KEVIN’S BLOG Roll but don’t forget to bump (make it desirably difficult)

December 1, 2018
Kevin's Blog, Research,

Do you know what an ensō is? Here’s one:

In Zen Buddhism the ensō is a symbol of enlightenment. The artist paints it in one single brush stroke or occasionally two. The circle can be complete or have a bit of a gap or a bump. It’s the latter I’m interested in. It denotes a lack of perfectionism, an openness to the world outside or that the wheel shouldn’t roll too easily.
You could use it as a metaphor for learning. A wheel with a bump. Or a series of wheels with bumps. You could have fun making up and illustrating your own metaphors for learning, but the wheels with bumps one suits December’s research of the month, Elizabeth L. Bjork’s and Robert Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties.
The idea of a desirable difficulty arises from Bjork’s and Bjork’s research on cognitive psychology. They talk about learning as a deep process that changes knowledge or understanding in the long term, in contrast to short term retrieval. If learners aim for short term retrieval, they can become dependent on poor learning conditions. Better learning conditions tend to interrupt normal practices, so though desirable, they’re difficult.
Bjork and Bjork argue that sites and types of learning should be varied, which is demanding. It means different rooms, different kinds of room, different kinds of space and different kinds of location such as indoor or outdoor; analytic tasks, creative tasks, individual tasks, group ones, and so on. If you’re feeling bumps but not wheels so far, consider Bjork’s and Bjork’s next point, that learning should be spaced or distributed – that is, that you should return to topics at periodic intervals rather than just cramming one topic for rapid gain. Building on this, they go on to say that topics should be interleaved with others, to develop comparison, contrast and higher-order thinking. Tests are important and can be used for learning not assessment: learners need to know what they know and take control over their future learning.
I can understand why there’s such interest in cognitive psychology amongst teachers. Ideas such as Bjork’s and Bjork’s feature frequently at conferences and I’m finding that they’re received enthusiastically when I present them. They invite teachers to plan imaginatively, offering ways to stretch and challenge learners and engage them with the richer aspects of subjects. On the Research for RE website’s report of Bjork’s and Bjork’s research we’ve said that RE teachers might apply it by, for example, introducing parallel studies of one religious tradition with another, or revisiting studies of one part-way through another. Varying the location of learning should include plenty of visits outside school. Again, this is demanding, but can be approached in an open-minded, anti-perfectionist way, where you can try out different ideas and see where they lead. If it goes too smoothly you may be missing something.
The ensō image is from
Elizabeth L. Bjork’s and Robert Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties is reported on the Research for RE website at


Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust