Article Pedagogy

Thoughts on Thinking

Jinny Bell
Written by Jinny Bell

Pressures in the classroom

This is a simple example of how teaching has, at times, lost its grip on the principles of teaching and learning. We have boxed-up strategies to ‘tick-off’ as many non-negotiables as possible all in one exercise. But is it effective? Are you engaged, informed, inspired, working independently, applying literacy skills, and able to reflect on your progress later? 

Perhaps. Maybe you even initiated a discussion.

Anyone who reads blogs or articles by teachers will be aware of some of these pressures being faced by those in the profession. My main concern, when all of this pressure and advice is packed together, is that lessons are in danger of becoming activity-hives. In his book, Education Exposed, Sam Strickland highlights this common misconception: ‘Being busy in the classroom, with lots of lesson activities, means learning is deep.’ 

Doing the task ≠ doing the thinking

I’m sure most of you solved the cryptic lesson objective provided at the top of this article – if you could grab a Purple Pen of Progress, tick it, and write an EBI, it would be much appreciated. However if we question the skills that were applied and the new knowledge that was gained, I’m sure we could agree that it adds up to very little. 

This can often be the case in activities that have been used to seemingly bulk-out or liven-up a scheme of learning. Many lessons that I have observed over the years have had students completing tasks that require very low-level skill or thinking for the amount of time that it demands.

Write down the 8 stores of energy – there are pictures around the room to help you. 

It is actually really difficult to name all the stores of energy, especially before they have been introduced! So this is one of those cases where my advice would be to ‘just tell them’, but definitely encourage a discussion on how well this fits with their understanding of energy. In fact, considering how new information fits in with your existing knowledge is a great thinking task! It can help to eliminate misconceptions, make new links and expose weaknesses in simplified models if done well.

Which store of energy is related to a moving object? K _ _ _ _ _ _

There is precisely one store of energy that starts with a ‘k’, so having only read the energy stores once, I can complete this question. In fact, I didn’t even need to read the question to get the correct answer. Eliminate any hints that give away the answer – if students don’t know the answer, tell them! Then help them to recall it correctly later, which is a far better use of time! The ability to recall key knowledge underpins everything.

However, I do want to emphasise that giving away the answer through methods such as facilitating questions, which help learners to build links and consolidate knowledge, is an example of good pedagogy. Structuring your comment and considering whether it is supporting their learning or just pushing them towards the answer is crucial.

Why thinking matters

I would argue that one of the most common answers I used to get when asking a ‘new’ question, i.e., one that they have not been told the answer to yet, is ‘I don’t know’. True! You don’t know! But that doesn’t mean you can’t work it out. Truthfully, the thing that they don’t know is more often how the question links to what they do know. So here is our fantastic opportunity to:

Activate their prior knowledge – Openly refer back to knowledge that they have met before, allow them to join in or fill in gaps.

Model thinking – Say it out loud! ‘If we know that … then…’

Guide their practice – Use questions or comments that build the path between what they do know, and what they could know, until they move to being able to navigate this path unconsciously.

So guiding students towards an answer is not wrong, but the way in which we do it can lead to good thinking and successful learning, or it can lead to correct answers but no strategy for independence in the future. 

‘I’m not saying that some of these couldn’t be effective but they don’t stand a chance if we are not given the opportunity to understand the underlying principles.’

If an object is stationary and the resultant force acting upon it is non-zero, what will happen to the object?

  1. It will remain stationary 
  2. It will move towards the direction of the resultant force 
  3. It will move in the direction of the resultant force 
  4. It will explode 

The options given do not encourage entirely appropriate thinking on the topic of forces.

There is nothing in the question that really suggests that an explosion is likely. Unless you’ve covered momentum, and misunderstood it, then option ‘d’ can be eliminated and serves no real purpose in the multiple choice question (MCQ).

Option ‘a’ is suitable as it is a distractor in that it may correctly answer a very similar question. I.e., when the resultant force acting upon it is zero. 

Comparing option ‘b’ to option ‘c’ we can see that they are so similar that it really comes down to reading, language and literacy. Although supporting literacy throughout science is absolutely relevant, it would be better discussed, rather than assessed within a MCQ.

So how should a multiple choice question look?

Well, as part of AQA’s ‘Inside exams’ podcasts I spoke to @mrbartonmaths about the pros and cons of MCQs and how to get the best use out of them. You can listen to this here: 

To summarise, we agreed that MCQs should be used to encourage appropriate thinking. One strategy that you can use in designing MCQs is to come up with one or two common mistakes. This is fantastic for a calculation question, particularly where students have to convert units or rearrange an equation, but also in written answers where students commonly name the wrong circuit component.

Which of the following shows the correct circuit symbol for a Light Emitting Diode?

Students may confuse LEDs with LDRs if they don’t think about what the names tell them, so putting a LDR as an option will test this. A LED symbol is very similar to a diode, which the students have also met, so put both as options. If you can’t think of another reason to put another option then don’t put another option! Make sure that any option a student selects gives you information about their thinking leading up to that selection.


Don’t let yourself get swept up in the chaos of activities for activities’ sakes. Or activities for the sake of feedback or differentiation. Everything should have a purpose.

Design your activities, including teacher talk – don’t underestimate the value of asking authentic questions yourself – to get the students asking questions, learning how to think, and practicing all of their thinking skills. And keep modelling your thinking – it is as much of a skill as anything else.

Featured photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

About the author

Jinny Bell

Jinny Bell

Jinny has been a head of Physics for 6 years, and is now working in Northamptonshire. She has contributed to ResearchED Rugby 2019 and AQA's Inside Exams podcasts. Jinny tweets @missb0107

Leave a Comment