Let’s Get Pupils Thinking Hard pt.1

“Memory is the residue of thought.”–Daniel Willingham

When considering the factors leading to pupil progress, it is tempting to over complicate the issue. Whilst teaching is doubtless a complex art (or is it a science?), can learning really be attributed to one crucial variable: the amount of time that pupils spend ‘thinking hard’?This seems particularly pertinent in light of reformed qualifications which are tougher and require students to demonstrate greater mastery of knowledge.

In order to order to address this idea in our school, we began by considering classroom habits that underpin the idea of thinking hard. Although I’m sure everybody could write their own (slightly differing) lists, I think that this one covers the main things we need to consider:

  • Pitching at the right level
  • Developing language for learning
  • High participation and challenge
  • Metacognition and reflection
  • Skills over content

Pitching at the Right Level

This is the most crucial point, as getting it wrong can undermine even the slickest of planned lesson activities. The key question to ask yourself here is whether or not the material you are teaching needs to be learnt by the pupils in order for them to make progress. Do they already know what you’re planning to teach? What is it that they can’t do yet?


Is it pitched at the right level?

According to the research presented in Graham Nuttall’s ‘Hidden Lives of Learners’ around 50% of content presented to pupils is known prior to it being taught. To look at that from another perspective, it means that a test score of 50% is actually a score of 0%. At first this may seem like a high percentage, but take a moment to consider the challenge of the task if our aim were to ensure that no student covered the same knowledge twice. Having said this, pupil led activities such as flipped learning are simple ways of achieving just that.

This might all sound obvious, but at the centre of this is a cultural shift, moving from celebrating right answers to celebrating learning. Although it is focused on younger pupils and based in an American classroom, I found this video particularly helpful in illustrating this point: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/persist-through-challenges-perts. The teacher in this video  really celebrates learning as a goal in itself rather than as a means to an end and this is central to developing resilience and growth mindset. (on a separate note – I think that the ‘justify and critique’ technique that this teacher uses is really effective).

Put simply, if you ask your class a question and every single pupil knows the answer then what has been learnt? Don’t steal the struggle – let’s celebrate it!

Developing Language for Learning

This is important if we want our pupils to write like academics and structure their essays appropriately. I often hear teachers complain about the essay writing skills of their sixth form classes, but less often see these skills being reinforced in lessons.


When learning a language we progress from the outer to the inner circle

Of course it is important that we introduce key terms and ideas, but we also need to model their use in writing. Equally, we need to expose students to as much academic writing as possible, remembering that this is not the sort of text they are likely to encounter accidentally or in their everyday lives. In previous training I have compared this process to learning a foreign language. We start by developing familiarity with words, but we still feel slightly uncomfortable ordering pastries in French bakeries. Developing confidence with language takes time and repeated exposure in different contexts. The same applies to new academic language.


This is actually the biggest challenge of developing literacy: separating ourselves from the language we use as qualified teachers of a subject. Writing like a geographer comes naturally to a geographer, but if we want this type of language to be adopted by a class of 17 year olds then we need to make the implicit features of our language more explicit by highlighting them in everything they do. Consider why conversation classes are such an important part of learning a foreign language and you will be heading in the right direction.

High Participation and Challenge

How many of us have ever asked those familiar marking questions: ‘did I even teach this?’, ‘were you even in this lesson?’. The misunderstandings that lead to these questions are often caused by a lack of participation and challenge: the moments where pupils take advantage of an opportunity to momentarily ‘switch off’.

This has been highlighted to me many times as I have the privilege of being able to observe so many lessons. It is often much clearer from the back of the room when pupils have the opportunity to opt out of the learning (one reason why I am such a strong advocate of teachers filming their lessons).

Perhaps the best way to think about this is to plan your lesson as though all of the pupils in your class will opt out if given the opportunity. How do you ensure that they are engaged in thinking hard throughout the lesson? If a pupil wanted to hide in your lesson (i.e. to be passive) could they?

Metacognition and Reflection

Research suggests that unlocking the power of metacognition has the largest effect size (+8 months) compared with other strategies; this is based on some very secure evidence. We are excellent at using reflection and DIRT activities further down the school, but could we make greater use of these with exam groups? The way I think of this, you can’t be in the exam with the pupils, so teaching them to self monitor and regulate should be one of our primary concerns. It’s summarised in this quote from Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence:

“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards?”

Skills Over Content

Whether or not we agree, there is a paradigm shift happening around us in education as knowledge becomes increasingly available and accessible. So our role as teachers must change to accommodate this. We need to start thinking of ourselves as developers of skills ratherwhy-do-i-need-a-teacher than deliverers of content.

In practice, this means starting our lesson planning by considering the skills which need to be developed rather than the content that’s next in the syllabus. This information can only be derived from assessment of pupils’ knowledge. Then we need to ask these questions:

  • What can pupils not do yet?
  • What can we ask them to do which tests our hypothesis that they can not demonstrate this skill? (good starting point for a lesson)
  • How can we enable pupils to develop the skills needed to tackle this task?

Once you’ve answered these questions then you know you have the foundations of a lesson that will lead to progress. Developing skills in this way is how teachers can add unique value.


I hope that these habits or principles are useful starting points in getting pupils thinking hard. There will be some practical ideas and teaching activities in another blog published shortly.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Get Pupils Thinking Hard pt.1

  1. […] on from the previous blog, this post is all about getting pupils thinking hard. Whereas pt.1 focused on some basic […]


  2. […] until this sudden bout of denial. The same day I read the blogpost I quoted above, I also read another blogpost, that was advice for teachers in a school in England from a few weeks […]


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