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Challenging Students to Think More Deeply

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (39) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Beverly Barker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is such an interesting analogy of the cinch rope. I just attended a gifted and talented workshop here in Corpus Christi and the instructor implied the same thing about dissonance. She stated you need to keep the students uncomfortable so they will be accountable and ready. She said the best teaching she did was when the students were running the class when she grouped them in the inside/outside circle where the outside circle gave the question and the inside circle had to discuss the lesson they just read. It was amazing at the level and depth of conversation that the class took. We do need to take ourselves out of the picture and make them responsible for their learning. Her point was she just sat in the corner of the room and monitored.

Lolita Blackwell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that as teachers we must have high expectations for our students. We must also create lessons that will challenge our students' thought process. I love the analogy of the bull.

Vicki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also thank you for the reminder to employ the cinch rope as tool to improve my own instruction within the classroom. After reading Garmston's "Becoming an Expert Teacher" I cannot help but think that the personal cinch rope is the constant reminder to build upon my "cognitive processes of instruction" thereby increasing the engagement of the students within the classroom.

According to Garmston teachers who operate on a higher conceptual level are more accommodating to the needs of all learners and allow for a wider perception of what learning looks like in the classroom (1998). He goes on to explain that those same teachers also operate with greater efficiency which is something we all can appreciate.

By refusing to return to the go-to approaches day in and day out we have the ability to cinch the rope and disrupt the routine in order to expose our students to a broader array of strategies to accomplish learning within the classroom, but we must remember to do this for ourselves also. I agree with several of the previous posts that we must not accept mediocrity within the classroom, and that applies to both student and teacher.

Walden University

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


You know, I didn't even think about using the "cinch rope" on myself as a teacher. Bravo! I know I learn more when I am motivated to find out what something is. Just the other day, we were in the hospital with my daughter who just gave birth to a premature baby, and I was cinched rather tightly. We were celebrating with my daughter who is ok, and assumed the child was too, until we went into see the poor child struggle to stay alive. In those few minutes after that shock, I learned more about the way oxygen, and nitric oxide work on underdeveloped lungs than I could have learned reading 10 text books.

As a teacher, I like mixing things up. Yesterday, I was so pleased with a young teacher who had to transport her students from the library when she helped them pretend to be in a marching band with instruments, reminding them to pick up their knees, walk in rythm and stay in straight lines. Much better than, "I will yell at you or give you a mean look if you get out of line!"

It is great to do thing differently if they have a purpose. Most of all, have a blast with your students.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


Wow, especially with gifted students who sometime think they know it all, it is great to make them realize that they might not- not in a bad way of course. Socratic circles are awesome ways to get the students to feel cognitive dissonance and want to learn. Don't forget that the learning cannot end at the discussion, they have to leave the Socratic Circle wanting to learn more.

The teacher might sit back and not interfere in class, but the real work happens in the preparation of the next lesson.

Thanks for reading and keeping your own learning up!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Barbi Foster's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The vivid description was a perfect. I also believe that the adreline rush the cowboy feels is the similar to the "ah ha " moment a student feels when their thinking has been challenged and they have success.

Pushing students out of the comfort level they are accustomed to is a true life skill. In the safe environment of a classroom, students may feel more ocmpelled to push themselves out of the zone of comfort later in their own learning.

What a thought provoking comparison!

Tabitha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In schools now days, there are many areas that we as teachers have an opportunity to enhance students learning and their level of thinking. It is so very important that students are encouraged to answer high order thinking questions. This encourages the learner to access prior knowlege and current knowledge in order to answer questions verbally and to provide better written responses as well.

Vernris Simon - Frederick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey Ben,

Love your analogy. I actually use the cinch rope quite often in my classes. I teach General science content and methods to prospective teachers who are pursuing their Bachelor's Degree. I love creating dissonance and then watching as my students challenge each other and defend their positions. It makes for some really stimulating class discussions.

My fascination is now with the concept of using the cinch rope on myself. I think I do that from time to time but never intentionally. From now onwards I'll be making a conscious effort to do so. Thanks for the creating the avenue for this idea to blossom!

Trinidad and Tobago

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

The reason we have school in the first place is to save time, so students do not have to discover everything themselves. I am all in favor of students exploring, discovering and inquiring but we do not have time to let them do it all the time. Besides- hang on to your hats- that is exactly opposite of what students are taught to do in elementary schools' "sit down, shut up and do what I tell you." mentality, so significant de-socialization would have to take place first. I propose some intermediate solutions. Let's do small expeditions in controlled environments.
Effective "Expeditionary" learning still needs an effective teacher who can create a learning environment for students to explore. As you probably guessed, once a student is cinched, then they are ready to start exploring because they are motivated.

Just curious, where are you learning about Expeditionary Learning?

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Sherry Ainslie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are many students who just want to know what the answer is and look to the teacher for all the answers. I think that getting students to that uncomfortable place, with the understanding they need to look to each other to reason/research their answer, is how we raise achievement. I loved your analogy of not giving up on students or accept below level work and not getting bucked off the bull. It is at that point of discomfort that the brain is getting ready to learn something new.

Sherry Ainslie
Walden University

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