Because learning is invisible, we can only hope to measure whether students are making progress by observing proxies. Most people now seem to agree that certain activities which routinely take place in lessons are, in the words of Robert Coe, ‘poor proxies for learning’. Rob has suggested that a better proxy might be ‘thinking hard’. This seemed sensible and, like many others, I’ve embraced the idea, but the harder I think about this the less sure I am. In this post I began considering of the limitations of think hard as a good proxy for learning but was still wedded to the idea that although learning can certainly occur without students having to ‘think hard’, thinking hard would still be likely to result in learning.

I started reading Daisy Christodoulou’s new book, Making Good Progress? today, and, as I’ve come to expect, she’s got me reconsidering things I had thought were almost certainly true. She cites this extract from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s paper, Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work:

Solving a problem requires problem-solving search and search must occur using our limited working memory. Problem-solving search is an inefficient way of altering long-term memory because its function is to find a problem solution, not alter long-term memory. Indeed, problem-solving search can function perfectly with no learning whatsoever (Sweller, 1988). Thus, problem-solving search overburdens limited working memory and requires working memory resources to be used for activities that are unrelated to learning. As a consequence, learners can engage in problem-solving activities for extended periods and learn almost nothing (Sweller et al., 1982). p. 80

This is something I’d read before but failed to realise its significance. As Daisy points out, “…it is possible for a pupil to be thinking hard and struggling but still not learning.” (p.42) If this is the case – and I think it must be – then ‘thinking hard’ may need to be consigned to the list of poor proxies for learning.

Previously, I’ve suggested that there might be other ‘good proxies for learning’ and that learning probably happens when students have to:

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

None of these things require much in the way of thinking especially hard. This matters because,  our understanding of how learning occurs affects the approaches we use to teach and design a curriculum.  This means we need to be really clear about the differences between learning and performance; just because students seem to be making progress in our lessons does not mean that they will retain what they’ve learned or that they will be able to effectively transfer it to other contexts. Whilst we want students to perform well in exams – and in life – this depends on creating effective ‘mental models’. Counter-intuitively, the kind of practice which seems to best build these models is not the same as expert performance. I still think struggle has a place in our efforts to design effective teaching sequences, but this must be undertaken with a lot of thought and a fair bit of caution. I’ve outlined these ideas in my post Struggle and success.