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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

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


When I taught Spanish, I wanted to help the students not only learn the language but also the culture. When I lived in Mexico, I found that for every situation, the people had a saying or dicho that would explain why it occurred. One of my favorites, for obvious reasons as a teacher, was "En boca cerrada, no entra mosca." (In closed mouth, a fly does not enter). I found it astounding that the students had difficulty, not so much with the Spanish language of the dichos, but with the visual imagery and the analogous meaning. The problem was not alleviated at all if I found a corollary refrain in English; the students simply did not understand what a rolling stone not gathering moss had to do with them.

I did notice, however, that after doing a journal exercise about a dicho every day, that the students started to get the hang of how to look at the meaning behind the words and imagery. They came up with new meanings applied to modern times more easily as time went on. Eventually, they were able to coin their own refrains for their own situations.

Just as the cowboy and the bull are very used to the routine, students, if given the chance, will surprise us on how well they respond to cognitive dissonance challenging their thinking.

Good luck with getting your student to think out of the pen. (grin)

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Shawn L's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading your submission reminded me of the value I've found in using "clickers" to teach new material. I find conceptual physics questions that get at the heart of the matter (and are often contrary to fragile understanding, like "neglecting air resistance, which falls faster: a hammer or a feather"). Students vote electronically on the multiple choice questions, see the responses and answer, and then WANT to learn the real answer and why. I have the full attention of the class for the explanation, far better than I would have had without the voting aspect. And the effectiveness was very clear when we reviewed at the end of the year. Students scored better with the "clickers" even months later than they had the first couple of times we went through them.

The voting is as anonymous as the students let it be. But the chance to be wrong in a game creates discomfort that is both harmless and effective. Scores are much better when we do the same review days later.


James Dinwiddie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think a "cinch rope" on a tortured animal is a really poor analogy for learning, and I don't agree that creating cognitive dissonance is a good motivator. What motivation theory (needs, motivation-hygiene, attribution, self-efficacy, equity, goal setting, etc.)have you referenced for your theory? Which school of education are you drawing from? This seems like a really bad example of quasi-educational theory.

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


Thanks for being able to look beyond the analogy and get to the point of my message. Student response systems are magnificent tools to get students to start thinking, especially when some analysis of the answers from the class is done: eg..."Why did 25% of you answer the following...?"

Keep up the good work.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,

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


Thanks for reading my post. I believe that I have defended the analogy sufficiently to show it has merit for discussion.

The motivation theory I proposed is cognitive dissonance. You are welcome to "google" it and learn about it for yourself. The good thing about it is that it promotes intrinsic learning within the student rather than depending on the teacher for all the answers.

My post motivated you to write something, perhaps it will motivate you to look into the facts about either professional bull riding or cognitive dissonance. Learning could occur.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Joseph's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ben,

I've been following this thread of discussion with interest. As I reach the end of my teaching career, and I look back on my experience in the classroom, I can identify times where your analogy has seemed to be an apt description of the dynamic between student and teacher.

But, I didn't want to spend any more time with the analogy (I sense that you are becoming a little irritated with some of the resistance to it). Instead I wanted to suggest that many learning theories that we are attempting to integrate into effective practice were never meant to be prescriptive, as much as they were meant to describe what happens when learning actually takes place. I think that this is true of the motivational theory referred to as cognitive dissonance. For me, it describes the psychological dynamic at work when cognitive structures are sufficiently disturbed and "settled" once again.

It is often difficult to move a theory that "describes learning" into a set of strategies designed to "ensure learning".

Each of our students comes to us with a different understanding of the world. To plug into each of these understandings and strive to "disturb" the cognitive structure of each student would be extremely difficult.

I have always liked the theory of cognitive dissonance, but I would venture to say that most of the stuff that really moves us to another level of thinking happens outside of schools, and will likely remain as the true indicator that education is not synonymous with schooling!

Thanks for your work, and your ideas!


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


Thanks for the words and the insight into my state of being. In both cases you are right on target. Thank you for clarifying that cognitive dissonance describes a ripe learning situation and by itself is not prescriptive. This gets me thinking about what other fertile learning states exist and how teachers can use the many tools they have at their command to bring students to these raised learning potentials.

I feel a new blog post coming along.

Thanks for the ideas and the interest.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

kathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think sometimes teachers are so focused on getting through a lesson, they just follow a script and forget the fact that students do not learn unless the lesson is meaningful to them. Students do not learn in a teacher-centered environment. Teachers have to make them think, question, analyze, and formulate their own theories to explain their predictions. They need to actively process and build on what they already know.

I agree with you that a dedicated teacher does not accept mediocrity from their students. Dedicated teachers expect the best and have high expectations. Students need to believe that it takes effort to succeed.

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


You have put some thought into this topic and I would like to add a clarification if possible. The phrase teacher-centered instruction is over used and now implies more than was originally intended with the coinage of the words.

I prefer to us teacher-directed (as opposed to student-directed). The subtle difference is that it is not a bad thing anymore.

The teacher has to direct, after all, that is what we get paid to do. Within that teacher direction exists autonomous bubbles of learning environments that are student-directed. For example, elementary teachers use learning labs or activity centers which are student-directed learning centers. A teacher's role therefore, is not to dominate or completely control every aspect of the student learning, but to create learning environments (bubbles) in which students can direct their own learning.

When teachers set high expectations, that is a form of teacher-direction that is absolutely productive. Helping students to believe is also teacher-direction. Thanks for your enthusiasm and dedication.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Bethanne L.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree that many students are not given the change to explore their own thoughts on any given topic. Sometimes, teachers are so focused on getting the grades in or getting through a lesson plan, so the class can move on to the next topic, that they lose the whole reason behind why we are teaching.

Every so often when more is piled on my plate to teach in my language arts class, I realize that I can't always make it through every topic and that's okay because chances are that I won't be able to relate many of those points to the students' live which is where the learning truly lies. When you start relating content to personal experiences and their own lives, true thinking is reached. They become problem solvers.

Just today I was helping a student in my study hall answer a question in a history packet, and he clearly needed help deciphering the questions. As I read the question to him, he complained to me that he couldn't find the world "civilization" in the paragraph--a key word that would signal the answer in the text. The problem was that he couldn't find the answer because it was his own opinion the teacher was asking for. I read and reread the question to him, and out of frustration, he kept asking me what the answer was.

The question truly asked him to synthesize the information, but either he didn't know how or he didn't want to do it. Either way, chances are that he wasn't asked to think deeply about anything quite often enough.

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