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Cognitive Load Theory: how has it changed my teaching?

For the last eighteen months or so, I’ve become absolutely fascinated by cognitive load theory. Slightly too much so if the amount of time I spend on Twitter avidly following other educators’ conversations is an accurate measure. I’m ashamed to say, as a teacher who has just entered their twenty-second year of teaching, that until fairly recently, I was guilty of falling into the trap of believing that if my lessons were ‘jazzy’, that my resources had lots going on on them, they entered the room to music, or they had to hunt for answers stuck up around the room… (I could go on..!) that this would somehow mean that my students would learn more. They would be drawn in by the aforementioned music/slides/general edutainment and hey presto, learning would follow! 

Cognitive Load Theory, along with Rosenshine’s Principles and the work of Sweller, Kirschner and Clarke, have made me take stock of my teaching in a way that nothing else has in over twenty years. The question ‘what are my students going to be THINKING about at each point in this lesson?’ is now the principal thought throughout my lesson planning, resource and retrieval preparation. CLT states that our working memories are limited, and so when, as teachers, we are teaching new content, we need to reduce the load that an entire raft of elements can place on our students’ WM. 

At each step in my planning and execution of lessons I now take into consideration:

  1. Extraneous load – reducing unnecessary distractions. For example, flashing or too many images on a slide; too much text on a slide which I then talk over causing my students’ attention to be split; allowing students to fiddle with equipment (clicking pens on and off, etc..) Of course, there’s nothing I can do about a noisy PE lesson outside, classroom visitors or, because I don’t have my own classroom, overly-busy, bright and text-heavy displays competing for my students’ attention, although the latter is certainly a conversation I’ve begun to have in my school!

2. Intrinsic load – planning for the correct level of difficulty of explanations/questioning/deliberate practice. Robert and Elizabeth Bjork spoke about ‘desirable difficulties’ – finding that sweet spot that means that students are not using valuable space in their working memory to make sense of tasks that are too hard, but equally, are not too easy, resulting in too little effortful thinking on their part, meaning that new content is less likely to find its way into their long term memory. All of my classes across key stage 3 and 4 are mixed ability. So finding a common level of desirable difficulty can be tricky. As a result, I teach to the top, but I plan for a variety of questions pitched at different levels which I will pose to different students with different levels of prior attainment. In addition, during the deliberate practice phase of my lessons, I will provide scaffolding such as sentence starters, key terms on the board or model answers on different topics for low prior attainment students to enable them to free up as much of their working memory as possible and avoid using it all trying to make sense of the task rather than making sense of the new material.

3. Germaine load – the effort required and load placed on a student’s WM in order to make sense of new information will be far less if they have already built up a web of prior knowledge (their schema) to link it to. So when teaching new material, I carefully pick material that we have already previously covered as my retrieval activity at the start of the lesson, and build upon this in my questioning and instruction. This enables me to ‘hook’ the new content to their existing schema. When previously covered content is brought to mind in light of new content, the new content is more likely to ‘stick’ to the existing knowledge in their LTM. For example, in a recent year seven lesson on six figure grid references, my retrieval practice activity consisted of some questions where students were required to use four figure grid references. It’s pretty near impossible to understand six figure grid references without being able to do four figure first, so by calling to mind the first skill, I was better able to build on my students’ prior knowledge rather than teaching the new skill in isolation. In addition, where possible, I will make reference to examples from within their own experience (although this can vary wildly within a class) so that again, ever-increasingly complex links can be built within their long term memory. For example, in a recent year 8 lesson on hurricanes, in order for the class to grasp the concept of the Coriolis Effect, I discussed and questioned the students about the reason bath water rotates around the plug hole as it drains away. (The spin of the Earth being the cause of both!) Having this prior knowledge meant the new knowledge about the Coriolis Effect was more likely to stick. 

4. Planning and delivery of feedback. I haven’t marked a set of exercise books in the traditional way (detailed written comments, all pages marked) for almost two years. My school has fully embraced verbal feedback, and we are free to choose the methods that we feel are best for our subjects and classes. No non-negotiables! So in planning for effective feedback, most of which is now immediate in the lesson whilst the thinking is still taking place, I consider what it is I want the students to achieve, be it completing an accurately-drawn bar chart/a high quality 9 mark GCSE answer/a description of a graph. I ensure that I plan feedback that allows students to see where they can improve and move forward. I might choose from live marking under the visualiser, live marking whilst I circulate, live modelling under the visualiser or whole class verbal feedback sheets for an exam answer or assessment. Each method makes the student THINK and allows them to be SHOWN HOW to improve, along with dedicated time to make the required improvements. Written marking, however, takes place after the event, and students are passive in the process, often resulting in the same errors being repeatedly made. 

Despite teaching for over twenty years, I know I still have much to learn, and I am the first to admit that I don’t always get it right. However, I can honestly say I think the profession is in an extremely exciting place at the moment. For me, getting to grips with CLT has fundamentally changed my focus of my lesson planning, execution and feedback. It has reduced my workload as I am now planning for thinking that leads to learning rather than the next jazzy task which takes an age to prepare and which might, at worst, hinder the progress of my students. Daniel Willingham’s often-quoted ‘memory is the residue of thought’ from his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ sums up my new approach perfectly. Let’s plan for thinking rather than for entertainment, schema-building over time rather than fleeting, never-to-be-revisited moments and let’s view learning as a long-term process rather than singular, unrelated ‘events’. 

Visualisers: how they can be used to live model, and give immediate verbal feedback.

My visualiser has become my absolute prized possession! I cannot remember how I ever used to teach without it! From using it to demonstrate how to use grid references, to live marking a student’s piece of work so that the rest of the class can be made to think about how to improve theirs. It is the one piece of equipment I could never be without, now! However, in this blog, I am going to provide a step-by-step account of how recently, I used it to provide the first part of a model GCSE answer to guide my year 10 students so that they could successfully complete one of their own. It is not intended to be an example of perfect practice, and I would welcome constructive criticism, but I was incredibly pleased with various aspects of it, not least the quality of work produced by the students at the end of the exercise. The activities went as follows:

I displayed the exam question on the board and the students wrote it into their books, including how many marks it was worth (for future reference). It read:

‘Explain the causes of desertification’  [6 marks]

  • I explained to the students that they were going to use their knowledge from our previous lesson to attempt this question, and that I was going to talk them through the first part of a model answer. The class is mixed attainment but, as I frequently tell them, I teach everybody how to get a grade 9.
  • I tell the class that for the next few minutes, I expect their undivided attention, and that all of their eyes should be on the screen, where the image of what I am about to write will be projected. I tell them not to write anything, fiddle with anything or speak unless I ask them to. Having impeccable behaviour is paramount if all students are to benefit from this.
  • I sit down at my visualiser, with a copy of the question on a piece of paper. I tell the class that for the next few minutes, I am imagining I am one of them, in the examination hall, completing one of my GCSE geography questions, and that I am going to ‘think out loud’ to model how they should approach the question.
  • I circle the command word, ‘explain’, and I cold call a student to remind the class what the difference is between this word and the word ‘describe’. I use this style of questioning (pose, pause, pounce, bounce) so that all students are made to think before somebody is chosen to answer. If the first student doesn’t know, I will move on to another, but I will always return to the original student (as explained in Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0’) and ask them to give me the correct answer.  
  • I also circle the number of marks available, and ask another student to remind us how many developed points need to be made (two) and what the vital elements are (include an example of a place where this is occurring – we have use the example of the Sahel region of northern Africa; key terms must also be used, along with development of points using phrases like ‘this means that…’)
  • I begin the answer on the paper under the visualiser. I start by writing a sentence to define desertification, and I tell them I am doing this to show the examiner that I understand what it means.
  • I then write a second sentence to state one reason for desertification (there are a number of factors I could use – I choose to write about over cultivation due to population pressure). I also state an example where in the world this is happening (Sahel).
  • I put my pen down and ask one student whether they think I have written enough for my first developed point. Correctly, they tell me that I haven’t. I ask them why. They tell me that I need to explain HOW this factor is contributing to desertification.
  • I add another sentence to state what is happening in the Sahel regarding overcultivation – in essence, growing populations leading to more crops being grown repeatedly on soils which are not left to recover.
  • I put my pen down and ask another student if this has been fully explained. Have I linked it back to the question and have I made it totally clear how overcultivation causes desertification? They are unsure. I read back what I have written so far. Does it tell the whole story, I ask them. Is there anything more that I need to say? After questioning a few more students, we agree that no, I haven’t told the whole story.
  • I add one more sentence to explain that by not leaving the land to recover, fertility of the soil decreases, which stops crops or natural vegetation from growing, leading to exposure of soil and soil erosion, meaning that no vegetation can grow again – leading to desertification.
  • I put my pen down and ask another student if this is sufficient. They take a few seconds to read it. They tell me that they think I have written enough for my first developed point and I ask them to tell me why. They state that they can see that I have described the whole process from start to finish, and that I have linked the answer back to the question.
  • I also point out that I have included a range of key terms in my answer, and I circle each of them so that the students can see them.
  • I remind the class that the answer is not finished, and that  a second well-developed point is needed to achieve full marks, which I say I am not going to do as I want them to think about how to do this, but to do it in the same way that they watched me complete the first.
  • I then remove the image of my answer, and give students eight minutes to complete a full answer of their own, thinking about what they have just seen me do. Usually in the exam, they would have six minutes as it tends to be a minute per mark, but as they are still practising, I am giving them longer, but I still want it to be time-bonded.
  • I provide a sentence starter on the written board to get the lower attaining students started.
  • I circulate around the room whilst they are working to assist with any queries or difficulty getting started. I make sure I check in with my lower-attaining students early on to ensure they are happy – those that aren’t, I get them to tell me verbally what they think they could write first.
  • I remind some other students who claim they have finished that they still need to develop their first point further as they have not told the full story and remind them to use phrases such as ‘this means that’.
  • After the time is up, I ask a student who has made a good attempt, (although still with room for improvement) if I can place their work under the visualiser. I only ever do this with their consent.
  • I live mark their piece of work, inviting students to tell me what they have done well and what needs improving and I annotate this on the work for all to see.
  • I give it a final mark and explain why it would get this mark. (This student achieved a 5 out of 6 as their first point wasn’t quite developed sufficiently).
  • I return the book to the student so that they can improve their work, but freeze the board so that the class can still see it, and I give the class some time to improve theirs based on the feedback they have seen me give to the other student. Students complete this in green pen.

The whole exercise took approximately 25 minutes – approximately half the lesson. In past years, I would have set the students off on this task by simply reminding them of the content of the answer, with perhaps a few key terms on the board. I would have taken their books in two weeks later, marked them, and probably laboriously  written the same comments several times in many students’ books. When they then got them back, it was so long after the event that they had forgotten what the question was about, what their thought processes were at the time, and there was every chance that they wouldn’t have understood my written comments that I would have spent a significant amount of time writing out. And until a few years ago, they wouldn’t have been given any time to improve their answers. No one moved forward, and the same mistakes would have been made again the next time.

Combining the use of a visualiser with immediate feedback and modelling has meant that my students now know far better how to approach an exam question, and improvements can be made in the moment. By me asking them about the question I am writing, I am making them THINK – a vital cog in the wheel that contributes to that change in long term memory, which is, as I repeatedly tell all of my classes, all they will have to rely on in the exam hall.

I hope this account has been of use. It’s not perfect, but I was particularly pleased with how well they all responded, their outcomes and their willingness to enter in to an activity that ultimately, they understood to be for their benefit.

Making the move to verbal feedback in the classroom: what are the barriers to this within schools?

A few days ago, I decided I would like to gain a snapshot about the number of schools that are now using verbal methods as their main form of feedback, those that are planning or in the process of moving from written marking to verbal feedback this year, and those schools where SLT have no plans to move away from written marking. I was simply interested in gauging some figures out of curiosity. The results were as follows:

Schools not planning to change from written marking: 37%

Schools still using written marking but planning to change this year: 14%

Schools mostly now using verbal feedback: 48%

I was pleasantly surprised by the 48%. Nearly half of all schools recognising that verbal feedback allows students to take ownership of seeing where they need to make improvements, with the aim that when they attempt a similar task in the future or in the examination hall, they will do so with improved results. It is not the aim of this piece to discuss each of the different methods of verbal feedback that my school now encourage teachers to use. I am happy to do that another time, but I know that others have already written about this.

However, it was the comments that followed the poll that made for interesting reading. Many teachers posted the reasons why their school either had or hadn’t chosen to move away from written marking, and it revealed a wide range of factors at play that I felt would at least make useful reading and possibly allow teachers at any level to begin a conversation within their school. Such wholesale change doesn’t happen overnight, and buy-in from staff is important if new habits are to be formed. Each of the sections that follow will address each of the barriers that appear to be preventing a move to verbal feedback within some schools.

  1. Whole school marking policy’.

Marking policies have tended to dictate, often using a range of non-negotiables, how often and the way in which work should be marked. And I can see why schools have them. In theory, it ensures that all students receive the same level of feedback, albeit in written form, and that all staff are conforming. However, these documents often produce a ‘tick box’ culture within schools, where, for example, the colour of pens used and frequency of marking appear to become more important than whether or not students’ learning is moving forward. Verbal feedback methods move away from these ‘safe’, measurable methods where it can be seen that marking has been done at a glance, for example, during a book scrutiny (one of my most hated words in teaching!) Verbal feedback is, by its nature, not written and cannot be checked in the way that written marking can. The use of verbal feedback makes it harder for boxes on policies to be ticked, leading many schools to feel reluctant to change. Which leads me to my second point.

  • ‘But how can we prove we gave verbal feedback?’

Evidencing. The ever-increasing need to PROVE that we are doing something. Above all else. This mind set seems to pervade even in some schools that HAVE chosen to make the transition to verbal feedback, with items such as the dreaded ‘verbal feedback given’ stamp having to be used. I’ve even come across staff writing in students’ books every time they have spoken to a student to prove to an external observer that the conversation was had, and what was said! Time that could have been spent talking to another student, or addressing misconceptions from the front. Lack of trust, and the issues that arise from this within schools is one of the biggest factors driving the recruitment crisis. There ARE schools out there, mine included, that trust their staff, professional adults, to do a good job. However, the need to prove and check that teachers are doing something seems to be one of the major barriers to change. And we know what’s coming next…

  • Ofsted!

In September, 2019, the new Ofsted framework will be rolled out. In it, they state that they do not expect to see any one particular frequency or type of feedback. Indeed, this statement was already in their current guidance that preceded the 2019 framework. But myths can sometimes take time to bust and the belief that written marking is what Ofsted want to see is still persisting.

  • ‘But I love marking students’ books’

Even within schools that have made the change, it can be tricky to get buy-in from all staff. Or at least, it can be slow progress. Some teachers, despite the onerous amount of time it takes, genuinely like giving personalised comments to students, using their name, perhaps even a sticker! Great! Let’s do that verbally, instead, though, save time and increase staff wellbeing. Others get jittery after a week or two of not taking any piles of books home to mark (I include myself in this when I first stopped) as it’s just what teachers have always done. A form of teacher cold turkey! However, after eighteen months, my jittery feeling has well and truly passed, and with my first set of GCSE results through having not marked their books all year, (a very mixed-attaining class where only 6 out of 27 did not meet or exceed their target) I for one will never return to written marking.

  • Students say they prefer written marking to verbal feedback.

Some of my own students have said this to me. But we have to remember that just because a student says they like something, doesn’t mean it is moving their learning forward. They also used to quite like spending inordinate amounts of time cutting out card sorts, for example, but no learning was taking place whilst they did this! Verbal feedback means that they have to THINK. Written marking allows them to be more passive. Quite possibly my favourite quotation at the moment in education is Danilel Willingham’s ‘memory is the residue of thought.’ It applies to so much of what we do in the classroom. However, thinking is hard! But it fits in with the idea put forward by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork of ‘desirable difficulties’. If something is too hard OR too easy, then they simply won’t learn, as the required thinking and ‘struggle’ hasn’t taken place. From my experience, lower attaining students in particular can find it hard to gain as much from verbal feedback as higher attaining students, so it is important that that we persevere in ‘training’ students in making improvements if they are to get the most out of it. Lastly…

  • ‘It’s what parents want to see’.

I’m a parent. And when I went to school, my books were marked. The comments weren’t particularly lengthy or helpful. The word ‘good’ appeared every few pages and that was about it. But it’s what adults think teachers should be doing, based on their own experience from a time gone by when teaching was not evidence-informed in the way that it is starting to be now. However, I think basing policy and practice within a school solely on what parents want to see is potentially damaging. Parents went to school, but they are not trained educators. When I see my doctor, I let her make the decision about a diagnosis and treatment. I am not the expert – she is.

I have no quick answers to each of the issues raised here. However, I do think they are worth considering by both myself and others. I have become fairly evangelical about trying to encourage staff at my own school and others to make the switch, but it has made me think a little more deeply about why some are so reluctant to change. I am sure there are other factors at play, for example, a reluctance to embrace the research-informed movement, but I hope this has at least been food for thought for those in schools where change has already happened, where it is in the process of change, and where it is yet to happen.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

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