Is Everyone Thinking? What are they all thinking about? This is THE Key.

Memory is the residue of thought”.

As part of my work with Oldham College, this week we were revisiting the key ideas that underpin our Teaching for Distinction programme. Right at the top is Dan Willingham’s work on memory including this important and famous statement: memory is the residue of thought. It deserves repeated revisiting. In Why don’t students like school, Willingham says this:

This sentence may represent the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers:

Review Each Lesson Plan in Terms of What the Student Is Likely to Think About

On the surface this seems obvious but as we continued to consider each aspect of the programme – questioning, feedback, metacognition, mindsets, practice, redrafting – it struck me how far Willingham’s ‘most general and useful idea’ helps to explain nearly everything else.

Whether students are learning or not learning, it’s possible to explore what is happening through the lens of considering what they are thinking about – or not thinking about; whether they are being made to think in ways that build their understanding, whether they have the foundations for the thinking required; whether they think with enough intensity or repetition about the same ideas; whether they can perform tasks or look ‘present’ without needing to think; whether the teacher creates the conditions for all students to engage in productive thinking or just some.

Where a student is struggling to learn in a given situation, it’s often because the lesson isn’t structured so that their thinking is being directed in a sufficiently constructive manner, appropriate to the type of material being taught and for the extent of their prior knowledge.

Motivation and Attention

Shimamura explores the problems of motivation and attention in his superb MARGE publication. Mind wandering is natural and inevitable. Securing students’ attention needs to be considered explicitly; not assumed. Part of this is about behaviour norms and routines; various accountability devices can be deployed that motivate students to direct their energy to thinking about the material in hand.

Part of it is about capturing attention. However, Willingham urges caution around stimulating thinking that misdirects – eg thinking about powerpoint functions instead of content; thinking about the ‘whizz bang’ of a science demo instead of the underlying principles. There’s a risk that only episodic memory sticks while semantic memory fades, unless we somehow link them together. So another important part of motivation and attention is about the nature of instructional inputs – e.g using narrative structures or engaging an emotional/personal relationship to the material; posing big questions, creating a spirit of enquiry.

A wider notion of motivation encompasses mindsets and there’s value in considering what students think about when they encounter difficulties. Metacognitive strategies that help to unlock problem-solving or improve performance in specific disciplines can be taught by modelling and practice – again by focusing students’ thinking in productive directions.

Classroom dynamics: Opportunities to think:

As ever, the hard part of teaching is getting ALL students to think about the material in productive ways; not just some. This is why a strong repertoire of questioning techniques pays dividends. If cold calling is the norm, students will learn to engage with all the questions that are asked; they have to think – in case they are asked. If ‘check for understanding’ is a routine feature of lessons, students learn to listen when others are talking, thinking about what they’re saying and how their own ideas compare – because they might be asked to share their thoughts. If well structured pair-share is a familiar routine (followed by cold calling), students can all engage in rehearsing their thinking, ready to present it to the class if called upon.

If these things are not routine, it is possible to sit through lessons without thinking. Why think hard if someone else normally does it for you? Why think hard if normally other students call out answers or your partner always does the heavy lifting or, in your group discussion, the other people normally chip in while you sit quietly. If it is possible not to think hard, you tend to take that option. Classroom dynamics need to require thinking from everyone – or it doesn’t happen. Those that don’t think are not likely to learn. This is why these techniques matter – because they require everyone to think.

Task completion versus conceptual thinking

A pet peeve of mine is seeing students engaged in tasks that require only a minimum level of conceptual thinking, normally about the task but not about the meaning of the material – and yet they can take up a lot of lesson time and create an illusion of learning. This includes labelling and/or organising diagrams, making a poster in a group, arranging information into grids and tables, copying out model examples, highlighting text, following step by step instructions….. a long list.

Unless these tasks are followed by the step of all students needing to reproduce or apply the knowledge at hand in a generative fashion, they’re probably not learning much. Time and time again I see these tasks being performed where students, when asked, cannot explain the material with books closed; they can do the task almost without thinking about the material or connecting it to what they know – with the result that productive thinking doesn’t happen. The ‘books shut’ (or application problem) test is crucial; not only as formative assessment but as a routine that motivates deeper thinking all along. If you know you will be asked to explain something in your own words, books shut, the type of thinking you engage in is different from when you simply have to get something resembling a finished table in your book.

At another very obvious level, it’s often unhelpful to merely ask students to think. “Think about X”. This is common when teachers say ‘think about what we did last lesson’. It can be much more productive to give them a problem that makes them think about what they did last lesson. They have no choice but to do the thinking in order to generate a response to the problem; it’s a deeper process that includes everyone.

Prior knowledge and schema-building:

As I’ve discussed extensively in various posts, including this recent one, schema-building is a useful model for thinking about memory and learning. It assumes that students think about new material in the context of knowledge they already have – including semantic and experiential knowledge – and make connections, thus building ever richer schema. However, it can be the case that, in some lessons, some students cannot think about the material in hand productively because they don’t have the relevant prior knowledge to use to make sense of the new ideas they’re encountering. This has huge implications and many manifestations:

What do students know about Vietnam when we’re discussing the war? Or if we encounter the Vietnam war in a the context of an article about Mohammed Ali or Nixon.? What should they know? How do we check? How do we fill in important gaps. ?

What do students think about when you say ‘a quarter plus a fifth’? What’s in their heads? Do they have the conceptual framework the teacher is assuming in order to do the thinking needed – linking words to numerical representations, spatial models and related number patterns. What do we do to find this out and ensure all of them have the foundations needed?

When thinking about the chemistry in thermal decomposition, can students connect what they say (copper carbonate) to what they see (green powder) to a model of atoms of different elements and their subsequent re-arrangement? What thinking is going on in a student’s head when they wrongly predict that the product might be Iron Oxide? (Aarrgghhh!) Or if, later, they can’t remember the name of the ‘green stuff’ or explain what the ‘little 3’ is for or mix up ‘atom’, ‘molecule’ ‘element’ and ‘compound’ as if they’re interchangeable? Each aspect of this process, represented in words, symbols and diagrams – or via the memory of seeing it happen – needs to connect into a coherent mental model. Writing it all down won’t be enough; listening to the explanations won’t be enough, learning some definitions off by heart won’t be enough. Lesson activities will need to engage students in explicitly thinking through the process to make these links in order for them to make sense. It’s the model that forms in their heads that matters, not how neat and tidy their books look. This requires some extensive mental rehearsal, visualisation, narration, application to new situations – . and everyone needs the chance to do it.

Routines and Fluency: making thinking easier:

Total footballing flair starts with drills..

Sometimes learning requires a high level of fluency with basic ideas in order for deeper concepts to take root. There’s a need to build automaticity with language and certain procedural routines that are so familiar we no longer have to think about them. However, these need to be built up slowly through deliberate thought and conscious rehearsal in the beginning. This applies to language learning. You can’t think too hard – or particularly successfully – about grammar structures in a language you don’t know. You need to know it first; the thinking needs to be about using chunks of language that make sense as a whole, building up fluency of recall, building up flexible applications of those chunks through repetition and practice – before we start trying to ‘think like a linguist’, exploring the patterns and nuances within the structures we already know. I know that ‘I went to school’ is Je suis allé à l’école because that is what you say.. Je suis allé is something I know as a chunk. Now I can discuss how this is an irregular past tense form compared to something like J’ai mangé une pomme or J’ai regardé le jardin.

Far too often, students simply don’t have basic recall fluency with key phrases in MFL before they are moved onwards to more learn about more difficult grammar. They can’t think about the grammar because they’re still too busy trying hard to remember words from their lists, thinking about what all the words mean and when to use them. It’s a different type of thinking required. Much like the foundations of maths – the thinking that allows us to know number bonds to 100 is built on a few key principles (bond to 10, place value) but mainly we build up fluency by deploying our knowledge through frequent practice. We end up knowing all of the bonds to one hundred they become inseparable (63-37; 28-72); this frees us up to think harder about more difficult problems.

So – Daniel Willingham’s advice seems incredibly sensible. It’s just not at all straightforward, especially when we want all students to learn, not only some.

Review Each Lesson Plan in Terms of What the Student Is Likely to Think About

And make sure they’ve got the mental tools to do the thinking you’d like them to do to learn the material you want them to learn.


  1. I think that cold calling is a good idea to ensure that students are thinking of possible answers and asking them to repeat or add to someone else’s answer.


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