• The Knox School of Santa Barbara

Thinking or Remembering?

by Ian Byrd



Here’s a really simple test for any task that we put before students:

Am I asking students to think or just remember?

It sounds silly, but the more I consider it, the more interesting this distinction gets. How often are kids presented with tasks that force them to think rather than just remember information?

On a spectrum of pure remembering to hard thinking, how would you rank those tasks? Why?

1. Is this an igneous or sedimentary rock?

2. Explain why George Washington was a great president.

3. Multiply 125 × 73.

4. What is the theme of Hamlet?

5. I have 40 students and 12 busses, how many students go on each bus?

6. Which character in this story is the bravest?

7. Compare and contrast Islam and Judaism.

8. Which of the Greek city-states was most powerful?

9. What is the difference between a need and a want?

10. What is the role of a consumer in an ecosystem?

Before you move on, seriously do this. Decide which ones require thinking and which ones rely only on memory.

Now, be careful. Thinking doesn’t mean “hard.” For example, 125 × 73 might be hard for a first-grader, but it’s only because they haven’t memorized the algorithm. Once you know the steps, is there actual thinking or just remembering?

What Does Thinking Look Like?

One of my favorite things in workshops is to ask a group of people (students or teachers) to show me what thinking looks like. Go ahead. Try it. What does thinking look like?

Most people put their pencils down and put their hands to their mouths or scratch their heads or stroke their beards. People tend to lean back into their seats and look up at the ceiling. There’s a lot of gentle hmmms. Thinking looks passive. It looks like you’re not doing anything. To really think, you even might close your eyes.

Consider this: if a lesson doesn’t get kids to put their pencils down and look up at the ceiling quietly, those students might not be thinking. If the same students are “early finishers” every day, they probably aren’t thinking (and here’s why that term needs to go away!). If everyone is getting the same answer, there may be a lack of real thinking going on.

Thinking is slow. It’s messy. And it leads to unexpected answers.


Here are a few additional thoughts about Thinking versus Remembering.

1. Remembering Is Important

There’s a reason “remember” is at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy – it’s the foundation for all levels. Yes, it’s low-level, but it is also essential. We cannot do higher-level thinking without using our memory. So asking students to remember isn’t wrong, but memorization must serve a higher purpose! We can start with “remember” but we darn well shouldn’t end there.

2. Difficult ≠ Thinking

If a task appears difficult, that doesn’t necessarily mean students are thinking. Reciting the US state capitols in alphabetical order is difficult, but it’s not thinking. It’s still just remembering. Multiplying two six-digit numbers is hard, but it’s also just a lot of remembering steps and math facts. So don’t assume that “challenging” means thinking (and here’s why I think “challenging” isn’t really the right goal).

3. Fancy Products ≠ Thinking

If a student writes and records a song listing the US capitols alphabetically in GarageBand, films a music video against a green screen, edits a beach into the background, then posts it on YouTube… this was still just a remember level of interacting with the content! Yes, thinking occurred – but it was all about the product, not the content. This isn’t necessarily bad, but be aware that an impressive final product does not mean students necessarily thought about the content. My pal Lisa and I like to say that differentiation is what students are doing with their brains, not their hands.

4. Explaining ≠ Thinking

Right above “remember” is “understand” on Bloom’s Taxonomy. At this level, students might “explain their reasoning.” But this level is often just remembering in paragraph form. Check out this question:

Which animal is better at swimming, a dog or a dolphin? Explain why.

This question goes beyond a one-word answer, but… come on. Does this really require thinking? Just because we ask for an explanation doesn’t mean that students did any real thinking. “Explain why…” doesn’t make something a high-level question.

5. Thinking Really Helps Remembering

The irony of this topic is that focusing purely on memorizing is a really weak way to get information into long-term memory. Thinking benefits memory more than memorization does! As Daniel Willingham says in the wonderful Why Don’t Students Like School?,

Memory is the residue of thought.

The more kids really think about content, the better they’ll remember it in the long run! I have forgotten everything I memorized using flashcards in school, but I can easily recall those topics that truly engaged my thinking. When we ask for “thinking,” we’ll get memory for free.


This Is Differentiation

Getting kids’ brains sweating is, to me, the core of differentiation: am I pushing my students to a point where they really have to think? A differentiated lesson has been adjusted so that all students have to think. And they should be thinking hard enough to need a little help. Until they need that little bit of help, they’re not in their Zone of Proximal Development.

I can tell you that I, personally, made it until the end of high-school and into college before I was confronted with the kind of thinking that made my brain sweat (and I’m certainly not the only one!). That’s way too late to have to learn to think. Kids should be in their zone of proximal development starting in kindergarten!

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