Cognitive science – what can we learn about TEACHERS’ limitations? And how can we plan for this?

I’d be lying if I said that there was one single influence on my teaching greater than Cognitive Load Theory. It’s allowed me to strip back my teaching and fine tune the elements I’d always done. It’s shifted my focus during the planning and delivery of my lessons away from the resource, or the entertainment value of my lesson towards the thinking and focus of the attention of my students. I’ve already written about how it’s changed my practice here so this isn’t going to be the focus of this blog. 

However, Cognitive Load Theory doesn’t just apply to our students. As teachers, we  also need to be conscious of the limitations of our OWN working memories so that we can deliver the best learning experience for our students. The following are a collection of thoughts and experiences where an understanding of CLT has helped me to deal with situations in the classroom.

Firsly, the first half term after returning to school in September 2020 after teaching from home saw us working away from our classrooms, moving from room to room to students within their zones. Having to keep in mind what the new timings for the slightly shortened lessons were, which room I was teaching in next, grappling with an unfamiliar visualiser, lost remote control, taking account of the student who is accessing my lesson live and remotely as well as the other twenty-nine in front of me… I was acutely aware that the delivery of my lessons wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. All of a sudden I had extra considerations to deal with which placed a load on my working memory. My explanation of the complex Global Atmospheric Circulation Model, my ability to remember to return to the original responder during my ‘no opt out’ questioning, that set of worksheets that I realised part way through a lesson that I’d left back in the office in another building… I could go on. Understanding that there were reasons for parts of my teaching no longer going as smoothly as usual has helped me accept that teaching in the era of Covid cannot be like it is in non-pandemic times. My working memory now has far more to cope with. 

I’ve become a huge fan of live modelling under my visualiser so that students can see what they should be aiming for and how they should be thinking whilst answering an extended or exam answer. In order for this activity to be fully effective, I need to ensure that every student is focussed, looking at the board, being made to think hard and not fiddling, doodling or talking. At the same time I need to model an excellent answer which would gain full marks in an exam along with modelling the thought process I want them to adopt in the exam room. The first time I attempted this, it didn’t quite go as smoothly as it could have. Constantly keeping an eye on thirty students who were also unused to this activity took up most of my working memory and were MY extraneous load. I had little left for conjoring up a perfect model answer, and quickly realised I needed to be better prepared. I now carry out this task with a pre-prepared answer off-screen, so that my attention isn’t split. It’s allowed me to plan for any questioning that might need to accompany the activity, along with annotations and key points to emphasise. I now have space in my working memory to check for the levels of student attention that I require without it affecting my ability to produce the work under the visualiser.

The nature of my subject, geography, means that much of what we teach changes over time. However, some of it, largely the physical side of the subject, changes far less. After twenty-three years of teaching longshore drift, the formation of waterfalls, and yes, what everyone remembers from their own school days, the formation of ox bow lakes (!) I know that if I am armed solely with a board marker and white board, that I could teach these in my sleep! However, teaching about the contrasts in levels of development in Nigeria or the Lesotho Highland Water Project is a different matter. These case studies are new to the updated GCSE syllabus and as such, are not places I am overly familiar with or have (until three or four years ago) ever taught about before. The content has not yet found its way into my long term memory. I need notes and the text book and some (simple) prompts for myself and students on Power Point slides. I feel less confident teaching this content as I have not yet developed mastery of it or a fully formed mental schema. My working memory is at full capacity whilst I deliver it to my students as I endeavour to remember and contain within my working memory (and thank goodness for the prompts!) two sets of advantages and disadvantages of the Highland Water Project for both South Africa AND Lesotho. However, being aware of these limitations has allowed me to practice retrieval activities for unfamiliar content prior to teaching it, or to practice drawing diagrams from memory to strengthen my ability to recall it in the classroom. In the past, I would have read the textbook the night before and hoped it would stick. Which is exactly what we tell the students not to do if they have a test! And then wondered why my lesson fell flat! 

My five period teaching days are invariably more hectic than my lighter teaching days. And not just physically. Mentally, too, and probably more so. As I drive to work, my mind is thinking about the day ahead. Did I photocopy those worksheets for period one? Have I planned retrieval activities for the start of every lesson? More recently, in the light of my involvement with cognitive science, I’ve learnt that chunking content (or my working day) down can relieve overload on working memory. I cannot change my timetable, but mentally splitting the day into sections and just thinking about what I am doing in my first two lessons, putting out the books and resources, and then using break time to think about the next one, followed by lunch to mentally and practically prepare for the last two, has allowed me to focus on a maximum of two things (lessons) at once. A calmer teacher is able to deliver more effective lessons in any scenario. My working memory is therefore freed up to concentrate on just that chunk of the day, knowing the next chunk does not need to be thought about yet.

So, I’m not suggesting that I have solved any of these issues for myself, but a greater awareness of WHY certain aspects of my job are harder than others which can be explained by cognitive science has allowed me to be better prepared for those pitfalls and to try and plan for those occasions where my limited working memory is going to mean that things just won’t run as smoothly as I would like. Whether that be greater advanced planning or ensuring I know who to ask if the tech lets me down rather than having a blind panic. We, like our students, are also mere humans and we have limits to what we can do. Understanding this in the light of cognitive science gives us the tools to put our own ‘scaffolds’ in place for when those pinch points arise! And to (perhaps!) feel a little more in control of what goes on in our classroom!

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