Thinking Hard…and Why We Avoid It

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In his excellent 2013 paper, called ‘Improving Education: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience’, Professor Rob Coe defines the secret of learning:

“Learning happens when people have to think hard.”

With refreshing honesty, Professor Coe goes on to describe his wise aphorism as “over-simplistic, vague and not original”. Now, despite this self-critical statement being partially true, I think Professor Coe is onto something. Perhaps if we can get to the root of what we mean by thinking hard, we can characterise it and then enact it, whilst paying heed to the common pitfalls that hinder our students when they attempt to do it.

So, we remember what we think hard about. Easy. Let’s do more of that.

Only our brain isn’t designed for lots of hard thinking (the developing brain of a teenager even less so), indeed, it evolved to avoid it. You see, since we were marauding cave people we have been programmed to save our mental energy from predatory attacks, resulting in our ‘lazy’ brains. Our students face no such prehistoric dangers, but if you teach a mass of tired teens on a wet Wednesday afternoon you see first hand our troublesome cognitive inheritance at work.

To think hard we need to be able to exert a great deal of concentrated thinking on a given task or body of knowledge. In short, we need to focus. Focus, despite a world full of endless distraction, is the aim for students in our classroom, though, of course, it is a challenge. Daniel Goleman, in his book, ‘Focus: the Hidden Drivers of Success’, describes the mass of distractions we face, from sensory distractions, like our addiction to the beep of a mobile phone message, to our emotional distractions, like our thoughts about what people are thinking about us at any given moment.


We are a mere 300 words into this blog, but you’re already tempted by distraction aren’t you? And to think, you are an adult, blessed with maturity, self-control and wisdom. What chance is there for our young, emotion-laden students?

Daniel Kahneman has written with authority on how our thinking can be simplified into a dual system model:

  • System 1 thinking is characterised as easy, quick and automatic, deferring to stereotypes and shortcuts (heuristics) to save our precious mental energy.
  • System 2 thinking is characterised as hard, slow and effortful, demanding of more logic and calculation, which is no doubt demanding of our limited cognitive resources.

Daniel Kahneman could quite easily be describing the classrooms we inhabit. In his seminal book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, he goes onto describe the many limitations of our thinking, with a mass of evidence, such as how we are beholden to our biases, how we avoid challenges to our thinking, and how we confidently rely on our limited prior knowledge.

As an example, system 1 thinking is when we see the quotation: ‘To be or not to be’ in a magazine article and we skim past, quickly recognising the literary provenance of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Then we have to undertake some system 2 thinking: what actually did Shakespeare/Hamlet mean? How is it relevant to this article? It is presented in an ironic, serious, philosophical in tone etc. this all takes a wealth of prior knowledge and no little concentration.

But we can easily skip past the nuanced reference and make a quick assumption. By way of exemplification, answer this question:

How many of each animal species did Moses bring onto the ark?


Were you thinking two by two? Easy, eh? Well, of course, Moses didn’t bring any animals onto the ark, Noah did. By inserting the name Moses is plausible enough for our minds to deploy system 1 thinking and dispose of the harder system 2 thinking. It is handily labelled ‘the Moses Illusion’ and it shows that we possess a lazy brain that avoids thinking hard.

For our students to undertake system 2 thinking they need a great deal of prior knowledge and no little skill. Their eyes will dilate, their heart rate will rise a little, and they will feel no little stress as they struggle to locate the ‘answer’. Of course, our students may struggle and, quite naturally, they often don’t enjoy exerting the effort. They may even act out to avoid the stresses and strains of thinking hard.

A Lost Cause?

Now, all of this doesn’t offer a great deal of hope for the time-poor teacher wanting their students to grasp all the challenges in their subject. And yet, understanding our cognitive limitations can prove a good start. Getting students to focus, enacting some system 2 thinking, starts with understanding how we are inhibited by our lazy brains.

In the past, I can remember encouraging students to listen to music during revision, and went as far as playing some music during my lessons from time to time. Now, cognitive science shows us that when we try and divide our attention in this way, listening to music whilst trying to revise tricky knowledge, the information can easily create a bottleneck in the minds of our students – seeing them suffer from information overload.

All the tales about the ineptitude of male multi-tasking are right, but perhaps none of us can adequately divide our attention (known in scientific terms as dual-task interference) and still learn successful. Maybe even women cannot multi-task, despite widespread claims to the contrary!

[Runs and hides]

Adult experts do a better job of selecting their attention and focusing upon hard thinking, although that takes a great deal of mental effort, even for the most expert amongst us. For our novice students, we need to consider how we ensure our teaching elicits just the right degree of hard thinking. We need to understand the degree of cognitive load faced by our students: that is to say, how difficult they will find the task and the thinking required of them. Too much, and they will give up, too little and they will be bored.

How much cognitive load our students encounter will affect their capacity to think hard. Each of our students has a limited capacity to think and learn at any one time. Their ‘working memory’ – effectively the work-bench of their brains – can only cope with so much information at any one time (the research indicates a general principle that our working memory can cope with 7 + 2 – that is to say around seven units of information at any one time). Try to remember a Generation Game style list of objects to bring this abstract notion to life.

Given these limitations, thinking hard when students are learning five challenging new words, a couple of complex diagrams, and tackling a multi-layered problem in any one lesson may not prove effective nor memorable for them. Strategies like chunking the learning into more accessible units that can be practised, or modelling the thinking process are helpful here in expanding the limits of working memory. Carefully judging how much new content we expose students to proves essential.

It is seemingly obvious stuff: we need to pitch our teaching at the right level so they can understand. Teachers have known this since time immemorial, long before Vygotsky devised the ‘zone of proximal development’. And yet, we can miss the subtleties of pitching our teaching at just the right level. Even when we think we are reducing their cognitive load by giving detailed explanations, in the minds of many of our students we may be making it worse and instead overloading them with instructions. It is a subtle business whereat teacher experience comes into play.

To better adapt our teaching, we should refine our knowledge of such barriers to thinking so that we can plan to overcome them. Cognitive load theory breaks the process down to three components:

Intrinsic cognitive load: this is the level of difficulty associated with a specific topic. As an English teacher, I know that studying Shakespeare is harder for my students than reading a modern novel because the language is less familiar. Of course, I need to teach and plan to mitigate this potential for overload.
Extraneous cognitive load: this is the degree of challenge related to how the information is presented. Using a diagram alongside a description of a geographical process, like the movement of tectonic plates, will likely help reduce the degree of challenge for a student, particularly if it the child has a limited vocabulary. The clue is in the word. Too much, or ‘extra’ is bad – it can leave our students overloaded.
Germane cognitive load: this is the good stuff – the load that we want. Put simply, germane load is the thinking devoted to creating memorable structures – those rich patterns, or schemas, that experts construct to remember stuff. For example, when we are very young, a multiplication task like 12 x 3 is a real challenge, but as we develop expertise, it becomes easily absorbed and known and these basic calculations help us solve more difficult ones. Consider how we develop memorable patterns (think graphic organisers, mind-maps – or the hot topic that is times tables!) that can become automated, thereby increasing the good ‘germane cognitive load’.

We can think of our students as a bucket of water (hardly the most motivational of metaphors I agree). As we plan our lesson we need to consider the volume of water as we fill the bucket, we need to check it isn’t spilling and we need to consider how to help students to increase the size of their buckets! We need to consider how much instrinic load they have in the bucket, reduce extraneous load and fill the bucket with more germane load.

There are solutions to better diagnosing cognitive load (a later blog in the series will focus exclusively on practical classroom strategies in more depth), but we know confidently, even with a little teaching experience, that with effective formative assessment, such as artful questioning to diagnose misconceptions in our students’ thinking, that we can note how much cognitive load is at play.

Of course, a lack of prior knowledge, common for almost all of our students, makes it more likely that they will suffer from cognitive overload – stopping their hard thinking dead in its tracks. We need to design our instruction with this in mind. For example, strategies that encourage pre-learning, like getting students to work with a glossary of tricky new words before they face a topic, or seeing some worked examples, can better prime our students’ minds to think hard (many more practical solutions will be offered in Part 3 of this series).

It is quite clear, our brilliant brains, and particularly those of our students, are riddled with flaws that inhibit thinking hard. If you catalogue our evolutionary heritage: the attentional blindness, our lack of focus, our legion of biases, the limitations of our working memory, the dangers of cognitive overload…you recognise the challenges faced by our novice students.

Upcoming in the ‘Thinking Hard’ blog series:

Part 2: ‘Thinking Hard and Motivation’
Part 3: ‘Thinking Hard – Practical Solutions for the Classroom’
Part 4: ‘Thinking Hard with Memory in Mind’
Part 5: ‘Thinking Hard…then Eating Cake’