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Challenging Students to Think More Deeply

| Ben Johnson

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?

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Comments (39)

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Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Fellow Athletes

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Kirsten:

I understand you comments and appreciate the conversation. After all, that is what this was supposed to do--inspire conversation.

I just want to reiterate, and I believe the Professional Bull Riding Association will back me up. Bull riding is not a contest of dominance. It is a contest between two highly trained athletes. Yes, the cowboys are trained to hang on for dear life, but the bulls are also groomed and trained to jump and gyrate. The crowds cheer the bulls just as much as they cheer the cowboys.

I was not thinking of including anything about Power-over as part of the analogy, but there is a bit of that too in education. Basic classroom management demands that the teacher establish dominance over the student--the teacher has to be in control. Most of the times the teacher wins, but sometimes the students do. In healthy classroom environments, this is not an adversarial relationship, just as the bulls are not usually interested in goring the cowboy, once they have been bucked off. Students, especially younger ones, don't usually hold grudges, and as long as the teacher is willing to let water under the bridge flow, then they are too. Any good teacher will chalk it up to experience and try to take control of the learning momentum the next day.

Now, if you have taught older students (starting with junior high), the bull riding experience takes on a more poignant significance. Sometimes the teacher is hanging on for dear life, especially if he or she is a new teacher. I work with charter schools too, and getting junior high and high school students to engage is much more of a challenge. A sure fire way to help get control back is the use of the cinch. Cognitive dissonance is not so much a method of control, but a method of channeling the students energies in ways that are productive for the students and the teacher. If you can divert the students' attention long enough to get them to engage in the learning, then that is a full 8 second successful ride. Unfortunately, like the professional bull riders, that does not happen often enough.

It takes deliberate planning, unfailing determination and precise execution to get students to use their higher order thinking capabilities, but the results are incontrovertible. Students simply remember better when they have made discoveries, asked questions or synthesized information. Providing cognitive dissonance is one way to get them to do that.

I am glad that you are open to other points of view and constantly seeking out new ways to improve your instruction as evidenced by your participation here. I am curious about your book- is it written from the teacher perspective being wounded, or the student perspective?

Anyway, Thanks for sharing.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Sharon Gillespie (not verified)

Challenging Students to Think More Deeply

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Interesting article. You do want to challenge students to think. I've noticed most students "buck" cognitive challenges because they are rarely given the opportunity to do so; Parents may say "shut-up" too often; Teachers follow scripted instructions, and few resources to engage students long enough to question, research and discover the answers are available.

Deep thinking is completely foreign to many students. I present the class with questions where we have to discover the answers together (as an earlier post mentioned).

I remember a student once said, "You already know the answer. Just tell us what it is." I assured that student I did not. I think the kids were bowled-over by that. I wanted to practice "thinking out-loud" with them If you can't get a student to think then the student is only "remembering" just enough to pass a test.

I like the idea of presenting them with statements that challenge them to think just a little bit more than they did before.

Kirsten Olson (not verified)

The stance I prefer as a teacher

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Ben, I like the idea of the cinch rope, and I appreciate the colorful image you've created around cognitive dissonance and teaching. But here's the stance I prefer to take as a teacher: I'm going to learn along with you about this interesting thing I'm/we're confused about--not that you have to buck me off your back to get free (student). I don't think the idea of battle, or curiosity being so difficult to rouse, or busting loose of the teacher, is my idea of powerful learning.

Even if I've already worked through a problem my students are in (to my own satisfaction, at least at that moment), if the issue we're trying to learn about is good and powerful and important, I can get right with them in partnering around the need to know. I can journey along with them, if they want, prompting and complicating, but not necessarily cinching.

I love the cinch-y risk you've taken here, but as others have commented, this seems to put a power-over dynamic into the mix that I honestly don't think provokes learning for many kids. But I want to hear more from you! And I hope I've made myself clear.

Kirsten (author of Wounded By School)

Carol (not verified)

Metaphors

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I heard long ago at an educational conference that "change is painful". We don't change unless provoked(by hunger, fear, pain, desire). Being born, growing, dieing all require us to change and it is sometimes painful. We 'change' to avoid the pain of other natural processes. The 'pain - change' connection seems logical from that perspective.

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

System failures

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Grayson:

Thanks so much for deeply thinking about this. This kind of introspection is the hallmark of a professional educator who "get's it".

I too, am disappointed in some of our classes and schools. I am in the hallways and the classrooms of elementary schools nearly everyday, and I see these young, smart minds, forced to sit silent, immobile, waiting their turn. I walked down the hall today and smiled at the kindergarten students who sat with their heads down, obediently holding bubbles in their mouths (cheeks puffed out and lips pursed). They looked at me at first curiously, and then smiled back and waved. I felt compassion for them. They should be having fun learning instead of being rebuked for stepping out of line or talking.

In their attempt to control the students, misguided but well meaning teachers and aides eradicate joy, creativity, curiosity and independent thought. Too many times, those few students don't see the reason to comply with the control, those with independent thoughts, they are labeled as troublemakers and antagonistic relationships ensue, making things worse.

My theory is that by 5th grade, students who can abide the mind numbing obedience training-discipline of elementary school and who have found a measure of academic success will do well in school. The other students who have resisted the "socialization" process have resigned themselves to not liking school and thus begins the battle against teachers and the academic establishment.

What is interesting is that the above dire situation can exist in one classroom, and a vibrant, energetic zest for learning and discovery can flourish across the hall. The teacher is the key. My hat goes off to all those teachers who refused to treat students with anything less than exuberant enthusiasm and wonder. All teachers should do this and we wouldn't have to trick students into learning-- they would demand meaningful learning experiences from their teachers.

Thanks for the comments and great thoughts.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Grayson (not verified)

Re: Metaphors

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Thanks for the response Ben.

I don't think that I missed your point. It was actually quite clear.

I guess I just find the idea that we, as teachers, need to poke, prod, provoke,incite or "cinch" students in order to get them to want to learn is a little disappointing.

I'm disappointed not because, I suspect, I completely disagree with you. I'm disappointed because our schools may be partly responsible for dampening some of the natural zest for learning with which our children come into this world. You only need to hang out with young kids to know this is true.

Again, an interesting discussion!

Grayson (not verified)

Re:Metaphors

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Thanks for the response Ben.

I don't think that I missed your point. It was actually quite clear.

I guess I just find the idea that we, as teachers, need to poke, prod, provoke,incite or "cinch" students in order to get them to want to learn is a little disappointing.

I'm disappointed not because, I suspect, I completely disagree with you. I'm disappointed because our schools may be partly responsible for dampening some of the natural zest for learning with which our children come into this world. You only need to hang out with young kids to know this is true.

Again, an interesting discussion!

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Metaphors

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Grayson:

Thank you for your comments. I want to assure you that no pejorative intent towards students or bulls was involved in creation of this post. In fact, rodeo animals and students are extremely well taken care of and enjoy privileged status around here. I believe you may have missed the whole point of what I was trying to say, however.

The main purpose of a teacher is not just to convey information, but to motivate the students to acquire that information as an integral part of their knowledge construct. The metaphor with the l300 pound bull is that it takes quite a bit of effort sometimes to get the student's attention. Just as in bull riding, this must be done with quite a bit of preparation, care and concern. The bull, just like many of the students, just show up with no plan in mind. The teacher's job is to incite a learning reaction in those students, that will cause them to vigorously pursue knowledge.

When you playfully tease a grandchild by telling them that we have to go harvest spaghetti stalks in order to have dinner, is that "annoying" the child or is it creating cognitive dissonance which will lead the child to investigate where spaghetti really does come from?

I did make the assumption that the teacher is in control of the situation and deliberately targets key misunderstandings based on pretest data of his or her students. A teacher can always be more prepared and gain more knowledge, and should be actively engaged in doing so. Unfortunately, as you alluded to, the system is set up to encourage aspiring teachers who have difficulty with content (mainly math and science), to seek positions in the elementary and primary grades. The early grades are where we need the most prepared teachers. This is not to say the other grade levels do not have their share of unprepared teachers--but those are easier to spot and convince to move to another profession at the upper levels.

I too want to see expert teachers who know where the cognitive dissonance "sweet spots" are.

Good luck in getting your students to think!

Sincerely,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Grayson (not verified)

Re: That's a lot of bull!

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I love the discussion about cognitive dissonance; for me the real dissonance comes in trying to negotiate the metaphors that you use. The connection between bulls and students will be seen, by some, to be rather offensive. I don't think that the idea of annoying our students into learning is really not what the idea of creating cognitive dissonance is all about. Finally, the imagery presented assumes that the teacher is in full possession of a deep understanding of the material being taught. In my experience, this is often not the case. How many teachers do you know that admit to a lack of expertise in an assigned subject area? Instead of expertly being able to sense where that "sweet spot" of cognitive dissonance lies, there are many who close their doors and hope that their own lack of understanding remains undetected.

I think that this is an important conversation to have, but I found it difficult to get by some of the images of teaching and learning that your main metaphor uses. Applied to one student in one class, perhaps, but extend your thinking over an entire class of 25-30...that's a lot of bull(s)!

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