In my ongoing struggle to help my students make sense of their own mistakes, I sometimes hear them say that the reason they misapplied a skill is that they were “overthinking.”  I’ve always had a hard time responding to this.  I’m not even sure I know exactly what they mean by it, and when I try to have the conversation, I get the impression that there are so many hidden assumptions that we’re not communicating well.

I want them to focus on the quality of their thinking, not the amount, so I find the conversation frustrating.  If I were to try to put myself in their place, here are some possible translations:

  • Is their meaning of “overthinking” similar to my meaning of “close reading”?
  • “Over”-thinking… too much thinking?
  • Thinking carefully might bring up new possibilities that you can neither support nor contradict.  If we’re in class when it happens, it probably causes perplexity.  If the student is in a test when it happens, their inability to either test the new possibilities or ask questions about them is probably really frustrating — a frustration that they blame on the thinking itself
  • Thinking carefully (or a lot?) makes you start noticing complexity and nuance.  If you are noticing them for the first time, they may distract your mind away from the things you used to think about, making a familiar landscape seem unfamiliar.
  • Is this related to the level of abstraction?  If students are used to reasoning within an abstraction that they accepted but did not build (in other words, they did not choose to simplify or remove information — the model was given to them that way), then thinking closely might cause them to notice one of the other “rungs” of the abstraction ladder, which could change the pattern of their reasoning.

I’m going to try to pay closer attention to this in the coming year.  In the meantime, it came up in class today and I was finally pleased with how I responded.

We had just finished doing the bicycle experiment inspired by Rebecca Lawson’s research.  Students look at  stick-drawing bicycles and have to pick the one that most resembles an actual bike.  Lots of people were surprised at how difficult it was.  One brave students shared “I don’t know why, but I thought the chain ran from wheel to wheel.”  We talked a bit about how easy it is to feel familiar with things, and genuinely know a lot about them, while not noticing what we don’t know.  I then moved on to the next topic — the importance of double-checking what we read, hear, and remember.

I was talking about how memory can be misleading.  I used the example of the feeling you have when you walk into a test feeling confident, then sit down and realize you can’t solve the question.   The same student fell back on what seemed to be a tried-and-true way of thinking, commenting, “Isn’t it true that a lot of times you overthink things, and you should just stick with your first instinct?”

My reply was to ask gently, “How did it work out with the bicycle?”

I went on to say that what I expected from them was not more thinking nor less thinking, but technician thinking.  Too much food can make you sick and so can too little.  The wrong kind of food for your situation can also be bad.  Similarly, our goal is not certain quantity of thought, but a certain kind — particular habits of mind based on particular specialized skills and ideas.  We’ll see how this supports our conversations in the future.