Brain overloadIn my last blog, I reflected on how an understanding of metacognition can strengthen teaching strategies and unlock pupil learning potential.  Great teachers always consider the question “how do pupils learn best?”  There isn’t an easy answer – but as many great teachers know, we can grow an understanding of the research knowledge out there and use it to shine a light on where the gains can be made.

Schools are busy places.  Curriculums change, initiatives come and go and teachers can be left grappling with the changes in an environment that isn’t time rich.  Knowledge of pupil learning can create mental modals as part of a teacher’s toolkit.  Once they are in place, it becomes infectious.  It seeps into schemes of work and spreads into lesson planning and reflection.  When done well, it links curriculum with learning and becomes part and parcel of pedagogical discussion and shared classroom practice.  It may seem like a utopian understanding amidst the many other pressures within a school environment, but it takes us back to the original question that sets this curriculum cog grinding –  ‘how do pupils learn best?’

Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory

This is a good place to begin the thinking journey.  As Dyllan Wiliam advocates, this theory ‘is the single most important thing for teachers to know’.  So, what’s it all about?  Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is concerned with the cognitive process – the knowing, understanding and learning.  Not all cognitive load is bad.  However, a problem arises when the load exceeds the capacity of the pupil processing it.  Sweller breaks this theory into three areas of cognitive load.

Intrinsic cognitive load: Think of the hardest topic or concept you teach and how you present it.  If the load is imposed by the nature of what is to be learned, including the number of information elements and their interactivity, the level of difficulty associated with a specific topic rises.  This is the intrinsic cognitive load.  ‘There’s the periodic table – you have ten minutes to learn it’ is a grossly exaggerated example, but it makes the point.

Extraneous cognitive load: On my PowerPoints, I have limited information.  I know that the degree of challenge for pupils relates to how the information is presented.  When information isn’t presented concisely i.e. lots of information is added, the extraneous load begins to grow.  ‘Pretty’ pictures, animations and flashing text forces pupils to split their attention, making it harder for them to manage the information that we need and want them to know.  The solution?  Be concise, keep lesson slides simple and present only the key information.

Germane cognitive load: This is where schemas are built, the plans or theories in a model which become structures of knowledge.  Mind mapping is an example of structural knowledge building.  This knowledge can move from working memory to long term memory when these structures are modelled and practised by pupils.

I am a fan of the Learning Scientist work, the pupil friendly learning strategies which, through guided written and visual instruction, create the opportunity for students to independently use such strategies.  I am currently using dual coding with one of my lower ability Year 11 groups to structure their knowledge.  We are in the final stages of consolidating our revision on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  The entire plot has been broken down into ten pictures and each picture has two quotations, a theme and in their own words, what the information means to them.  Any gaps in their knowledge becomes a red revision area, thus my pupils are self-regulating their learning and planning key revision areas.  We may not be able to make Shakespeare easier, but we can certainly make it more accessible by managing the intrinsic load, minimizing the extraneous load and maximizing the germane load.

My final thoughts on the previously posed question ‘how do pupils learn best?’ Let’s reflect on the EEF guidance and recommendation number one: ‘Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge’ and recommendation number four: ‘Set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition’. Both are a part of the growing answer to the question; pupils learn best when instructional design generates spectacular gains in efficiency and a teacher’s professional understanding and skills around challenge, self-regulation and metacognition are the platform on which this efficiency is built.

Picture from