The educational world is divided, so are the Brits over Brexit, the Americans over Trump, the French over Macron, and many others more, so I’ll just drown out the sounds of discord with a slice of cake and a nice cup of tea.
In my previous blog I discussed how an experience with my son struggling to complete a maths multiplication homework had led me to re-evaluate the importance of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). In this blog, I will discuss a second experience which has convinced me that we should put CLT at the heart of everything we do as teachers.
First, let me give a little context. In September, I started working as TA (teaching assistant) in a primary school Reception class. I had worked in Reception before for two terms in another school, so I had a good understanding of the Early Years curriculum and objectives. In my previous school, I had been assigned a group of eight children to teach phonics to in a 20-minute session four days a week. Surprisingly, given I had no prior experience of teaching phonics (and I was given no training), I was assigned to the ‘lowest’ ability group. That is, I was given the pupils that were most behind and needed the most intervention. This was surprising to me, because I would have expected that such pupils would be taught by the most experienced practitioner, not the least experienced.
I was told to simply teach those eight children the initial phase 2 sounds, using the Jolly Phonics letter rhymes and some flash cards. If you are not acquainted with these songs, they would go something like this (to the tune of Skip to my Lou):
“/a/ /a/ ants on my arms, /a/ /a/ ants on my arms, /a/ /a/ ants on my arm, they’re causing me alarm”.
While singing the song, you would mime the movement for the letter sound, which in this case was touching the top of your arms as if you had ants running up them. Each letter had its own little song and mime routine. The children were so practised in this that it got to the point where if you showed them the flash card for a letter, they would immediately act out the movement, such as putting their arms out and pretending to be an aeroplane for the sound /n/. It was all very jolly and fun, but I had a niggling suspicion in my mind that I wasn’t really teaching them very much by singing lots of rhymes and showing them flash cards. On one occasion, I tried to get a little more creative. I gave the children mini-whiteboards and tried modelling how to write the letter we were focusing on that day. Later, the class teacher took me aside and told me not to give them mini-whiteboards as they were not “developmentally ready” for writing. She had spotted me trying to help a pupil who was struggling to grip a pen correctly and made her disapproval clear. In her mind, writing was far too ambitious a step for children who still didn’t know all their initial letter sounds. I believe this is a commonly held view in the Early Years sector.
Before I move on to discuss how my experience of teaching phonics differs in my new setting, let me interject with two little observations I made during my time at that school. I noticed that overwhelmingly, the children who could read and write well (for their age) were the ones able to sit still, listen and focus. Most of the eight children in the low ability group I was teaching were unable to do this. They constantly fidgeted, called out and got distracted. They found it very difficult to focus. From an anecdotal perspective therefore, there was a clear link between poor focus and low attainment. A few other children in the group were quiet but had English as a second language and ended up in the lower ability group simply by dint of being labelled EAL. The second observation to be made is that I was teaching these children the very basic letter sounds, not in the first half-term so that they could catch up with their peers, but in the Summer term, by which time they had well and truly been left behind. Hold these two observations, if you please, as I will be returning to them later in this blog.
My new school uses the Sounds-Write programme to teach reading and writing. I am currently undergoing training in this programme and I’ve also been able to observe it being taught daily in class this past month. As from last week, I have been able to put some of my training into practice, as I’ve been assigned a group of five children to run an intervention programme with. We have a teaching session together while the rest of the class goes off to the main hall for assembly. This means we have a quiet classroom and I sit them around me on a horseshoe shaped table so that their focus is on me, with little to distract them.
Cognitive Load Theory is at the heart of the Sounds-Write programme. I do not have space in here to go into too much detail about the programme itself, but I will make some observations how it uses CLT to advance pupils’ learning.
- The programme is very carefully sequenced to teach the children how to read and write in small incremental steps. Nothing new is introduced until the previous concepts/knowledge/skills have been consolidated. The idea is that at no point should children have to process too much information and suffer from cognitive overload.
- Once a sound is taught, the children get to practise writing it straight away. There is no concept of focusing on the reading first, and letting the writing catch up at a later stage on the assumption that children are not yet developmentally ready for writing. The two skills are taught in tandem. On the contrary, it’s thought that getting the children to write the letter sound being taught helps to reinforce recognition of that letter/sound correspondence. As they write each letter, the children have to say out loud the sound they are writing. They also get a motivating sense of success by learning how to write a few simple CVC words from a very early stage.
- Lessons are scripted with very concise and precise language. So for example where I would have been minded to correct a child I’m reading with by using language such as “this letter makes the sound /i/”, the Sounds-Write approach would have me simply say (pointing to the letter) “this spells /i/”. Cutting out extraneous language such as “this letter makes the sound” and replacing it with “this spells” is a powerful way of keeping the focus on the main thing. Again, the fewer the distractions, the greater the focus. Since we are dealing with young children who have not yet learned those essential focussing skills, we need to be very mindful about creating a framework where what we are teaching can cut through.
- Similarly, when encountering everyday words that have extended code sounds (those so-called tricky words such as “the”, “was” or “is”) we don’t go into any extended explanation about them. We simply say for instance: “in this word (while pointing), this spells /th/”.
- The core of the programme is taught by way of set piece lessons, which are repeated over the different learning units. This means that while the content being taught may change, the actual lessons stay the same. Within a few weeks, the children become very familiar with the lesson framework and this means that their focus is on the new content rather than on the delivery of that content. Because the children know what will come next, they can anticipate and be ready for it. If their attention momentarily strays, they will not be lost at sea when it returns. They can immediately work out at what stage of the lesson they are and what will happen next. Therefore, even easily distracted children can still stay on track with the content being taught. By keeping to a familiar format, limited working memory can focus on learning the new content and not be wasted on processing other things.
- Having the same set of lessons repeatedly is not boring. The new content is what keeps it fresh.
Over the last four weeks I have watched with interest the daily Sounds-Write lessons. These are done when the children are sitting on the carpet, and I spend my time supporting the teacher, checking what the children are writing on their whiteboards and helping those that are struggling.
There is one little boy, I’ll call him Steven, who is quite young, easily distracted and struggles to hold the pen in his hand. When we come to writing a simple word we have built (lesson 1: word building) he finds it hard to replicate the shape of the letters on his whiteboard. I have had to help guide his hand, as well as write out the word in green and ask him to trace over my writing in black. Even such a task, he finds tremendously difficult. Many educationalists would say Steven is not developmentally ready to write. In my old school, he would probably have been placed in the low ability group and relegated to repeating the phase 2 sounds. Here, there is no opt out. He participates in all the lessons with the rest of the class, and even though he gets distracted, something of the repetitive nature of the lessons must be cutting through.
Steven, unsurprisingly, is one of the five children in my intervention group. Last week I had my first session with them. I didn’t give them a specially tailored programme. I simply taught two familiar lessons: symbol search (lesson 2) and word building (lesson 1). This meant that there was no messing around trying to work out what they were supposed to do or getting excited by an exotic new task. By now, all the children were well versed in the handful of lessons from the programme. In symbol search, I say a sound and they point to the correct letter on my letter grid. Steven still struggled with this task. When I asked him to point to the sound /i/, he pointed to the letter “a”.
We then went on to the word building lesson. I helped them to build the word “mat” and modelled how to write it on my board. They then had to write the word on their mini-whiteboard. This is usually the point where Steven looks at me and asks for help. Not this time. Before my astonished eyes, I saw this boy pick up his pen and carefully write out, inelegantly but legibly, the word “mat”. We then proceeded to build the word “sit”. As we build it, I ask a child to tell me what the first, next and last sound of the word is and to then point to the correct letter corresponding to that sound (they are displayed on post it notes). After “s” was put in place, I turned to Steven and asked him what sound comes next. He immediately answered “/i/” and then picked the correct letter and placed it after the “s”. Finally, when the word was built, they each had to write it down on their own mini-whiteboard. The shape of “s” was a little too tricky, so I did my usual of writing it in green pen and asking him to trace over it, then to try to write out the whole word independently. My heart sang as he held up his white board with a clearly written “sit” in his own hands.
We still have a long way to go with Steven. However, I have been impressed with the rapidity of his progress. This means he won’t get left behind with an ever-growing attainment gap. He’s going to catch up. The deceptively simple design of the instruction programme has helped him to keep up. He doesn’t have to grapple with lots of unfamiliar processes or too much new information. Even though he’s not sitting rapt and focused like some of the other high attaining pupils, the necessary content is cutting through and he is learning to read and write.
Not many in the education world will have failed to have heard about Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). The theory was propelled into the limelight by a seminal tweet made by Dylan William last year and has since been the subject of much discussion among various educationalists.
I’m going to paraphrase the theory here, but my understanding of it is that there is only so much information that can be held in working memory at any time, but one way of short-cutting this constraint is to memorise important building blocks (or schemata) into long-term memory, which has infinitely more capacity. These schemata in our long-term memory can then be brought forward at any time to assist our working memory in thinking about more complex problems. On the other hand, if we ask our students to try to juggle too much new information at once, the result will be cognitive overload, or that blank, confused stare which means you have totally lost them. One way forward is to only teach new concepts in small increments and practise them extensively before moving on to the next new thing – in this way building up all those vital schemata in long-term memory.
I have read about CLT with interest and found the arguments persuasive, though I was a little doubtful about Dylan William’s assertion that it was the single most important thing for teachers to know. However, two experiences this week have forced me to re-evaluate my thinking on this.
The first experience was at home with my 9-year old son. He had some maths homework to do on Mathletics (an online app for children to practise maths) and I could hear him groan in frustration from across the room. Upon further investigation, it turned out that his Mathletics homework involved solving some long multiplications, and that he had absolutely no clue what to do. I prodded him a little by asking him what the steps are in solving a long multiplication. “I don’t know”, was the answer.
“Didn’t your teacher explain how to do it?”
“He did but I didn’t understand it.”
“What bit didn’t you understand?”
“I didn’t understand anything”.
His voice had now risen in frustration. He then produced a sheet of paper for me and said the teacher had handed it to the students who still were unsure about the process of solving long multiplications. He had been studying this sheet of paper, trying to understand, but looking at it made him even more confused.
I had a look at the sheet. For someone like me who understands the concept, the sheet made logical sense, but I was not surprised that a novice like my son would find it confusing. Firstly, there’s just so much to take in. Six boxes filled with text and numbers, and the confusing use of letters to denote numbers. A novice will look at this sheet and think, oh my goodness this is so complicated, and then give up.
So, we started from scratch all over again, and I was painfully aware that I had to make my explanation clear and simple or else risk losing him all over again and reinforcing the negative feelings he was developing about not being good at maths. I was particularly frustrated because we had been through something like this two years ago. Back then I had had to step in and tutor him because he had claimed he couldn’t do maths and was making remarks such as “I’m not clever”. We had spent 20 minutes a day for a few weeks or so during the Summer holidays, with me explaining concepts to him and getting him to practise them. His improvement was rapid, to the extent that when he started year 3 and had to fill out a card about himself, he wrote this.
By the way, I’m happy to report that he did indeed improve his writing and won a pen license!
I decided to get the mini-whiteboard out and model for him exactly how to do a long multiplication. I had to think of how to model this on the hoof, but I came up with using different whiteboard colours for each of the main steps.
The first step was to write out the multiplication in black. I made sure he knew how to lay it out on the grid. Then I switched to a blue pen and circled the number “8”, explaining we start by multiplying this with each of the numbers above. I made sure to repeat my instructions before moving on to the next bit and to speak slowly and clearly. I decided to just write out the numbers to carry forward on the side, and to cross them out as we went along. I felt that inserting them under the main numbers in the grid would just make the whole thing look too busy.
Having finished with the first line, I then switched to my brown pen and circled the number “6”. Now we multiply “6” by all the numbers above, but before we do this, we write a zero here. And I modelled the process for him, explaining in very precise, succinct terms what I was doing. Finally, the last step was done in green, where we basically added up each column.
I then wrote down another long multiplication for him to try out by himself. What pleased me was that he got all the steps right. He knew where to start, and where to proceed next. He didn’t get the multiplication right because he was let down by his poor times table knowledge. I thought he had these in the bag, but it seems not all the information was firmly embedded in long term memory. We practised a couple more long multiplications, and he progressively got more confident. He knew just what to do and was no longer confused. He had a clearly mapped out plan of action.
But of course, it was clear to me he needed to master his times tables. I tested him on a few of the tables and had some interesting results. For instance, he paused a long time before giving me the answer to 6×4. He then admitted that he knew 2 sixes made twelve, and that he had been adding up twelve and twelve in his head. Can’t fault his logic there, but such calculations take up too much working memory. His answer needs to be automatic, practically without thinking.
This is something we are going to have to remedy. Why oh why, though, is it me having to do this and not his teacher at school? I remember regular drills of my times tables at school when I was young. I don’t think my mother ever had to step in to ensure I learned them. If we think of this times table knowledge as one of the vital schemata required in long term memory before children can successfully attempt long multiplication and long division, then it’s a mystery to me as to why that knowledge is not checked, just like a phonics check, though perhaps more informally (i.e. not state mandated).
As we put the whiteboard away, I asked my son if my explanation of how to solve long multiplications had been more understandable than the teacher’s. And then the truth came out. “I don’t know. I was distracted by the displays on the wall. I like looking at the enrichment tasks, you know, the pieces of work other children have done. I also like looking at the clock and adding different times to see when it will be lunch time.” So, whatever technique the teacher used to explain how to do long multiplication was lost on my son because he was distracted by the displays on the wall and by the clock.
Another nugget of information then came my way. “The teacher goes really fast, like he’s in a big hurry and he doesn’t give me time to think.” A fast-paced lesson full of energy might work fine for some, but it can mean others are left behind, particularly if they have not yet mastered the concepts being learned. When being subjected to a quick-fire barrage of information, some children can suffer from cognitive overload and shut down altogether. I’m guessing something like this must have happened with my son. For he is perfectly capable of learning how to do long multiplication. A systematic approach that took into account Cognitive Load Theory would have helped him, and many others like him, not to fall by the wayside needlessly. In retrospect, there are several key areas where a CLT approach might have ensured a different outcome:
- An understanding that knowing times tables is a vital schema that needs to be embedded in long-term memory as a precursor to moving on to doing more complex calculations such as long multiplications. This should have been checked and remedied.
- An awareness that busy displays on walls can be distracting, using up critical working memory when the pupil should be focusing on the teacher explanation. Wall clocks should also be positioned out of pupils’ sightlines.
- When teaching a complex process that involves several steps, to think about how to display that information in a way that reduces cognitive load. On reflection, my modelling of the long multiplication using a different colour for each step was a way to simplify the tasks in a visually appealing way. This is, if I understand it correctly, a lot of what dual coding is about. Whereas that busy yellow sheet was the opposite of dual coding. It invited pupils to try to process too much information at once and had little to help them short-circuit working memory constraints.
- There was also an issue with the fast-paced barrage of information being delivered in one go. While it might be tempting for teachers to up the pace and inject some energy into proceedings, it is important to remember that new concepts must be taught slowly and in small increments, to allow working memory to cope.
I have spent so much time on this one experience that I have not got the space in this blog to talk about the other thing that has made me re-evaluate the importance of Cognitive Load Theory. This was the implementation of the Sounds-Write phonics programme in my Reception class. I will have to write about this in a future blog. For now, I hope I’ve made a strong case for the importance of CLT for teachers.
I read with interest a recent article in the Guardian highlighting the number of British teachers who have gone to teach abroad and who do not plan to return to teach in the UK. Having worked full-time in five schools, and had a stint doing supply work, I am not surprised that so many teachers are leaving.
I myself enrolled on an Initial Teacher Training (ITT) course last year, only to find the working conditions intolerable. Since then, I have often thought about ‘getting back on the horse’ and just this week took a look at the UCAS listings to see what training opportunities were available in my area for 2019. I decided not to go for it. Maybe it’s a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy’, but I feel very reluctant to invest my time and trust in a profession which overwhelmingly does not treat its people well.
What I found even more interesting, reading the article and comments responding to it, is the belief held by many that somehow the government is to blame for the current state of affairs and that it is the government that must put things right. Of course, the government is not entirely blameless. I have heard enough about how Ofsted used to strike fear in the heart of teachers and the arbitrary way schools used to be inspected. I also know that funding is an issue for many schools. When wasn’t it an issue? It’s probably always going to be part of the remit of school leaders to lobby for more funds and budget stringently. However, we must keep aware that funding in itself is not a panacea. If schools overnight were given 10% more money, there would still be a teacher recruitment and retention crisis.
The problem goes much deeper than salaries or inspection frameworks. The problem is that we have too many school leaders who do not really know how to lead. Compounding this problem is a powerful layer of academics, consultants and teacher trainers who perpetuate the wrong ideas and put new teachers at a disadvantage right from day one. When you have trainees being told that teaching “is not a profession where you can clock in and clock out” (why on earth not?) and that they need to be prepared at times “to work from 7am to 10pm” (not on your nelly!), we have a real problem with how teaching is perceived. Too often it is seen as a vocation for which sacrifices are necessary, rather than as a job. Of course calling it a ‘job’ doesn’t mean teachers are mercenary or unfeeling. Jobs can be meaningful and satisfying. However, they don’t take over your life, occupying both your working and leisure hours. [By the way, I am the trainee who was told such things.]
So yes, we have a problem, but the government is not going to solve it. If we want things to change, then the change needs to happen from within. There are so many ways in which school leaders could effect changes that would make their schools happier places to work in. I agree wholeheartedly with Colin Harris, who writes in his recent TES article that:
We cannot afford to lose any more teachers and we can’t afford for morale to be so poor. So it’s time for us to do something about it.
In short, it is time for schools to re-evaluate.
It’s time for schools to re-evaluate. Stop blaming the government for all our ills. It’s all too easy to do that and deflect the blame away to some third party. The change needs to happen within schools. Governors and school leaders – it’s up to you to take charge of this crisis and do something about it. And in case you don’t know where to start, here are some pointers.
- Sort out behaviour. Ensure you have robust systems in place that support teachers to teach and create a calm, safe environment for your students. Also, give yourself a reality check. Stop thinking that behaviour is fine when it actually isn’t. Can every teacher in your school, be it an NQT or a supply, walk in to their classroom and teach without disruption? Do you still expect your teachers to run their own detentions? (if so, you need a re-think)
- Carefully consider your teachers’ workload. Are you asking them to do time-consuming tasks which contribute little to the educational progress of your students? Remember, feedback and marking are not the same thing. If you still expect your teachers to mark school books on a regular basis, you need to think again. Whole class feedback is far more effective as a feedback strategy, and far less time consuming. Do you still expect your teachers to enter lots of data on spreadsheets? Stop doing that. SLT can do the data entering and crunching. Teachers have far better ways to spend their time. Do you require your teachers to make fancy displays to impress visitors, such as parents on open days? Again, these are things that don’t have much if any impact on student learning. As long as classrooms are neat and tidy, leave the teachers alone. Finally, think carefully about how often and when you schedule meetings. Could much of the business in these meetings be sorted by email or some kind of Google Share platform?
- Trust teachers, do not micro-manage them and restore autonomy to the teaching profession. This also means not imposing on your teachers particular types of pedagogy or lesson structure. Let the curriculum, and the teachers leading that curriculum, decide how best to teach it. As Michael Fordham argues cogently in this post, generic pedagogy has been over-emphasised at the expense of curriculum.
- Finally, be kind to your teachers and don’t let cliques, resentments and competitiveness build up. Let every staff member in your school feel valued. Unfortunately, the audit culture in many schools has created a febrile climate where teachers feel under constant pressure to perform and where they are constantly fearful of being rapped on the knuckles for doing something wrong. Take that pressure away and create a “high-challenge, low threat” supportive environment where teachers feel comfortable trying new approaches out and seeking help and advice when they need it.
And that’s about it. It’s not rocket science really, just common sense. It doesn’t require some government edict from up high. It just needs leaders to actually do their job – be leaders, not opressors.