I’m prompted to write this after some recent tweets and blog posts extolling Prof Coe’s position that:

‘Learning occurs when we think hard’

Is this true? And if it is, what exactly are the implications of this for teachers? If it is true, then can pupils only learn, heads down, in difficult work? That may be the case, but research shows that pupils learn in many different ways. Coe provides no evidence in his inaugural lecture as director of CEM in 2013. Indeed, he immediately goes on to say this about his statement:

‘Obviously, this is over-simplistic, vague and not original’

But it is a lovely soundbite that fits easily into 140 characters and as such, it has been used on Twitter on many occasions. What worries me is that this phrase is used most by those who would have teachers not use a wide range of strategies to engage and enthuse their pupils, but instead, would use a far narrower, direct instruction style of teaching. Coe himself, remember, describes this phrase as over simplistic, vague and not original’. I can accept the ‘not original’ bit, though I suspect it might be, as I can’t track down a source for the comment apart from Prof Coe(!), but why someone would extoll a comment when the ‘author’ describes the quote in such terms as ‘vague and ‘over-simplistic’, is beyond me.

Lee and Anderson (Lee, H.S., & Anderson, J.R. 2013: Student learning: What has instruction got to do with it? Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 445-469.) say: ‘Instructional guidance helps inexperienced learners, but does not benefit experienced learners — and, in fact, it can get in the way. This is called the expertise reversal effect.’ We sometimes forget, especially in secondary, that we have some very experienced learners in front of us, that by the time they are 15, these learners have been through 10 years of formal education and any number of teachers and methods of teaching. These learners are not empty pails waiting to be filled. These pupils are highly sophisticated learning machines. They already know what works well for them, before they embark on GCSE and many knew at age 11. As the human brain develops more rapidly between birth and age five than during any other subsequent period, one could say that Reception children are already sophisticated learners and most Early Years teachers would testify to that. Primary teachers are very well aware of the skills possessed by pupils when they leave ; secondary teachers less so and I despair at this anachronistic and in many ways harmful (observe the dip in achievement in Y7) way our educational system has developed to separate primary from secondary education. Pupils are not somehow different 6 weeks after leaving a primary school! Thus a one-size-fits-all diet may not be what an individual actually needs.

Bjork et al. (Bjork, R.A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (92013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444) conclude with a list of questions frequently asked by students wanting to know how to study:

“What is the format of the upcoming test?” Answer: they should study as if it were an essay exam.
“Is it a good idea to study by copying my notes?” Answer: No, but it’s a good idea to study by re-organizing them.
“Does cramming work?” Answer: Not if you want to remember the material after the exam.
“How come I did so much worse than I expected?” Answer: Because you underestimated what you had learned through studying.
“How much time should I spend studying?” Answer: As much time as you have, provided that you use the time productively.

The answers are not conclusive to a particular style of learning, or teaching, but instead reflect what many teachers know instinctively: context drives learning.

In ‘Talk for Teaching’ I also explore the usefulness of the subconscious to learning. Whist acknowledging fully the work of John Sweller (Sweller, J (June 1988). “Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning”. Cognitive Science. 12 (2): 257–285. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4. on cognitive overload, advertisers have known for a long time that it is not just the conscious, but the unconscious that makes you buy their product.


Assail et al is very clear that in learning about reading and arithmetic, people do so unconsciously as well as consciously. ‘Reading and doing arithmetic nonconsciously’. PNAS vol. 109 no. 48 Asael Y. Sklar,  19614–19619, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211645109)

In essence, the pupils is not just learning from you during a lesson and if you restrict their access to sources and other types of learning, you may not be using fully the skills of the experienced learners you find in front of you. 

So when do people learn? Is it when they are ‘thinking hard’. How do you know that a pupil is thinking hard? Was I ‘thinking hard’ when I wrote this, or was I just doing something that I enjoy (researching and writing) and finding something to do that is different to my ‘real’ work that I know I have to do today (which is actually very enjoyable too, I just don’t work as well when I have plenty of time and I’m not under pressure) which is preparing to visit a school tomorrow and getting a huge amount of information into my head before I do? Or do people learn in all sorts of ways and at times when you would never think they have learned something which will stick with them through life and can be recalled? It’s not as easy as Prof Coe says in that soundbite, but I suspect that he knows that full well. I’m not sure some others do.

I can’t find anything on exactly when a person learns. I’m not sure it is known. Neither am I sure that anyone knows when anyone has learned, when they are ‘thinking hard’ or otherwise. I suspect that the point of learning is informed by metacognitive experience, together with engagement, enjoyment and the need to learn, but that’s only speculation. If anyone can tell me the point at which you know someone learns and exactly what they have done to learn what they have, I’d love to know! Links to research would be very welcome.

It seems that learning is far more complex than simply ‘thinking hard’ and in a classroom requires help, via an application of method to individual context which is the skill (I say the genius) of a teacher.

To sum up, I’ll use a paper by John F. Kihlstrom ‘How Students Learn and How We Can Help Them’, updated in 2014 and presented at several seminars. It was the source of my original research and reading it would repay you many times over. The conclusion to his study promotes no style of teaching, it just oozes common sense and will chime with many teachers, who teach in a range of different ways. He says:

1. Space learning over time. Shorter study sessions, interspersed with other activities, yield better long-term retention than the same amount of study all at once. Once a teacher has identified the key facts, terms, concepts, and skills to be lerned, students to be exposed to each of them at least twice, separated by a period of several weeks, and arrange assignments and exams to promote distributed practice.

2. Alternate between solved examples and problem sets. Teachers can provide students with step-by-step solutions to sample problems, but they should also make sure that students have the opportunity to solve similar problems by themselves. At the very least, students should alternate between textbook and chalkboard examples that have already been worked out, and problems they must solve on their own, gradually decreasing the former and increasing the latter.

3. Combine words and graphics. Anything you can do to make study material richer will also make it more memorable. Pictures really are worth a thousand words — even, in a literature course, “maps” of plotlines and the relationships among characters.

4. Integrate the concrete with the abstract. Illustrate abstract concepts with many and varied concrete examples.

5. Testing promotes learning. Not just midterms and finals, but also quizzes along the way. They ensure that students keep up with the material, but also aid spaced practice. Before introducing a new topic, prepare students with “pre-questions”; use quizzes to promote both retrieval practice and distributed practice.

6. Help students allocate their time effectively. Students are no better at managing their time than faculty are, and probably they’re worse. A structured course, with deadlines and focused activities, will help a lot. Students are not particularly good at judging whether they’ve mastered a particular concept; at the very least, they should be taught to make these kinds of judgment after a delay has elapsed since learning. And teachers need to provide corrective feedback — not just a quiz score or, much less, a checkmark in the upper right-hand corner of the first page of an assignment.

7. Ask deep explanatory questions. The examples I’ve given are usually in terms of facts, concepts, and skills, and they’re important, but we’re also after something deeper by way of understanding. Teachers should ask deep questions, encourage students to “think aloud” about the answers, and – -again — provide feedback. Asking for explanations, as opposed to rote repetition or mere description, promotes elaborative processing, and thus improves long-term retention.

In Conclusion.

As a teacher, trust yourself. Pupils do learn when they think hard, but it is clear that they can also learn in other ways too. There is research out there that you can use to back your use of a particular teaching style if you wish to do that, but in many cases, general research is not applicable to the individual in front of you. I say in ‘Talk for Teaching’ (out soon!) that there is no best way to teach to suit every individual and that the genius of teaching is a teacher’s ability to bring experience and brilliance to bear to help all in their class to learn. Let context, not dogma, guide you in your own classroom and if your pupils learn (and that can be far wider than learning academic information) and are successful with you and go on to be successful in life, you can teach in any legal way you wish and you will have taught your pupils well.