With the growing popularity of cognitive load theory (CLT), we are seeing teachers adapt their teaching: removing the irrelevant, the cul de sacs and the diverting tangents from their teaching. Pupils can meet a piece of novel information mid lesson that they can’t locate within their schemas of knowledge and that can overload the working memory. They could also form misconceptions from incorrectly located knowledge. Yet before all of these fascinating and intriguing diversions are removed from your teaching we’d urge you to pause and consider the nature of self-regulated knowledge acquisition.
When you first hear something on edutwitter or in education that seems to be gaining traction what do you do? Dig a little more? Learn a little more? Well the same happens with pupils. Their epistemic curiosity is driven by trying to locate new knowledge within their current schemas of knowledge. If they are unsuccessful, but still curious, then they accumulate new knowledge to expand a schema or build a new schema so that they are able to locate this new knowledge and further knowledge from the same field. Those intertextual or intersubject references of yours may be sometimes lost on most of the class, but for some of the class those references make them go off and read a new book, watch a film or start reading up on a subject – all wholly self regulated. They may be novices, but they can still be in schema building mode.
Curiosity is an innate human characteristic, but it’s also definable. It’s a compelling desire to acquire further knowledge or develop a particular skill. Linked with strong self-regulation it can be ultimately rewarding. If you are designing a curriculum you have to think – am I building this into my teaching? Are you giving them La Grande Permissionto go off and independently acquire new knowledge in order to epistemically locate a nugget of knowledge that you have exposed them to?
An inspired child is one happily gorging themselves on your subject; their amplified curiosity pushing them to accumulate new knowledge or abilities beyond that which they are learning in your lessons. As an English teacher, I knew that children I inspired would be reading and writing beyond that which I was doing in lessons. They were no longer only learning my subject in lessons, my subject had become part of their identity. Accumulating new knowledge and abilities in English was part of their identity and driven by them – in addition to learning the curriculum which I had designed for them. I’m no different. My curiosity in my subject is continuous, self regulated and it forms part of my identity. When I teach, I don’t just pass on knowledge, I also pass on the curiosity that drives the passion for my subject.
There’s a world of self-regulated learning out there for the curious child and any curriculum you design needs to consider how you broker that curiosity to them.
Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction provide a useful summary of some important ideas that we would encourage our trainee teachers to read and think about. The practice of instruction is an important aspect of teaching which many professionals need to be concerned with in their day to day work. However, as academics, one of our roles is to encourage our trainees to question the wide range of evidential and philosophical positions that they encounter, and before Rosenshine’s work becomes a kind of unchallengeable orthodoxy (something that happens with influential educationalists’ work – c.f. Lev Vygotsky) we would raise two questions that we think speak to the wider question of culture and its effect on education
To what extent are Rosenshine’s principles (and the research that he bases them on) facilitated by the cultural context within which he is working?
To what extent can any educational idea be successful if the cultural environment that it is being introduced to – both within and outside schools – does not see view that idea as desirable or compatible?
In raising these questions, we don’t seek to denigrate Rosenshine’s (or any other thinker’s) work, but rather get trainees and their mentors to think about the wide range of processes at work in teaching and learning. However for at least one or two of us in the UoB team we would posit that culture might be the most significant, and perhaps unrecognised factor involved in these processes. What we’re referring to when we talk about culture is in some senses, an intangible combination of location, class, race, gender and ethnicity, but for simplicity’s sake, we might see it as the interconnectedness of three things; who I am, where I come from and how those things shape my world view. This might also apply to groups of people or organisations, so culture could also refer to who we are and how we see the world.
Writing in the TES recently teacher and blogger Mark Enser suggested that he thought that every UK teacher’s practice could be improved by adopting Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. However, he also commented that he thought that it would take a culture shift to effect such a change in UK schools. Enser is right about this – to move to the kind of culture in which instruction was the focus of all teaching would require some big movements in the way that both educational policy is made, schools are run and teachers are developed. Attempting such a shift would lead to that second one of our two questions above; is such a shift achievable, or indeed, desirable? To explore this further for a minute, let us return to Rosenshine, an academic working at an American University (Illinois, in this case) and working with people who are going on to teach in American elementary schools, high schools and colleges. Anyone who has spent any time in the American education system will know that instruction is very important; indeed, many of the people who work in these institutions will be referred to as instructors. Within this education system, they are expected to instruct, to lecture, to set quizzes and tests and to confer grades on their students.
We would suggest that this is something subtly different to the Northern European conception of a teacher. In the European tradition, instruction has only been a part of what the teacher is expected to do. Some people might think that this is what needs changing about UK schools– that teachers need to be left to teach – but notice here that they don’t say “teachers need to be left to instruct”. We might suggest then that the culture of Northern European education – as opposed to an American, or Far Eastern one perhaps – is one in which the teacher has a more holistic, and certainly more pastoral, role. The teacher standards (regardless of what one thinks of them) in both the UK and the Netherlands would seem to indicate this. We could of course, have a national conversation about whether or not we think that this should be the role of the teacher, but right now, in many ways, this is the culture of UK education.
Instruction is of course, a hugely important part of many educational processes. Improving the way that our trainees here at UoB give instruction is something that we focus on quite a lot. Rosenshine provides a good starting point for thinking about what teachers need to do with instruction. But what about those circumstances where we don’t want them to be instructing (we think there are some) or perhaps those circumstances where we need them to be more critical than Rosenshine’s principles require them to be? (And we should say here, that probably in opposition to a lot of people writing on the internet, that we believe “whataboutery” to be a thoroughly good thing, as it drives inquiry on). We have recently been engaged in some research[i] which suggests that there might be some difficulties for science teachers – who require a particular kind of ontological self- awareness – if they approach their instruction, or any other aspect of their teaching, in an uncritical way; a fact not lost on some American colleagues who are thinking along similar lines. Such criticality requires an understanding of the culture in which Rosenshine originally develops his research, and the cultures from which his research examples are drawn (largely Maths, Science and English classrooms in the USA and Australia). It also requires some understanding that the culture of school science requires that teachers’ instruction deals in things that are, at best, simplifications.
The importance of understanding culture, is importantly for us, acknowledged by a wide range of people in education who come at the problem from different perspectives. Tom Bennett, for example, arrived at the conclusion that the culture within a school is the single most important factor in determining how pupils behave. We often extend this by telling our students that they need to understand the culture that surrounds a school as well and this thinking is what leads to the second of the questions that we started with. If we want to promote a particular way of thinking about teaching and learning we need to understand the culture into which we are doing that promotion. Careful thought about this process is required beforehand if it is to work. For us this is best exemplified by the cautionary tales of the involvement of both Dulwich College and Wellington School in state education. Both instances suggest that knowing a little about the culture of the area that you are moving your educational philosophy into might be useful, and a consideration of the cultural differences between that philosophy and the world view of the people you are trying to introduce it to may also prevent misunderstandings. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt you might carry a big stick, but you still need to remember to walk softly.
[i] Bates, G. & Connolly, S. (in review) “The role of intellectual virtues in the development of the science teacher: an initial provocation” Research in Teacher Education
“The research also shows that while teachers felt pupils enjoyed maths more when taught using the mastery methods, a survey of pupils did not back this up.
And the researchers warn that previous studies in East Asia have found that pupils are less likely to enjoy maths than those in England.”
The teachers thought the kids were enjoying their mathematics, but they were not. Naturally, there are some subsequent questions you might ask yourself:
Is it that important that they enjoy your subject?
Is it that important the method used to teach them enhances their enjoyment of your subject?
How did these teachers get a wrong perception?
These are important questions. For example, I enjoy running and being a runner. I don’t enjoy hills. I hate them. I don’t enjoy long steady runs. I tolerate them. But the fact that I have to do them to be a good runner doesn’t stop me from enjoying running. In fact, there is some part of me that finds hill running quite interesting and makes me curious. Lactate threshold training is a key part of running and I’m often to be found reading in-depth sport science texts about the very thing I hate. Curiouser and curiouser.
However, as an English teacher it is very important to me that people enjoy English. Even though sometimes English is tedious, frustrating, difficult and challenging in all sorts of ways (as well as being endlessly enjoyable), it is important to me that the end result is that they enjoy English and are fascinated to learn more about the subject even when it is a very difficult area. That ‘curiosity’ is what drives us to opt in to learn more about the subject independently and in our own time. It pushes the ‘subject’ into what we perceive as our leisure time and becomes part of our identity. We begin to source new knowledge in the subject independently and look to locate this knowledge within our current knowledge.
The current GCSEs in English Language and Literature are not holding their own in the marketplace of being pre-A Level recruiters. English is not a vocational subject, rather it develops transposable knowledge and skills which employers and students alike value. In addition, it is a deeply rewarding subject to study on personal and philosophical levels.
I am not one for ‘making lessons fun’. My subject is fun. However, I have to think about whether my perceptions as a teacher of my students are right. My running coach can easily ‘beast’ me to make me stronger, but that would probably put me off running or at least being taught by that coach. So it is important that a teacher has access to student voice. Sometimes it is challenging learning my subject, but I want the overall picture to be one of the students enjoying my subject: student voice is thus important.
Is it that important the methods I use to teach them enhances their enjoyment of the subject? That is difficult. I think I want the methods I use in teaching to enhance their curiosity in my subject. I want to make students stronger in such a way that they enjoy the challenges in learning more about my subject. I also want them to go on to study English at A Level and beyond.
And finally. How did these teachers get such a wrong perception of their students’ enjoyment? Did they mistake progress in learning for enjoyment? Making progress in your subject seems to be not enough to make students enjoy your subject. There must be a fostered curiosity whereby you see and appreciate the challenges within the subject and begin subsequently locating that new knowledge and curiosity within your identity. E.g. You become someone who reads interesting and difficult books as part of your identity.
it’s this last point that GCSE English isn’t fulfilling. The combination of specification, teaching methods and perceived employability are not competing with the STEM subjects. Whilst English teachers can make changes to the latter two, the first one remains out of their hands. There is a disconnect between the discipline of English with its focus on the study of language and its rich range of texts with an emphasis on reader response and the GCSE specifications for English Language and Literature. This is because English teachers do not have enough input into the GCSE specifications. At the moment, the boards are revisiting the specifications for their five year refresh and we need English teachers to have an open and consultative voice on this refresh to better help us to develop the next generation of life long students and teachers of English.
Recently, we did a CPD session on using Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) as a lens through which to view teaching and assessment in HEI. There’s scope for teaching practice to be improved in universities: use dual coding, stop reading out slides word for word and so forth. We also focused on summative assessment design. The difference between schools and HEI is we can design our own formal awarding assessments. To highlight an example of poor assessment design for our session we used the QTS Numeracy Skills Test. When you are trying to work out the question, someone starts reading the question out again, overloading your working memory. It’s an infuriating, but excellent example of poor assessment design through the lens of CLT.
In HEI, however, we can design out some of these poor assessments. We can also go further. We can look at whether the right assessment vehicle is being used for the intrinsic load being assessed, whether the assignment briefs contain too much extraneous or ambiguous information and other enhancements. In our session, we also acknowledged criticisms of CLT which are that it is a lab based concept: some extraneous load is normal in the field or discipline. This means whether you are learning or accessing schemas of knowledge, it’s not always possible in real life to remove extraneous load. When one of our trainee teachers is teaching, they have to deal with substantial extraneous distractions on their working memory whilst trying to access their schemas of knowledge in order to run the logistics of the lesson, perform in-action reflection and still teach. These can be unexpected answers or questions from a child, an observing SLT listening in on a learning walk or the mother of all extraneous loads – the rogue wasp. In all situations, they will be expected to demonstrate the Teachers’ Standards despite quite a lot of extraneous load (be reassured trainees, we do get better at managing it all). In seriousness though, if we are considering CLT then assessments have to do two things. First, you need germane laboratory style assessments to see if they can achieve the intrinsic load of the topic. For example, at Oxford University, they have increased the amount of time available for the mathematics paper to increase outcomes of all students. The intrinsic load was more important than the ability to cope with the extraneous load of a limited amount of time. Secondly, you need field or discipline based assessments to check they can access their schemas of knowledge as required despite the extraneous load provided by real life. As Mark Enser says in his blog, we do get better at this. So handling intrinsic and extraneous load together is something we can improve with practice and experience.
This brings us back to schools. Schools have focused a lot of their efforts on CLT as a means through which to raise the intrinsic load of the content being taught through germane teaching. So far, so good. But secondary schools are spending huge amounts of learning hours teaching towards GCSE assessments – sometimes from year 7 onwards despite the knowledge needed for these requiring just 120 guided learning hours per GCSE. Teachers in secondary school can look at their GCSE assessments through the lens of CLT and ask, critically: are these well designed? I recall the infamous GCSE English question, ‘Is George and Lennie’s dream in Of Mice and Men futile?’ The extraneous load of the unusual vocabulary choice in the question prevented many students from accessing their schema of knowledge about the text rendering the assessment of their knowledge inaccurate. Mathematics papers are notorious for containing higher reading ages than the students sitting them. If the assessment is the same intrinsic load, but starts to test working memory or things other than the intrinsic load of the assessment, is this poor design? Is it failing to test the schema of knowledge held by the student sitting the test? Well, only if it is not done deliberately.
The current GCSE papers have some sections which have a low extraneous load. They also have some sections which are so fiendish that teachers spend disproportionate time preparing students for it, and some sections which deliberately raise the extraneous load (e.g. the English unseen poetry section). If an assessment has a high extraneous load, then it should be because this is what happens in the discipline. If there is no need for a high extraneous load, then the assessment should be as germane as possible.
Those assessments which contain unnecessary extraneous loads also have higher ‘failure’ rates. This is where the assessment has not successfully accessed the schema of knowledge that the students have. They also raise the stress levels of teachers who are held accountable for these poor performances. How many times have you sent a student into an examination confident that they have the knowledge needed to do well only to be baffled when the grade comes back? Preparing students for assessments in a high stakes environment is fraught with difficulties. It can be as simple as not knowing one unusual word that prevents them accessing their schema of knowledge. You cannot control for a poor assessment in the same way we can in HEI. We can redesign the assessment to improve the ability of our students to access their schemas of knowledge and to demonstrate their knowledge effectively. We can also deliberately reproduce tasks from the discipline to better prepare them to work in the discipline. Schools have had this type of assessment (coursework and experiments) stripped from them because in a high stakes environment it is easy for an adult to assist students in managing the extraneous load in the assessment.
What then for schools? Well, currently, they still have scope to design their own assessments from KS1 up to KS3 (government NCTs notwithstanding). They don’t need to reproduce the poor assessment design of KS4 which eats up precious learning time and introduce it into years 7-9. They can also work on allowing them to work on subjects as a discipline. English students can work in the fast moving world of journalism, writing copy to speed; geographers can go out into the field and match the real world to their schemas of knowledge: there is scope for excellent curriculum design where assessment is designed for the students not the accountability system. There is a match between HEI lecturers and teachers for KS1-3 in terms of the ability to design curriculums and assessments.
I’m wary of calling for redesign of KS4-5 assessment because it does nothing but create more workload. However, there is a case for a fresh review of the assessments through the lens of CLT. Can we improve the ability of these assessments to enable students to access their schemas of knowledge and for teachers to spend more time teaching content and less time preparing students for the unnecessary extraneous loads of the poorly designed assessments? I’d be interested to hear from teachers who know their key stage or secondary subject assessments in fine detail and how they view the assessments through the lens of CLT.
Epistemology is a personal thing (I’m going to leave numbers alone here), but with the current Hirsch-fuelled push for knowledge in school curriculums/curricula, how one perceives knowledge is, and must be, important. I’m of the opinion that we don’t just teach knowledge to children – a posteriori, we develop their abilities to create knowledge in future known and unknown situations, a priori. I don’t just want explicit knowledge taught to them, I want them to develop tacit knowledge. We need children to develop motivation and curiosity into finding or creating, through reasoning, new knowledge of all kinds. Because once their teacher has gone, we need them to be good at creating or sourcing knowledge and knowing that it is knowledge and not buzzfeed bunkum.
Yet, I’m not convinced we have really dug into our ideas about knowledge and its longevity. If children need some knowledge only for a GCSE assessment and never ever again then the experience of learning that knowledge needs to confer upon them some kind of transoposable habitus type advantage else what is the point of learning it? Habitus, is a Bourdesian term:
Is extraneous knowledge actually part of successful habitus of powerful knowledge? Do we seek to locate it and thus it drives an innate curiosity which develops our ability to develop tacit knowledge? Knowledge of the powerful does seem to be the ability to challenge and locate the knowledge that is being presented as well as knowledge which others can’t easily seen as readily powerful (ballet, plays, etc.) – something Bernstein has inspired quite a bit of work around. I once read Don Quixote simply to understand an intertextual reference in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Should we all understand when someone is tilting at windmills? Or are we reinforcing the cultural elitism of this sort of ‘knowledge of the powerful’ by insisting on this?
One of the things I wrote about in my book was rapid knowledge acquisition and disposal. Disposable knowledge I called it. If you want to do something quite obscure in Office Word or Excel, just as a once off, with no need to understand how it works, you don’t go on a long in-depth course on Office. You simply google and youtube the knowledge, find some direct instruction, apply it, and then forget it. If you need to know it again, you’ll google it again, get the direct instruction and achieve the outcome again. You use google as your long term repository of such specific knowledge and the direct instruction needed to access it for your needs. That to me is a really key skill for the modern world. It’s still based around knowledge, but it rejects rote learning, retention and the rest for some types of knowledge. It also suggests that direct instruction could be used in the wrong way as well as the right way. It really depends on why I need the knowledge. If I need the knowledge on a regular basis or I need to understand why and how the knowledge interacts with other knowledge then that is quite different. This is where key knowledge comes in – vocabulary, mathematical reasoning, foundational concepts and so forth.
I’ve also got issue with the verisimilitude of knowledge, to use one of my favourite Sherlockian words. That’s the truthfulness of the knowledge. In a post truth world, these are good questions to ask. I learn facts, but when I go to use them again later in life I have to check my understanding because the chances are that what I thought were ‘facts’ have shifted. A simple example would be ‘dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid.’ I would have to check the knowledge behind my fact every time I needed to use that as the ‘truthfulness’ of that ‘fact’ habitually shifts.
Facts are also contextual. Ask yourself: what were the years of WWII? At one level, you’ll say 1939-1945. However, a historian would say – ah, well, that’s a very European perspective. So facts change depending on the level or perspective of which you are studying them and we aren’t really debating that transition of knowledge from one level to another enough. It suggests we need to really think more about curriculums/curricula for KS3, 4 and 5 and how they connect.
I note the MP David Lammy’s outrage at the lack of black students in Oxbridge. Let’s be honest, it is not the knowledge they learn for the GCSEs and A Levels that are getting white, privileged and privately educated children into Oxbridge. There are many state educated children from a whole range of backgrounds that apply, don’t get in and yet have the same grades. The successful applicants must be learning some kind of knowledge not taught as part of the GCSE and A level curriculum. Even the schools with the strongest behaviourist approaches are not producing the knowledge being looked for here. What is that knowledge? How is it perceived by the interviewing tutors? I rather think it is more tacit knowledge than the explicit knowledge of the GCSE and A level assessments. Is it the subjectivity of the selection process or is it the poor design of curriculum in schools? Certainly others think the problem lies with schools not Oxbridge.
One modern knowledge or skill, explicit or tacit, I am currently writing about as part of research, is that the modern student arrives with a transposable habitus of resolving problems through electronic social and work networking through multiple layers of privacy. If we meet a problem the first thing we do is employ our networks and communities to research and resolve the issue with the privacy setting adjusted depending on the type of problem to ensure we can get the level of criticality required. Even the highest cabinet ministers and MPs have WhatsApp groups to help them collaborate around problems like this. Reese-Mogg directly influences the Conservative party through his powerful European WhatsApp group. Collaboration is in the PISA test. Should we be teaching them knowledge about how to develop physical and electronic social networks to resolve problems? To understand how privacy can change the type of information being constructed? Is social interaction knowledge another domain that we need to develop in young people? And I mean physical social interaction not just electronic!
We also need to revisit the concept of ‘skill’ to reconcile the many contrary ideas currently manifesting around this area. We can teach the knowledge of grammar over and over, but it is not delivering quality composition. Originality, curiosity driven by extraneous knowledge, non-empirical knowledge, reader response and so forth are all shadowy areas in the notion of skill and the knowledge behind skill. When I read about the education systems we are supposed to be emulating, such as Singapore, then they all seem to be moving towards a model of developing skills and other non-empirical aims or virtues such as resilience or, something attracting funding in the UK, ‘character’, through a beefed up arts and outdoors curriculum with a reduction on the pedagogies of rote learning – we seem to be swapping curriculums (I’m going Amercian with this term I think) and pedagogies with those we seek to emulate.
What does this mean for teachers? It means before we head down the labelled ‘knowledge rich’ path that is currently vogue with some (and be warned, read: learning pyramids, learning styles, growth mindset, brain gym and every other clickbaitish educoncept that people cite repeatedly for a short period of time) there is a need to investigate the mapping (as Sue Cowley argues) and teaching of knowledge (as Debra Kidd explores) and the way knowledge interacts with the development of skill so that we can bring better criticality to the debate behind teaching knowledge in order to ensure that it is used effectively and with longevity. It is good to see the debate is moving, but there is still a need to develop some of the answers.
About a year ago, the Head of our School of Teacher Education, Juliet Fern, wrote an article in the Guardian, suggesting that Universities should take a more advanced role in the way that teachers get trained later on in their career, as a way of helping stop some of the problems that we have with teacher retention in this country. What was most revealing to us as a group of academics were the “below the line” comments concerning what Juliet had written.
In between the widespread apathy and general derision towards the idea of Universities playing any kind of role in teacher education, there was a huge amount of misunderstanding and a significant lack of knowledge about what it is that teams like the one we belong to here at UOB are trying to do. Like the character of Arthur Seaton, (from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, whose words above were subsequently appropriated by the Arctic Monkeys) we felt the need to address what people think they know about us.
Currently, we’re considering in some detail about what our PGCE should really be like. This is because we’re involved in one of those review processes that Universities conduct on a semi-regular basis. However, instead of seeing this as a box-ticking exercise, we’ve taken the opportunity, as a team, to think very carefully about what it is we believe in. A close look at the comments below Juliet’s article would suggest that we don’t believe in (or know) very much, but this is a public narrative that we would want to challenge. The fine detail can be found in our PGCE Rationale Document but perhaps more succinctly, the kind of teacher education we pursue here at UoB is about three things
A pluralistic approach to teaching and learning
Creating a mobile, but sustainable workforce
Developing teachers who can think for themselves
That first one is from an academic point of view, the most important. At the heart of the PGCE course is the notion that trainees need to recognise that there are many ways of teaching the young people that we work with and that this recognition requires that they think about how they view things like knowledge, skills, pedagogy and evidence. For us as academics, it means exposing them to as many different perspectives on teaching and learning as possible, but also acknowledging that this exposure needs to happen in philosophical and theoretical terms as well as practical ones. Consequently, we are unapologetic about teaching a range of philosophical and theoretical ideas about education alongside practical strategies that trainees need in the classroom. Recent work by Steve Courtney from the University of Manchester makes this argument better than we can, but suffice to say this first principle of teacher education is tied into a belief that teacher education must be, at least, partly located in the University, and not wholly in schools.
From a professional point of view, the second principle is most important. More than ever, we need a mobile workforce, who can work in a range of different environments. We are fortunate that we have a diverse school partnership here at UoB, from the neo-traditional to the progressive and also those who reject this dichotomy. Our trainees need to be able to work in these environments and everywhere in between, and our PGCE must prepare them for this, even if the trainees don’t personally concur with the educational philosophy of a particular setting. This level of preparedness is essential in a time of massive teacher shortages.
Finally, we would conjecture that those teacher shortages have occurred because of an inability to get teachers to do the third thing on our list. We are interested in developing teachers who stay in the profession for the long term, mainly by encouraging them to think beyond their immediate environment, and to think about the bigger picture; so not asking just, “How can I contribute to this school?” but also, “How can I contribute to the wider profession through my work in a number of schools?” . Not just “Can I get a job?” but “Can I get the right job for me?”. Not just “What do I need to know to pass this course?”, but ” What do I need to know to make a successful go of the profession?” This kind of sustainable thinking about teacher education is what Juliet Fern was hinting about in her original article. It is the kind of approach to teacher education we have seen in the Netherlands, which has, historically at least, seen much better teacher retention rates.
This understanding sheds some light on the issues surrounding these often very difficult to manage children. We tend to look at our external environmental strategies to see if they will work and often cannot see why they don’t work. However, these strategies simply will not work if the ANS is experiencing the external or internal child environment as dangerous. Where does this leave us then? Our focus needs to be on getting the ANS in the right place rather than on the poor behaviour resulting from the ANS response. Quite simply we also would behave in inappropriate ways if our ANS was misfiring in this way. When working with these children it is helpful for us to acknowledge poor behaviour and response to learning as adaptive rather than maladaptive. That leads us to the question, ‘Why might this behaviour be adaptive?’. Once we have asked ourselves that question it can lead us forward in our search for good solutions.
We can take three routes to modifying the ANS response and in ‘learning the child’, we can try to find the right combination of routes. The first route works primarily on the body and physiological response generated by the ANS. The second route works primarily on the emotional state itself to create a sense of safety. The third route works on the cognitive (executive function) ability to apply a brake to the ANS. This whole brain way of working represents a powerful model for working with these children.
As teachers we need to ‘stand still in order to move on’. This means finding the time to stand back and ask the question ‘ Could this behaviour be signalling something more than is immediately obvious? By being prepared to view behaviour as a signal of adaptation gives us the space to become thoughtful and reflective rather than reactive. It enables us to be better teachers and children to learn better.
The author is a former SENDCO and advisory teacher for looked after children. He currently runs a consultancy – advising schools and children’s homes on working with children with SEND backgrounds.
Few people who hear the poem adapted above, realise that WH Auden originally wrote it as a piece of satire, mocking the sort of eulogies that are delivered for public figures who don’t really deserve them. The fact that the poem is often seen as and used as, a heartfelt tribute at funerals, suggests that it is easy to misrepresent a poet’s intentions by making use of their work in such a way that its original meaning is lost, and the same might be said of educational research. John Sweller’s work on cognitive load is often promoted by a group of teachers and researchers who have come to be identified as “the neo-trads” or neo-traditionalists. However, just like when a legion of summative assessors leapt misguidedly upon the Black and Wiliam Black Box and nearly broke the system with their enthusiasm for inefficient assessment of work and learning, so we need to be careful before doing the same with Sweller’s work on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT).
Many people forget that Sweller accepts the constructivist view of learning – namely that we learn because of a set of mental structures (often referred to as schemata) which allow us to construct meanings and information from that which we perceive of the outside world. The difference for Sweller is what this means for teachers. For social constructivists, like Jerome Bruner, this construction is facilitated through the individual’s interaction with others and the world they inhabit. It is a journey of discovery rather than a guided path. For Sweller, this is the problem. The mental structures with which with he is concerned need to be built in a particular way, and this is where the teacher comes in. They must teach certain things in certain ways which develop the architecture of the schema, allowing them to be stored in the individual’s long term memory. For Sweller, teaching methods which allow students to discover things for themselves do not do this.
But…..Sweller is clear that his ideas do not constitute “ a theory of everything”. Most of the data which supports his theory comes from the subject domains of Maths and Science. He doesn’t feel that Cognitive Load Theory works as a way of informing instructional design unless what is being learnt has a high level of what he calls “element interactivity”, namely, the number of different elements that must be considered simultaneously in the instance of learning – say, something like a complex equation. Interestingly, an Australian academic called Arianne Rourke has tried to apply Sweller’s ideas to the Art classroom , but only in the sense of using worked examples to teach students about the history of design and designers – an area of Art education that we might see as being largely a matter factual information, rather than the affective matter of expression or interpretation.
The real problem with CLT then, would appear to be its adaptability and scalability. Can it, as a basis for instructional design, be adapted to subjects like Drama, Geography or DT? Probably not, though it might be worth thinking about areas of these subjects where CLT might have an application? Could it be scaled properly across schools so that everyone was using it to inform their teaching? Again, probably not, but some teachers might benefit from thinking about cognitive load and where this idea was advantaging or disadvantaging learning.