Watch Me!

 

A few years ago, while I was a head teacher rather than a retired head teacher, I visited New York with a number of colleague, London heads. We were interested in how some New York schools were managing to do so well with some disadvantaged students. One of the schools we visited was a KIPP, Knowledge is Power Programme, school. I can’t do the school justice by trying to describe it in a few words but suffice it to say that I was the most sceptical at the start of the visit and at the end of the week I decided to take some of my own school leadership team back to New York to see what we could learn. After that SLT revisit we built our own, English version of the induction programme we had observed. One of the most impressive elements of what we had seen was the way students were asked to pay attention to not only the teacher but also the other student in the class.

 

I will describe part of what we did.

 

In the KIPP school the teacher used a trigger phrase, “Watch Me” and pointed to his eyes and all students had to stop what they were doing and focus on the teacher. They did truly focus on what he did and what he said. The difference between the New York Version and the sometimes shabby version that I seen in many, including my own, English schools was the degree of engagement that the New York students showed compared to the English students. I am sure you will have experienced the difficulty of getting all students to put their pens down, focus on me scenario that makes this attention getting process a little fraught and one that sometimes needs a disciplinary response.

 

What was even more impactful was that the teacher could say, “Watch Joanne” and students would give Joanne their full and focused attention. Joanne would be explaining something or answering in a tentative, exploring way that learners need to do to further their understanding. What was super was the respect in which all learners were held, evidenced by the attention given.

 

Clearly one can’t just walk into a classroom in any school and utter the magic “Watch Me” words and expect the degree of compliance needed. Students have to be trained to know what to do, and critically why they are doing this. Students must understand why this is for them and for their learning. Teachers also need to be consistent in their delivery of “Watch Me” and use this technique for learning and never for (mis)behaviour management.

It works as a whole school system and this degree of agreement between teachers will be difficult to achieve. Some will object, for a whole variety of reasons, and these objections may be silenced by the learning impact of the technique. Or the objectors will win the day and “Watch Me” will not be part of your school. Shame, but democracy is more important than learning, is it not? Let me think about that… Democracy or better learning? Daddy or chips…?

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Learning Walks – The Positive Side

Lesson Visits

What is the school really like?

A simple process to collect evidence in a school. A very bad process to make judgements about individual teachers.

 

Learning walks is a system that was formalised by NCSL, who now have a new name, but ,like DfE, if we wait for long enough the name will roll around again.

I call the process is called Lesson Visits to distinguish it from learning walks.

 

The aim is to visit as many lessons, anywhere children and being taught, as possible during one or two periods. (Depends on how your school is organised; how long a period is; the geography; the number of different student groups)

  • We visit each and every space where students are learning.

 

  • This is NOT EVER a formal observation of teachers.

 

  • It is NOT EVER a teacher performance management process.

 

  • There are different version of lesson visits, with different purposes.

Version 1 is very powerful. We can get closer to the true culture of the school. What really goes on, rather than what can go on when we are pre-prepared for visits, as in formal lesson observations. It provides a complementary evidence base.

  • It does not focus on individuals but looks at the overall pattern, across the school.

A very formal version is called a learning walk. The process described here is much simpler, is very effective, and requires less planning. You can just get up and do it!

 

In my own school I would carry out this process up to three times per week; many more times during any development phase – for example, after the introduction of a particular type of learning outcome system.

  • It is best done in pairs, until you are confident in the methodology.

  • I take no written notes. I am obtaining an overall view, a pattern of school behaviours. If it matters, it will appear enough times for you to remember the feature. There is no need to write down what you see as you carry out the process. You might choose to write your summative views at the end, so that you have some notes to be able to feedback to others at a later date.

After a while, because the culture of the school is supportive and not judgmental, there will be no real need to inform staff that there will be lesson visits. Clearly this is a matter for you to decide. I take the view that SLT and middle leaders must have the right to visit lessons, unannounced for the purpose of a lesson visit. The use of the information gleaned would NEVER be used by me to make any kind of individual teacher performance management judgment. These processes work well in schools where there is high trust.

 

  • Feedback to all staff, and possibly students, the summative information gleaned by a lesson visit event. Avoid details that could be thought to be identifying particular teachers, whether that feedback is positive, neutral or negative.

 

  • The collecting of the data will have been supported by all in the school. They have a right to know what the data is.

 

The feedback is neutral. For example, “In many lessons students are clearly fully engaged in learning”. “In some lessons calling out was heard”. Avoid making an individual lesson judgment.

 

So, what do we do?

 

  • Before the bell, or whatever, goes for the lesson start we position ourselves in the corridor.

 

  • The first thing we notice is how students move through the corridors. Purposeful? Noisy? Pushing? Respectful? Playful? Directly or via the scenic route?

 

  • How are teachers moving to a new class? Who is managing corridor behaviour? How are they doing it? Is the school system for movement being followed by all? Is it an effective system?

 

  • Next, how do they line up for the lesson? According to the school procedure? Are there any issues to note here? Are teachers in the corridor?

 

  • As soon as the time says lessons should have started we enter the first classroom. How do students enter? How organised is the teacher? Glance at the board to check for learning outcomes/WALT-WILF or whatever system you use.

 

  • We ask the question “Has learning started yet?” and note the time from the formal timetabled time for the start of the lesson. How many minutes are we into the lesson? 

 

Repeat this question as we visit each lesson. We will get a figure for “When does learning start in this school?”. It is then important to put this figure to staff and ask, “Are we happy that learning begins X minutes after the bell for the start of lessons?”.

 

  • We visit any and every space where students are learning. Supply teacher, learning support, behavioural unit. All get visited, using the same process.

  • Do not intervene to correct a student, unless it is a health and safety issue. Remember, the purpose is to see the school as it is, not how it can be when we manage it! If you do note a child behaviour that needs commenting on it may be best to see the child after the lesson, or later in the day. I would also make sure the teacher knew that I was seeing the child.

 

The “How long does it take to start learning?” question is critical. Don’t prejudge by providing excuses. Don’t say, “Well, it takes time to start any lesson” OR “Well, they are late because of assembly”. Focus on the question, “Are we happy that it takes X minutes for learning to start?”.

 

  • We only stay in each classroom for a minute or two. We need to get around as many classrooms as possible this lesson. For the first few lessons we will ask similar questions about student and teacher preparedness for the start of the lesson.

 

  • We also ask the “Has learning started?” question.

 

  • For each classroom entered follow the same procedure. Enter without knocking. We have an absolute right to be here and observe matters that impact on the quality of learning. We are collecting generalisations, not individual teacher data. Glance at the learning outcomes and scan the classroom. Check the time. Do not expect the teacher or students to speak to you. That will distract from our purpose and will distract them from their learning. Look, mentally note and move on to the next classroom. 

  • The most important process going on in school is the classroom or gym, field etc lesson. We must tread very gently to avoid disturbing the learning.

 

After a few of these visits, teachers and students will become immune to this disruption.

 

  • If we get asked by a student why we are there the standard response is, “To look at learning”, as that is what we are doing.

 

Eventually we will be visiting classrooms where it is evident learning has started, not just the pre-learning preparations such as copying the date or earning outcomes, but actual engagement with the learning planned by the teacher. (I am not in favour of copying learning outcomes, in general. But if it is a feature that is repeated then it will need discussing with staff as a whole.)

 

  • Then we alter our focus to the quality of learning. In each classroom we ask ourselves, “How good is the learning here?”. What is going on that shows learning is happening? What distractions/disruptions (other than ourselves) are present?

 

  • As we enter, watch for any teacher or student movement. If the teacher and students continue unchanged they both are happy with this level of learning. Are you as happy as they are? A CRITICAL question to ask.

 

It is useful to have told staff that you do not require, or even want, them or students to acknowledge your presence during these lesson visits. Indeed, who has the right to disrupt learning in a classroom? So, by not acknowledging us, they are making the statement that learning matters more than anything else. Strong ethos making statement!

 

  • As we move on we will begin to see, we hope, plenary activities.

 

  • Then home learning (or homework) setting should be evident.

 

  • It is often more difficult to see the pattern of the ends of lessons as many only take a few minutes. Are you happy that securing learning takes only a few minutes? How well is learning secured?

 

  • We then need to be back in the corridor to note how students leave their classrooms. What do they do? What do teachers do? What does the corridor supervision system look like?

 

And so on…

 

It is very useful to give yourself time to then reflect on what you have seen. Try to avoid making judgments. Try to collate the evidence you have collected so that you can share the evidence with others. Acting on what you have seen needs to be done carefully and remember you have had one snapshot of the school.

 

How many snapshots will you need to do to get the real picture?

 

Remember, we are carrying out this process so that we can

 

  • collect evidence

  •  say, “This is how it is”

  • then ask, “Are we happy with this?”.

 

and then to decide what to do and how to do it to effect improvements.

 

Plan more lesson visits, starting at different places in the school; at different times of the day, week and term. Get as wide an evidence base as possible. Don’t prejudge; just look and learn.

Who carries out lesson visits?

 

  • Best with a colleague, but can be alone

 

  • Two SLT

 

  • One SLT plus one head of faculty, but does not have to be limited to their faculty

  • Two heads of year or heads of house

  • Two heads of faculty

  • Teachers without leadership roles

 

In truth, any two who have a valid reason and have the ability to see what is happening.

 

I like use this process when I am beginning to work with a new school, in my consultancy role for ManYana.  I like to do it alone first, and then train others in the process.

 

If you do see poor behaviour try not to correct it at the time but see the student after the lesson, just so you are clearly stating that you are not condoning the behaviour.

 

Because the evidence is so flimsy for a particular lesson I do not feedback on an individual. If asked I will give the teacher or head of faculty or head of year an overview after I have considered the evidence.

 

Enjoy seeing learning in your school.

 

I’d be please to hear what impact the lesson visits process has on your school.

 

Traditional Teaching – It’s not Direct Instruction as we know it.

Over the past few weeks I have tried to get to understand what Direct Instruction (DI) is and what the knowledge based curriculum is all about. Is it a threat to “progressive” teachers? Are the knowledge based fanatics about to capture vulnerable children and make them join a cult? Do they hate children? Are they ignoring individual differences between children?

The answer, as far as I can tell, is no to all of the above. They don’t tend to talk about children in that starry eyed way that “student centred” teachers sometimes do. One reason for that is that they do feel they are under some sort of attack. They cite Ofsted and some SLTs (senior leadership teams) as negating their particular form of teaching. That is slightly odd as in my understanding of how DI can work there will be times when classroom activities will be taking place that will look like activities taking place in an “ordinary” classroom. More later.

Are the DI advocates right? Sort of. It is difficult to get the detail of what they actually do across a series of lessons but I am going to try to describe how DI might be a perfectly fine way of teaching children. And there is some decent research that identifies DI as being a very good way of teaching in terms of achievement. John Hattie looked at educational research and has produced a table of those teaching activities in order of effectiveness. He identifies feedback as the most effective. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black explained this as far back as 1987, in their small publication, Inside the Black Box. Direct Instruction comes in Hattie’s top ten. We ought to take account of educational research and marry it with our professional judgement and use what works. I know this a very emotive issue and there are many strong views. I am one of the strong view holders but I have always been open to the evidence. Sometimes this leads us to the wrong place, often because we did not use the evidence but used what felt right, or what we “thought” Ofsted had said, or … a lot of other reasons.

One of the difficulties with humans is that, once we have a view, we then to both defend “our” view and also we selectively pick up and use as further justification for our current view. If you, erroneously, hold the view that teaching to learning styles is a good thing then you will pile up the evidence in favour of that, until something happens to shake you free from that idea, possibly to attach to another, similar idea. Open minds are rare in humans, and probably in dogs as well.

So what is the basic model that DI folk are using? Not easy to answer that as they seem, the ones I have met on Twitter that is, to have developed their own versions, plural included intentionally, of DI so what I will try to do is identify the key features of what the believe and use. I am sure they will correct me if I am misrepresenting them.

Following advice, via our lovely friend, Twitter it is best to describe the teaching model as Traditional Teaching, as opposed to Progressive, rather than pure Direct Instruction. Traditional Teaching is as poorly defined as Progressive Teaching so there is quite a lot of wriggle room!

The first thing, belief, whatever is that we must teach children knowledge. Whatever that knowledge is, it must be taught. When you read that sentence, emphasise the word taught and you will get the proper meaning. Taught is critical. Children gain knowledge, in the most efficient way, by being told it by someone who knows. By being told by a teacher. They do not accept that there is any better way for the initial transmission of that knowledge. The facts, the content, the stuff that kids get examined on that is factual.

If you have carried on reading I thank you and i am glad you did. It means I can stop you being quite so outraged as you might be at what I have just written. What DI folk do not accept is that it is desirable in any way for children to discover knowledge. They see it as inefficient, and pointless as knowledge is best delivered by the teacher. During the delivery phase of this knowledge the teacher will ask questions to check that students have received the knowledge. This is not a stage of full understanding for students. That will come later.

This delivery of knowledge, managed and monitored by the teacher does have a basis in cognitive science. The details of working memory are given in the link. Essentially our working memory which we use to temporarily store and begin to process the knowledge. Until the knowledge gets moved into long term memory our students have learned nothing. Interfering with working memory, distraction, more information than working memory can hold will mean the knowledge is lost from working memory. For the DI folk students cannot envisage how a student could learn new knowledge from a project or anything else that goes under, for them, the demon named progressive teaching. And in that respect, provided the cognitive science theories are right, they are correct. So knowledge is precious and must be delivered to students directly, in small chunks that do not overload their working memory.

The next stage is almost always showing the students worked examples, where each step is small enough for them to get and fully explained so that they begin to absorb the process used to move from one step to another in the examples. What is happening now is that students have the knowledge and having got that they are able to understand the processes, skills, involved in solving the problems. One criticism of other teaching methods is that they simply provide too much information, too early. The environment is too rich for working memory to properly assimilate. That sees a sensible idea.

After the worked examples then comes practice. But practice with close and, it seems to me, quite intense feedback, correcting students’ mistakes as soon as possible, so that the get the correct knowledge into working memory rather than learn the wrong things. The work of Prof John Hattie tells us that effective feedback to learners of this sort is number one for effectiveness. The same stuff Dylan Wiliam has been banging on about for 20 years or so!

Then my understanding gets a little less evidence based as my Twitter folk have not described the process past this stage. My guess would be that they would use some further, more challenging material for students to work on. Very importantly they would want to make sure that any learning material used focused on the knowledge and the skills with minimum additional working memory load. This was, although they did not put it in these terms, their objections to the Mr Men materials from @russeltar and his Active History website. The Mr Men were an additional, unneeded distraction. Something to be learned by the students which was too poorly connected to the learning that was taking place.

I can’t get clear how the DI folk see the thing which the progressives would call engagement. I say this because when I mention engagement I was told, by a particular Tweeter, that this was not a device for focusing attention but was discipline. I think, but I may be wrong, that the expectation is that students will attend to the learning and have an appropriate focus as part of their behaviour for learning. I do have a lot of time for something along these lines. I was a head teacher who did care about students so much that we trained ours in how to learn. What behaviours were best of them and the rest of the class. We achieved results that were consistently above FFT D.

I still have questions:

What does a lesson plan or what do the material used for a Traditional Teaching lesson look like?

Is this process universally applicable for all the content in all subjects?

If the progressive method is so flawed, why is the Traditional Teaching process, not dramatically better? (One would think that if we were overwhelming the working memory so much that little would be learned)

Does this process work for all students? Equally well?

I can see how the Traditional Teaching method described may look a little clinical. Does that matter?

I think that our drive to engage students distorts the challenge, the learning challenge, we need to set them and expect, not hope, but expect them to achieve. But I wonder what part their engagement plays. What motivates students to focus and to learn?

What is all this knowledge based, direct instruction, stuff about

Over the past few weeks I have tried to get to understand what Direct Instruction (DI) is and what the knowledge based curriculum is all about. Is it a threat to “progressive” teachers? Are the knowledge based fanatics about to capture vulnerable children and make them join a cult? Do they hate children? Are they ignoring individual differences between children?


The answer, as far as I can tell, is no to all of the above. They don’t tend to talk about children in that starry eyed way that “student centred” teachers sometimes do. One reason for that is that they do feel they are under some sort of attack. They cite Ofsted and some SLTs (senior leadership teams) as negating their particular form of teaching. That is slightly odd as in my understanding of how DI can work there will be times when classroom activities will be taking place that will look like activities taking place in an “ordinary” classroom. More later.


Are the DI advocates right? Sort of. It is difficult to get the detail of what they actually do across a series of lessons but I am going to try to describe how DI might be a perfectly fine way of teaching children. And there is some decent research that identifies DI as being a very good way of teaching in terms of achievement. John Hattie looked at educational research and has produced a table of those teaching activities in order of effectiveness. He identifies feedback as the most effective. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black explained this as far back as 1987, in their small publication, Inside the Black Box. Direct Instruction comes in Hattie’s top ten. We ought to take account of educational research and marry it with our professional judgement and use what works. I know this a very emotive issue and there are many strong views. I am one of the strong view holders but I have always been open to the evidence. Sometimes this leads us to the wrong place, often because we did not use the evidence but used what felt right, or what we “thought” Ofsted had said, or … a lot of other reasons.


One of the difficulties with humans is that, once we have a view, we then to both defend “our” view and also we selectively pick up and use as further justification for our current view. If you, erroneously, hold the view that teaching to learning styles is a good thing then you will pile up the evidence in favour of that, until something happens to shake you free from that idea, possibly to attach to another, similar idea. Open minds are rare in humans, and probably in dogs as well.


So what is the basic model that DI folk are using? Not easy to answer that as they seem, the ones I have met on Twitter that is, to have developed their own versions, plural included intentionally, of DI so what I will try to do is identify the key features of what the believe and use. I am sure they will correct me if I am misrepresenting them.

Following advice, via our lovely friend, Twitter it is best to describe the teaching model as Traditional Teaching, as opposed to Progressive, rather than pure Direct Instruction. Traditional Teaching is as poorly defined as Progressive Teaching so there is quite a lot of wriggle room!


The first thing, belief, whatever is that we must teach children knowledge. Whatever that knowledge is, it must be taught. When you read that sentence, emphasise the word taught and you will get the proper meaning. Taught is critical. Children gain knowledge, in the most efficient way, by being told it by someone who knows. By being told by a teacher. They do not accept that there is any better way for the initial transmission of that knowledge. The facts, the content, the stuff that kids get examined on that is factual.


If you have carried on reading I thank you and i am glad you did. It means I can stop you being quite so outraged as you might be at what I have just written. What DI folk do not accept is that it is desirable in any way for children to discover knowledge. They see it as inefficient, and pointless as knowledge is best delivered by the teacher. During the delivery phase of this knowledge the teacher will ask questions to check that students have received the knowledge. This is not a stage of full understanding for students. That will come later.


This delivery of knowledge, managed and monitored by the teacher does have a basis in cognitive science. The details of working memory are given in the link. Essentially our working memory which we use to temporarily store and begin to process the knowledge. Until the knowledge gets moved into long term memory our students have learned nothing. Interfering with working memory, distraction, more information than working memory can hold will mean the knowledge is lost from working memory. For the DI folk students cannot envisage how a student could learn new knowledge from a project or anything else that goes under, for them, the demon named progressive teaching. And in that respect, provided the cognitive science theories are right, they are correct. So knowledge is precious and must be delivered to students directly, in small chunks that do not overload their working memory.


The next stage is almost always showing the students worked examples, where each step is small enough for them to get and fully explained so that they begin to absorb the process used to move from one step to another in the examples. What is happening now is that students have the knowledge and having got that they are able to understand the processes, skills, involved in solving the problems. One criticism of other teaching methods is that they simply provide too much information, too early. The environment is too rich for working memory to properly assimilate. That sees a sensible idea.


After the worked examples then comes practice. But practice with close and, it seems to me, quite intense feedback, correcting students’ mistakes as soon as possible, so that the get the correct knowledge into working memory rather than learn the wrong things. The work of Prof John Hattie tells us that effective feedback to learners of this sort is number one for effectiveness. The same stuff Dylan Wiliam has been banging on about for 20 years or so!


Then my understanding gets a little less evidence based as my Twitter folk have not described the process past this stage. My guess would be that they would use some further, more challenging material for students to work on. Very importantly they would want to make sure that any learning material used focused on the knowledge and the skills with minimum additional working memory load. This was, although they did not put it in these terms, their objections to the Mr Men materials from @russeltar and his Active History website. The Mr Men were an additional, unneeded distraction. Something to be learned by the students which was too poorly connected to the learning that was taking place.


I can’t get clear how the DI folk see the thing which the progressives would call engagement. I say this because when I mention engagement I was told, by a particular Tweeter, that this was not a device for focusing attention but was discipline. I think, but I may be wrong, that the expectation is that students will attend to the learning and have an appropriate focus as part of their behaviour for learning. I do have a lot of time for something along these lines. I was a head teacher who did care about students so much that we trained ours in how to learn. What behaviours were best of them and the rest of the class. We achieved results that were consistently above FFT D.


I still have questions:



What does a lesson plan or what do the material used for a Traditional Teaching lesson look like?


Is this process universally applicable for all the content in all subjects?


If the progressive method is so flawed, why is the Traditional Teaching process, not dramatically better? (One would think that if we were overwhelming the working memory so much that little would be learned)


Does this process work for all students? Equally well?


I can see how the Traditional Teaching method described may look a little clinical. Does that matter?

I think that our drive to engage students distorts the challenge, the learning challenge, we need to set them and expect, not hope, but expect them to achieve. But I wonder what part their engagement plays. What motivates students to focus and to learn?

Working Memory- It Only Stays There for a Minute or so…




Most cognitive psychologists agree on the concept of working memory and understanding how it works is rather important for teachers. It would also be great if children understood the implications of how their own working memory operated. They could choose to further develop their own learning attitude to enable them to become better learners.


The particular issue I want to address is not working memory’s limited capacity but the fact that working memory can retain information for a very limited time, about one minute at best.


One minute is not a great deal of time. So let’s picture a classroom where all children are listening attentively. If they are not the piece of information the teacher is about to give may not even get into working memory!


The teacher states, “The chemical symbol for oxygen is O”. Ok. That gets into working memory. Unless something happens within a minute to move that piece of information into long term memory the information is lost. One minute! Yep, one minute.


Now, fortunately the teacher has spoken the information about the chemical symbol and, critically, will have written it up, or powerpointed (Is that a word? … It is now!) it or some other visual display – indicated where oxygen is in the periodic table chart on the wall. That gives students, at least, a reference to use when they move to the stage that formally moves the information into long term memory and begins to secure it.


Also, super fortunately, or brains will try to automatically move the information into working memory. We are all different but this might be what happens in my brain and your brain when the teacher tells you about the symbol for oxygen.


You will link the idea to the already stored memory for the word symbol, which will have lots of links to other schema, mind maps your brain has previously created some time in the past, which is activated when it recognises the word symbol. Perhaps you also have heard of oxygen. Another link for the data stored in a very fragile way in your working memory. Great if you have a brain map for chemical symbols and that will contain references to chemicals having symbols. You will recognise that the start of the word “Oxygen” has the symbol “O”. Your teacher will be a great teacher if he writes the word Oxygen on the board with an upper case “O”. Teachers can be very supportive of this learning stuff!

To start to secure the information in long term memory we now need to get students to use and munch and think about the information as the more links there are to already existing brain maps the stronger the memory will be. Link it in as many and as varied different ways and your students will genuinely not be able to say, “Don’t know”, when you ask them, next lesson, “So, what is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?”. Please note, you can’t say Oxygen and imply the upper case letter but you can write “Oxygen” on the board to trigger some of the brain maps the student previously used to store the information. Information becomes knowledge.

This also gives some insight into why bright children are bright. Bright, clever, is a function of the number and the complexity of the interlinking of brain maps.The more you have and the better they are linked, the brighter you are and you can learn more stuff, more rapidly and more securely.

Knowledge Based Teaching – a small challenge



I am not just trying to be provocative to those who strongly believe in some version of Direct Instruction – teach knowledge, no fluffy stuff poorly paraphrases what they believe. well I am, in the hope that they will respond and show me where I am getting it wrong. Or, perhaps, let them carry on with their own thinking and delve deeper into the learning process.


One of the tenets of Direct Instruction is to present the knowledge that we want students to learn as clearly as possible. I asked @oldandreuk if he would ever make learning more difficult for students. He answered in a slightly reserved fashion saying that he probably would not.


I later read some research that seems counter intuitive. The research found that if students were presented with some material to be learned they learnt MORE and RETAINED MORE if a less clear font was used in the text than if a standard, clearer font was used.


Ok, from that I make a leap, untested, but playing with ideas is fun, to hypothesise why it might be that the less clear font, which makes students work harder might be working. What I came up with depends somewhat on accepting learning is a process of either creating a new memory map in our brain or, more usually, adding to an existing memory map. If we make students work harder, make the learning process more challenging without making the content to be learned more difficult we force them into activating more brain memory maps, more schema as the cognitive scientists say. More links mean better learning as it creates stronger memories as more maps could be activated to retrieve the learning and attaching to more maps means a deeper understanding.


May be I have created a load of nonsense but it could be correct.


Why am I exploring this?


Because although I agree with lots of the Direct Instruction stuff it makes me uncomfortable. It seems too barren a way of learning. Too programmed. Also I think DI works better for some types of learning than for others. Maths, MFL, some science work are examples of linear subjects where knowledge is built from previous learning. For example, in maths if you do not understand how to multiply by 10 you will certainly not understand how to multiply by 100.  Times 100 builds on the understanding of times 10. It also does not make for the best maths teaching to learn times 100 before learning times 10. But aspects of, say, English are not linear – some English learning will be but the great proportion of maths is linear and English is less so.


Also, research shows that DI is about 10% better than other ways of being taught. Not an efficiency improvement to be sniffed at but if other methods are so poor and clearly flawed, according to DI folk, then why are other methods getting close? Why do they get to within 90% of the claimed DI?

Be glad to hear your disagreements.

Cognitive Load and teaching Part 2


Continuing from part 1. There is some logic in this world!


Like all good learning programmes let’s start with a little revision.



The brain has 2 memory systems which interact.


The time and size limited working memory which processes, does the thing we call thinking, and can call on stored schema in the long term memory.


The working memory can only act on items it has in its own, limited storage – probably a maximum of 8 items and for anything slightly complex it can “think about” 2 or 3 of them.


But, working memory can call into its storage schema, however large and complex, and each schema only counts as one item.


Learning is the process of putting memories into long term storage. Working memory does that, often by attaching a new item to an existing schema, although working memory can create new schema. Think of schema like parts of a spider’s web. These can be big or small and probably will be connected to other “spider’s webs”. Think of a colour, say, green. When you do that you may also think of things that are green. Grass, tree leaves, bogies. Perhaps green also triggers thoughts of the Green Party. You get the idea. Schema are linked in all sorts of ways. The more links there are the more you are able to access a memory, because you can get at the memory from a greater number of places. We are completely unconscious of our stored memories until they get brought into working memory. Dreams are a special case. Odours can trigger memories as can sights and sounds or touches. You will need to Google if you want to know how senses fit into this.


Let’s get back to the limitations of working memory. CLT suggests that there are three loads, unfortunately not well defined or understood exactly what a load means as a brain function within CLT, that working memory has to deal with. The theory says these loads add and, I guess, we can think of these loads as totalling to a number either within the capacity of working memory or totalling and overloading working memory. This is where the, common sense to some extent, practice of Direct Instruction comes in.


The loads are named Intrinsic, extrinsic (my name as it fits better with intrinsic – Google if you don’t like it.) and germane.


Intrinsic load is the difficulty of the material to be learned. So 2 + 2 will present a lower intrinsic load than, find x where x=(245+93-18)/3.


Extrinsic load is the elements of distraction that are in the environment of the learning. Reducing this distraction is one of the features that CLT and DI folk get so worked up about. If you follow Twitter you will know of the minor ruffling that Mr Men caused. There are lots of bits to that argument but the one that impacts on CLT is that Mr Men is an additional piece of learning that is not directly connected to the core learning, which in the Mr Men case, was about the rise of the Weimar Republic. The Mr Men are seen by the DI folk to be an unnecessary distraction. And one can see from CLT and the limited space in working memory. The opposite camp will have reasons why the use of Mr Men is good. Probably something to do with engagement. I know it is a little more complex than that in the Mr Men case but I can’t go into all the possible issues. They don’t matter for CLT theory.


Germane load is the cognitive load put on working memory in creating or modifying schema, that you know are held in long term memory. The process of learning.


Now, CLT seems very sensible and one of the things I impress on teachers I work with is to make things as simple as possible.


But there are a number of matters that CLT enthusiasts have to deal with if they want to have a theory supporting their claims that DI is a better way to get children, and adults, to learn.


  • What exactly is a cognitive load? How is it measured?


  • What causes the limitations of working memory? Is it related to neurons or some other physical structure?


  • How do we include motivation/or engagement or whatever you choose to call it? Why do some challenging tasks lead to better learning than simpler ones? (Difficult fonts make learners work hard in reading the material but there is some evidence that learning is better than for more readable fonts.)
  • Given CLT theory and DI are directly accessing brain structures for learning and working within their limits, why is DI, at best, only around 10% more effective in securing learning?


Happy to have any comments, and especially corrections. I am no expert. I just read stuff and think a bit.