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'Floundering Intelligently''

Updated: Dec 11, 2019


Students must Flounder Intelligently...

Prof Guy Claxton has used the phrase ‘floundering intelligently’ to describe how we hope our students would respond when confronted with a challenge that requires them to think in genuinely new ways.

We need to consider the redesign of how we think about education to produce global citizens as many students are no longer in tandem with global standards. Many students are going to the universities to do Masters degrees and PhD’s for traditional, mundane and wrong reasons; there are many Master’s and PhD project works that have been dumped in the ‘heap of academic refuse’, in our academic libraries, because they were done, not to proffer solutions to problems, but rather to add to the academic degrees of the recipients.

Think about how often lessons really force students into this state of 'Floundering Intelligently' and how doing more of this might help to make academics a better preparation for the future lives of our learners. Subsequently, co-curricular activities beyond the classroom might often (currently) provide better opportunities to ‘flounder intelligently’ than actual academic courses do: this is part of the fraught and messy nature of real-world learning!


Prof Claxton’s concept of ‘floundering intelligently’ initially arose in relation to the difficulties that successful academic students encounter during ‘Oxbridge’ interviews: a context which certainly demands this sort of productive and purposeful uncertainty to ‘Flounder Intelligently’; to ’think on your feet’, as it were!

Hence, ‘’Floundering Intelligently’’ can loosely be translated to ‘’thinking on your feet’’. This has nothing to do with IQ. Giving up the knowledge and expertise you think you see the world through opens a smart space to ‘Flounder intelligently’! Fresh eyes. Tolerating uncertainty. Learning agility. Persistence. Questioning the familiar…

These all allow students to Flounder Intelligently. These are moments of truth that reveal a fluid intelligence; a fresh perspective, a glimpse into the non-automotive responses that students (and people) are capable of. Continual partial attention and the inability to push oneself to think harder, and harder and harder...create mass automotive machines. Pushing harder until your brain aches - this is the catalyst between Floundering Intelligently and Floundering Miserably!

Most institutions are filled up with lecturers and pseudo-educators with teaching notes, methods and approaches that have lost relevance in a changing world. Educational pursuits (many of these are, indeed, noble pursuits) often prepare students to look for a job, a career, a place to practice their education as a destination to education and not to create opportunities for varied successes as part of the journey of education. Education is meant to be a part of the solution to socio-economic stability but, often archaic means of educational assessment punish students destructively for making mistakes when actually mistakes are an integral part of learning. Why not reward students for making intelligent mistakes? Why not?

So, what does Floundering Intelligently mean to educators and how is it put in action?

• Unexpected / unfamiliar content: is the content of lessons often predictable (this week chapter 1, next week…)? How often do we (as educators) ask students to ‘have a go’ and engage with the genuinely unfamiliar before swooping in with scaffolding and explanation? • Pushing learners to a point at which they can go no further: how often do learners feel they have been pushed beyond their current limits by a lesson? Do we consistently demand more and more - not in terms of quantity of work or coverage of content but when it comes to the rigour and sophistication of thinking? • Holistic approach: expertise is characterised by the effective organisation of knowledge, with key underlying concepts and principles connecting different units of information and understanding. How often do students see this ‘big picture’ of theories and concepts connecting the chunks of information they receive in lessons? Are they always encouraged to appreciate the interconnectedness of different topics and subjects? • Unfamiliar audience: how often are learning outcomes presented to someone other than the cosily familiar figure of the teacher? Are experts or other ‘real audiences’ outside of the classroom used to help evaluate and drive forward student learning?

When Thomas Edison was being questioned by a mischievous journalist on how he felt for having failed for 999 times before getting the idea of the light bulb, his confident response was: “I have not failed 999 times, I have only learnt 999 ways of how not to make a light bulb.” Though Tesla may definitely disagree.


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