: learning is vastly complex and we may never understand how it occurs. Some people want to embrace this complexity to the point of obfuscation.  We could simply shrug our shoulders and admit defeat, or we could attempt to simplify matters by looking at what we do know and considering how that could help us out in the classroom. Obviously, we don’t really know how, when or why learning happens, but we do have some guides about what might make it more or less likely.

So, here I tentatively offer a list of other possible ‘good proxies’ for learning which may help teachers plan and look for opportunities to increase students’ mastery of curriculum content.

Learning may happen when students:

  • concentrate on relevant examples and non-examples
  • retrieve what they have been taught in previous lessons
  • apply concepts to new examples
  • engage in practice drills (which may involve repetition or formulas and procedures)
  • answer questions without cues or prompts

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’d be interested to hear what else you think we could usefully add to it.