The Problem with Cognitive Closure

In general, teachers want to make sure that their students are learning and thinking well, and we tend to get excited when students demonstrate their learning by answering questions correctly. But what happens when teachers reward students by validating their answers? Unfortunately, when we reward a student’s valid answer, that answer becomes the¬†answer, and the thinking in the classroom tends to stop at that point.

Picture yourself in a 9th grade classroom. The students are studying imperialism, reading George Orwell’s short essay, “Shooting an Elephant.” Desks are arranged in a large circle with students facing one another. The teacher is seated in the circle and wants to facilitate a robust class discussion about Orwell’s motivation for shooting the elephant and the nature of imperialism.

The teacher asks the class, “Why does Orwell shoot the elephant?”

After several seconds of contemplation, a student raises her hand and says, “I think Orwell shoots the elephant because he wants to save face in front of the locals.”

The teacher responds, “Very good,” validating the student’s response.

The student feels that she has done enough “work” in this class discussion. She has, after all, offered a correct answer, so she checks out of the discussion, relaxing into the background of the classroom environment. Other students are unwilling to raise additional answers, as the teacher has already validated what they perceive as the right answer rather than a potential correct answer.

In answering and validating the question, the thinking stops, and a dynamic opportunity has been wasted.

The problem with cognitive closure, or closing down the process of thinking-through what something may mean, is that students become intellectually passive, rather than developing a persistent and tenacious stance toward problem-solving. Cognitive closure is instant gratification. Thinking through multiple potentially correct answers requires a stick-with-it mentality that is central to developing critical thinking in a classroom.

About Kriko

I am an instructional specialist who works nationally with schools to improve the quality of instruction. My specialty is in inquiry-based teaching and learning and I am particularly interested in the habits of mind and persistent questioning techniques that cultivate a critical thinking mindset.
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