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Don’t Just Learn There, Think Something!

How we need to have students doing more than learning and recalling to get their brains hurting

It’s a curious thing but I can’t remember ever hearing the phrase ‘My brain hurts’ when I was a classroom teacher, yet it’s a phrase I hear all the time when I am working with young people these days.

But then, these days, I’m not trying to teach them anything. I’m trying to make them think.

The question of whether learning was a subset of thinking — or was it the other way around? — had vexed me a long time and the main reason I had come into the wonderful education profession was to help young people improve their thinking skills.

Or was I helping them to improve their learning skills?

Do we teach thinking to young people as a way of improving their learning or would we do better to teach children how to learn in order to improve their ability to think.

After all, as the advocates of a knowledge-based curriculum point out regularly, you have to have something to think about.

Or do you?

As an advocate of Philosophy for Children and the man responsible for those Thunks that so many teachers are using around the world to get children’s brains hurting, a good place to start when looking for answers is with a bit of a philosophical think and a great virtual tool for thinking about thinking is to take advantage of a new-born baby, in particular its brain.

An obvious Thunk to set the ball rolling here would be, does a baby think?

Testable Nuggets

In order to attempt an answer — and it’s not about whether the answer is right or wrong but what you consider the response to be, not what you have learned but what you think — you need to start reflecting on the nature of babies, thinking and thought and about how we might know one way or the other.

By ridding ourselves of the pesky need to quickly and efficiently get to the one correct answer so we can move on to learn the next testable nugget, we have to stop, and think, deeply, and, importantly, think for ourselves.

Once someone comes up with ‘an’ answer (which is different to ‘the’ answer, especially bearing in mind that the response to a Thunk can be yes, no, neither, both or something else) we need to interrogate it with further questions to see if their view either holds up or blows up.

In this example, if the suggestion is yes, babies do indeed think, we could hound the truth out of the response by asking follow-up questions such as:

        • When did the baby start thinking?
        • Was the baby thinking before it was physically born?
        • Does the baby know it is thinking?
        • Does a baby (or indeed anyone) direct its own thoughts?
        • And the million-dollar question, if a baby thinks, what does a baby think about?

Of course, even that question can be interrogated further as, perhaps, ‘thinking’ and ‘thinking about’ might be two distinct activities. In other words, and we’re back with the rabid Hirschians again, can you ‘think’ without ‘thinking about’?

And, of course again, if the initial response was no, a baby doesn’t think, then you need to harry such an answer with equal vigour so the truth comes out of hiding, if it is there at all.

        • So, when does it start thinking?
        • What makes it start thinking?
        • What is happening in its brain if there is no thinking going on?
        • If ‘I think therefore I am’, am I not until I start thinking?
        • Would the baby’s first thought be about itself or something outside of itself?

In this way, questions lead to questions and just when a brain is in the process of thankfully alighting on an answer, the world tilts again and the brain is left fluttering in space once more with nothing solid beneath its feet.


Another useful tool to stretch our thinking comes from understanding that, sometimes, in order to better understand the real world, we need to leave the real world behind.

This is a fact that Einstein and other great scientists know well, drawing on what are called ‘Gedankenexperiments’ — thought experiments, where crazy virtual rather than controlled actual experiments can be conducted, experiments constrained only by our imagination, not health and safety, ethics or the laws of physics.

The annals of science are full of such outlandish investigative thinking from a science lab in a lift falling through space to chasing a beam of light to euthanizing, or perhaps not, a cat.

So, going back to our newborn baby, what if the baby were born on a desert island with no human contact?

Or if we just left it in a state of suspension in a floatation tank with no sound or light for example?

Would it think without any stimulus to its thinking?

Do we learn thinking in our interactions with other living things, human or otherwise?

And then of course there’s the interplay between thought and language, highlighted by the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein when he stated that ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’.

While the research suggests (a phrase that marks the spot where science buries philosophical thinking) that we can think without words, what about metacognition?

Can we think about thinking without words?

Brain hurt yet?

But let’s take stock. What have you learned so far by reading this article, if anything? What have you thought so far? Have you thought anything or, at least, anything new? Is thinking something new the same as learning something new? What if you have you learned nothing? Or is learning you have learned nothing, learning something?

Socrates in the Classroom

Thinking in terms of questions rather than answers is what is known as a Socratic dialogue, based on the great philosopher’s approach to helping his students arrive at their own truths. It’s a process that travels deeply rather than quickly and can lead to intellectual frustration rather than the normal closure we get from walking away knowing the answer.

And that’s a good thing.

We live in a hugely uncertain world where, one where even our most up-to-date science cannot rescue us from uncertainty.

As Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman pointed out, ‘Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain’.

To be comfortable with uncertainty helps us get through the day each day. To insist on certainty is the quickest path to frustration and anxiety.

In my experience, it is our most academically-able children who are most unbalanced by uncertainty. They are the ones who queue up to ask me, at the end of a Thunks session during which I have made it clear that there are no right answers, what the answer really is. They are the ones who, when I put a Thunk to them, will sooner say ‘I don’t know’ than ‘Let me think’.

‘I know you don’t know’, I reply, ‘no-one knows. But tell me what you think?’

Rita Hayworth and George III

In the stampede away from learning styles to an allegedly more rarefied understanding of how we learn, we are prioritising how young people remember things more effectively and efficiently.

There is a clear link between memory and intelligence but there is more to intelligence than memory.

We would do well to remember that next time we are marvelling at how ‘clever’ someone is because they can remember, say, the life and films of Rita Hayworth or the daughters of George III.

Tell me five things that Rita Hayworth and George III have in common involves a knowledge — some memory of facts about — both but much more than just those memorised facts.

As does me asking you to tell me three places that Rita Hayworth and George III would go to on holiday together and why?

Or what can the one learn from the other and what can we learn from both?

When exploring the nature of intelligence and seeing how clever your students really are, it doesn’t take much effort to make the shift from asking them to recall other people’s facts to getting them to think for themselves.

Even if you reassess your definition of what makes someone clever from one that focuses on knowledge — what they can remember — to applied knowledge — what they do with what they can remember — there is still a risk that no real thinking will take place.

In the words of another great physicist, Denmark’s Niels Bohr, berating a student, ‘You’re not thinking, you’re just being logical’.

Again, a subtle shift in questioning can help us sort the pattern creators from the pattern recreators.

‘What number comes next and why in the sequence 2,4,6,8,…? is all well and good but how about ‘What animal comes next and why in the sequence goat, zebra, human,…?’ or even ‘What animal comes next in the sequence 2,4,6,8,… and why?’ to find the really clever ones.

Hairy Dendritic Sprouting

It is worth bearing in mind, too, that the human brain doesn’t really like thinking.

It’s one of the reasons why it loves answer so much. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking. Phew! Thank God that’s over with.

What’s more, your brain finds the conscious thinking of new thoughts an inefficient use of its valuable resources.

What it prefers is to do things without thought, conscious thought at least.

The process of learning involves not only a wiring up of brain cells and connections but also what is known as ‘neural pruning’, the getting rid of potential connections.

The adolescent brain is different from the brains of humans in a number of ways, one of which is that it is going through a process called ‘hairy dendritic sprouting’. The teenager’s dendrites — the connections between brain cells — are sprouting like mad as the brain prepares itself for whatever adulthood may throw at it but, without use, the connections will die off.

As adults, rather than having many potential neurological reactions to a particular stimulus, our brains have narrowed it down to the just what is absolutely needed to be able to move on quickly.

Habits are thus formed, the things we do without thinking, like putting on your trousers, eating toast and driving to work.

Habitually in that order.

They are the practically unconscious acts performed by a lazy brain.

It's not only physical habits we're discussing though. Mental habits are formed in the same way, but lazy thinking can bring with it more concerns than lazy doing.

‘Kids from round here’, ‘I’m rubbish at maths’, ‘What do you expect from "The French"?!’ are all examples of lazy cognitive habits, the things we think without thinking.

Which brings us back to the question vexing me at the top of this article.

"This is!"

If thinking makes our brain hurt and I don’t hear children complaining of brain ache in traditional lessons (wrist ache often, but not brain ache), does that imply that we can, indeed, learn without thinking?

And, does that imply, by extension, that we can think without learning?

And then there is a more telling question too — do we really need to think whilst learning if we can indeed learn without thinking?

Confucius Says

The quality of our education system in its current guise ultimately measured by the process of passing exams and exams, by their current nature, are better at measuring what is known (remembered) than what is thought.

Like the apocryphal exam student who simply wrote ‘This is!’ when asked the questions asked him to define courage, testing for independent thinking is clearly problematic.

In which case, getting children’s brains to hurt may not be what we want in the first place.

So, perhaps the system works better for all involved if we quietly get on and learn without thinking?

Although, if this is so, we would do well to bear in mind the thoughts of one of history’s greatest thinkers, Confucius, who said:

‘Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.’

Now, there is something for us all to think about. [ITL]

To find out more about booking Ian Gilbert for your school, college or organisation call us on 01267 211432 or drop us an email on

About the author

Ian Gilbert

Ian is an award-winning writer, editor, speaker, innovator and the founder of Independent Thinking. He has lived and worked in Europe, the Middle East, South America and Asia and is privileged to have such a global view of education and education systems.

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