Previously, I posed the question: when are students actually thinking and when are they simply remembering? How much of a student’s day is spent just remembering things (or memorizing things to remember later) compared to making their brain sweat?
I wanted to flesh out a few other thoughts about thinking vs remembering.
1. Remembering Is Important
There’s a reason “remember” is at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy – it’s the foundation for all levels. Yes, it’s low-level, but it’s also important. We can’t do much higher level thinking without using our memory. So asking students to remember isn’t wrong, but memorization must serve a higher purpose! We can’t end with remember.
2. Difficult ≠ Thinking
If a task appears difficult, that doesn’t necessarily mean students are thinking. Reciting the US state capitols in alphabetical order is difficult, but it’s not thinking. It’s still just remembering. Multiplying two six-digit numbers is a lot of work, but it’s also just a lot of remembering steps and math facts.
So don’t assume that “challenging” means thinking.
3. Fancy Products ≠ Thinking
If a student writes and records a song listing the US capitols alphabetically in GarageBand, films a music video against a green screen, edits in a beach in the background, then posts it on YouTube, this was still just a remember level of interacting with the content.
Yes, thinking occurred – but it was all about the product, not the content. This isn’t always bad, but be aware that an impressive final product does not mean students necessarily thought hard about the content.
So consider: what are students doing with their brains, not just their hands?
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4. Explaining ≠ Thinking
Right above “remember” is “understand” on Bloom’s Taxonomy. At this level, students might “explain their reasoning.” But this level is often just remembering in paragraph form. take this question:
Which animal is better at swimming, a dog or a dolphin? Explain why.
This question goes beyond a one word answer, but… come on. Does this really require thinking? Just because there’s an explanation doesn’t mean students thought.
5. Thinking Really Helps Remembering
The irony is that focusing purely on memorizing is a weak way to get information into long-term memory. Thinking benefits memory more than memorization does! As Daniel Willingham says in the wonderful Why Don’t Students Like School?,
Memory is the residue of thought.
The more kids really think about content, the better they’ll remember it in the long run! I have forgotten everything I memorized using flashcards in school, but I can easily recall those topics that truly engaged my thinking.
A Systemic Problem
If you notice that there’s way more remembering than thinking going on in your class, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, it’s likely that your teaching tools heavily emphasize remembering. Trachtenberg analyzed 61,000 questions from world history textbooks. Over 95% were low-order questions! Do the same with your textbook. What percentage of questions require thinking vs remembering?
In studies of questioning in classrooms (spanning decades), there’s a consistent drought of “thinking” questions. Even Gallagher and Ascher’s observations of gifted magnet classes found over 70% of teachers’ questions asked students to simply remember or explain why the one right answer was right.
What To Do?
- Simply be aware: which tasks ask students to think versus merely remember?
- Bloom’s Taxonomy is a powerful and ubiquitous tool for thinking about thinking. In my experience, many of us are very aware of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but don’t really know it that well.
- Take a look at Gallagher and Ascher’ four levels of questions as a framework for asking questions that prompt thinking.
- Consider teaching a lesson inductively, asking students to make connections rather than making those connections for them.
- Don’t be afraid to accelerate! Once kids get it, move them from remembering to a higher level of thinking – stat! This means pre-tests as well as constant informal assessing.