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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Challenging Students to Think More Deeply

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

You lower yourself into the cage and tie your hand to the back of the big brown bull, which snorts with anger and irritation as they cinch the rope. You are careful to keep your legs from being smashed between the pen wall and the jittery 1,300-pound bull.

You are thankful for the cowboy in the front of the bull who is doing his best to distract it from what you are doing. The three other men who are helping you with the ropes and getting settled on the bull's back encourage you with "Go get 'em, cowboy!" and pats on the back. Then the gate opens, and you hang on for dear life.

You know that you must do two things to make the ride worth it: stay on for eight seconds by responding to and anticipating the rhythms of the bull's movements, and show some style in doing it.

The world is in slow motion as you experience the longest eight seconds of your life.

The bull heaves its bulk into the air, jumps, twists, and cavorts in every imaginable way to get you and that uncomfortable rope off. You realize your strength is insignificant compared to nearly 1 ton of muscle that is throwing you around like a rag doll. You feel like your arm is going to fall off, but you continue to hang on.

The buzzer sounds, and you let go of the rope and try to jump free of the angry bull's flailing hooves and vicious horns. The rodeo clowns get the bull's attention as you dash to safety.

After the bull is taken into the pen, you retrieve your hat and your favorite cinching rope from the arena's sandy floor. Only then do you hear the crowd's roar of approval. The thunderous applause, mixed with whoops and hollers of appreciation, make you stand a little straighter and walk taller.

You are just glad to be alive. This time, the bull lost.

The other day, I took my daughter, Sadie-Belle, to a professional bull-riding competition at San Antonio's AT&T Center, where they normally play basketball, and it was quite a show.

It has been a while since I had watched such an event, and though I have never ridden a bull, I imagine it would be something like what I wrote above.

I noticed that some bull riders wear helmets instead of hats. Most wear padded, protective vests. They all wear gloves, and they all wear spurs. But it took me a few moments to figure out what the bull rider's most valuable piece of equipment really is: that cinch rope each rider carefully went back and retrieved after each ride. As educators, we have a cinch rope, too.

The Educational Cinch Rope

What is the purpose of the cinch rope? To the uninitiated, the bulls seem like ferocious animals. The opposite is actually normally the case. For the most part, these bulls are docile, independent creatures. I actually saw one of the bulls lie down in the stocks, refusing to get up for the cowboy to ride.

So, how do the cowboys get the normally sedentary bull to leap in the air? They tie the cinch rope around the bull, and it is so uncomfortable that the bull is eager to do anything it can to buck the cowboy off for relief. Keep in mind that the bulls are trained to do this and are often successful in removing the rider: Out of 40 cowboys who rode on the day my daughter and I watched, only seven were able to stay on their bulls the full eight seconds.

A teacher's cinch rope is called cognitive dissonance. The term comes from the concept of different sound waves as they collide, creating disharmonic vibrations. It is uncomfortable to listen to such sour notes. Cognitively, speaking dissonance is produced when two ideas seem to collide and only one can be right.

The educational cinch rope has to be uncomfortable enough for the students to do something about it, and, just like the bulls, the students need to be trained on how to buck you for causing the dissonance.

In some cases, the information students have in their brains is incorrect. For example, if you ask a student what causes the seasons of the year, they will likely tell you it is because the distance from Earth to the Sun changes according to the planet's orbital path. In fact, the real reason is that the sun is 20 degrees colder in the winter than it is in the summer.

Did I create some dissonance? If I told you that neither reason mentioned above is true, are you motivated enough to find out the answer?

Cognitive dissonance can also be created by the careful gathering and analysis of data in order to dispel myths, assumptions, and general erroneous beliefs. Student-led investigations can find answers to questions all kids want to know: Does the butter side of the bread always land facing the floor? Do blondes have more fun? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?

Finally, cognitive dissonance is created by a dedicated teacher who challenges the students' beliefs about their own capacity to learn. That teacher dares students to not be bucked off by accepting mediocrity or low performance.

We have an advantage over the bull riders, though. There are times when we can reason with the students -- when a teacher sits down with a student and reviews individual learning goals and asks, "Are you where you want to be?" "If not, what do you need to do?" "How can I help you reach your goal?"

The buzzer sounds, so to speak, and the teacher can then count that as a successful ride on one of the most energetic animals in the business!

What effective things do you do to cinch rope your students into active learning?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (39)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must say, your analogy using the cinch rope caught my attention. It is when we are somewhat uncomfortable that we are often most alert to what is being said...in this case taught.
Using think alouds is a great way to engage students and begin dialogues into topics of interest. Students learn through discovery. Give them materials and they will come up with a way to manipulate them, create with them, or build a fascinating electrical circuit. Who knows!
We are often to quick to discredit students for what they know...assuming we know it all. I agree with one of your earlier writers, students are shocked when you tell them you are not sure of an answer...and be sincere about that. Once you say, 'let's investigate this further' you have their full attention. Why? Because you've just told them they matter...their questions and their thoughts are important.
Creating an enviroment where students have the ability to experiment with questions, with answers and the teacher facilitates promotes real learning.

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I'm not certain if I agree that teachers are paid to direct learning. Isn't it possible that teachers are paid to help students grow the capacity to direct their own learning?

Just a thought.

Andy Pass

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


"Think Alouds" are a cool concept! It seems a bit like metacognition but simply working thoughts verbally. I agree with you. It is rather presumptuous of us to assume that we know everything, or even most things. Inquiry is based on the fact that we don't. I just got back from an MIT college recruiting night and found out that freshman there get to do real research! Why can't we extend that idea further?

Thanks for the comments and keep inspiring those students!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Rowland Gaal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wish I had been more successful applying the cognitive dissonance concept in my science, engineering, and journalism classes while I was teaching in middle school. On those all too rare days, however ,I was blessed and excited with a glimpse of what learning could be. One such experience revolved around what I called the "Paper Structure" problem with the base question - How much weight can be supported by a single sheet of copy paper? I set a few parameters on how the paper was to be hung/supported then using a paper clip and a one pound fishing weight attempted to hook the weight laden paper clip over the sheet of copy paper with a resulting zip and tear with the weight crashing to the floor with a thump. Then I proclaimed that one set of students in the past had supported 8 pounds of weight using only pieces of wooden dowel , short lengths of 18 gage aluminum wire, eight pounds of fishing sinkers, a paper punch, scissor, and that lonely sheet of paper. Off they went for a week of exploration. These middle school kids universally were focused, excited, and self directed for that entire week. They shared, experimented, collaborated, asked questions, and learned to live with and grow from continual 'failures'. What sparked the activity was 'cognitive dissonance'. I must add, though, that showmanship as a set up to initiate the process is important in the contrived atmosphere of the classroom. I used, modified and evolved this activity over 5 years and 60 different classes of students. It was universally effective. Incidentally, the idea for this activity came from and Annenberg sponsored project I viewed one day on PBS. I've just retired, and venturing into 'blogging'. www.thoughts-after-60.blogspot.com/

Rowland Gaal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I share your disappointment with where kids 'seem to be' and what schools often seem to do to dampen enthusiasm, or the degree we as teachers/schools need to provoke our students to get them into gear. However, schools are a contrived environment for learning, where as learning does, should, and could take place at all times and in all places as we live our life. I would ask the question: do most of our actions, and maybe all of all learning during life initiate with cognitive dissonance? If this is so, then shouldn't the classroom attempt to emulate the world beyond its walls? Is it not cognitive dissonance that might be the the kindling or pilot light that prompts all learning? Historically, what promoted learning before the classroom and professional teacher, and more personally what promoted all the learning you and I acquired from the instant of birth until we experienced the professional teacher? Thanks for your though provoking analysis. The synergy of such a dialog is were learning and discovery arise.

Howard Knights's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe they are paid to guide (direct?) learning along a prescribed curriculum. Along the continuum, it is expected that students will imbued with skills for "independent" learning.

Howard Knights

jennifer hill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your thoughts on lessons being meaningful to kids. For them to retain real information we, as teachers, have to hook them somehow, so that what we are teaching goes past short term learning to long term learning. To be effective we do have to make students think and find out for themselves. Last year one of my co-workers tried letting the students "teach" to see if it would help them retain the information better. I have heard many times that if a student can explain the concept to someone else then they really have a good understanding. As the children taught in my co-workers classroom, they began to make more solid connections with each concept. It was amazing to watch the lightbulb go on so to speak.
If we have these kind of high expectations of our kids, that they know the concept well enough to teach it to someone else, then I think that the students will achieve the goals that we have set for them as well as achieve the goals they have set for themselves.

Margaret Theonnes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thanks for the amazing visualization of the cinch rope. I love getting my students out of their comfort zone. It never occurred to me that I was using the cinch rope on them.

Now I am taking classes and the cinch rope is being applied to me. The cognitive dissonance that you describe I am now encountering. I am having to look at everything I do as a teacher and reflect on its impact. This is something that I haven't done on a consistent basis as a teacher and I realize how important it is to my craft.

How am I to improve as a teacher if I am not constantly evaluating what it is I am doing. Apply the cinch rope to myself I guess.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Margaret Theonnes
4/5 Grade Combo

Jenn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, I am curious...what are you thoughts about Expeditionary Learning? Engaging kids and empowering them with their own learning about topics that they are interested in. I am just learning about it myself and have found it to be inspiring. Students collaborate with one another and community members and work to create a final project.

Danita Matthews's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for reminding teachers to apply the "cinch rope" to ourselves as well. In the daily grind, this is often forgotten. We should ask ourselves the question, "If I were a student, would this be a classroom I would want to enter each day for learning?" That would cause each of us to evaluate our craft and to become more effective at teaching in such a manner that the students would want to participate.

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