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Thoughts on how ‘seduction’ might damage learning …

It is the bane of teachers: – pupils not remembering what we teach them, but more than that, remembering the wrong stuff instead. You think you’ve taught a memorable lesson and then the next day all they can talk about is the man’s funny glasses in the video you showed them. Teachers have to fight to hold onto pupils’ attention and get stuff to stick! It’s a huge tug of war with all sort of things: friends, last night’s TV show, the argument with a friend at playtime… the list is endless. If you’ve read Graham Nuthall’s truly wonderful book: The Hidden Lives of Learners, then you’ll also know that a lot of the time kids aren’t thinking or talking about what we want them to in lessons at all. This is why teaching is hard! But there’s hope! (As Basil Fawlty always said, ‘it’s the hope that gets to you’…)

Ever hopeful, I recently came across a paper entitled:  How Seductive Details Do Their Damage: A Theory of Cognitive Interest in Science Learning by Shannon F. Harp and Richard E. Mayer.

This paper researches how additional information in the form of illustrations and photographs in science text books might hinder pupils’ learning. This got me to wondering about all the misplaced ‘seductive details’ there might be in my lessons, additional ‘stuff’ that clogs up pupils’ working memories and leads learning astray. Harp and Mayer’s research seems to resonate here…

To begin with, most lessons are formed around teaching a main idea or set of ideas, and by the end of the lesson we want pupils to have thought about these enough to make it stick – to have integrated this into their understanding – reformulating and expanding existing mental schemas. However, there’s much to prevent this and the concept of ‘seductive details’ (which might be considered no different from Sweller’s ‘extraneous content’) is one way to appreciate this:

Seductive details: “highly interesting and entertaining information that is only tangentially related to the topic but is irrelevant to the author’s intended theme.”

Here, I’m repositioning the author as the teacher, presenting and explaining new information in class. In the same way that Harp and Mayer describe the three processes learners use to remember the main ideas in a text, I’m basing this thought experiment on pupils using the same three distinct processes in order to ‘construct a coherent mental representation of the information’ we teach (1998:2). The processes for this are selecting, organising and integrating the information relating to the main idea.

Selecting: refers to paying attention to relevant pieces of information in the main idea or ideas. Here, for example, let’s imagine the main idea is that animals can be grouped into three different groups depending on their types of diet. Through everything that a learner hears or sees in the lesson, this is the information they need to select and focus on.

Organising: refers to building internal connections among selected pieces of information that are presented or explained, for example, that there are different types of animals with different types of teeth and they can be predators and, or prey.

Integrating: refers to building external connections between incoming information and prior knowledge. For example, that cats have sharp pointy teeth, they chase birds and other little animals and eat meat in the form of cat food.

So now – how do seductive details damage this processing of a main idea?  One thing to note first is that seductive details often require less mental effort or attentional focus to process so they are easier to understand than the main idea. The mind operates along on what I think of as, ‘the path of least resistance,’ or as Daniel Willingham suggests, it prefers memory to thinking. So seductive details are just easier and less effortful, that’s part of what makes them seductive. It’s like having to choose between walking to work in the rain, or getting a lift in a warm car; most people will choose the car as it’s easier and more comfortable.  

Following this, there are three premises Harp and Mayer discuss in regard to how seductive details might damage these types of processing. Here, I’ve thought about how they might unfold in teaching:  

Distraction hypothesis – in constructing a coherent representation of the information taught, a learner must first ‘select’ the information to focus on. Seductive details here literally ‘seduce’ a learner’s selective attention away from the main idea. It’s a bit like going to the salad bar at a café, then noticing the bowl of crisps at the side… if you’re like me, my selective attention is pulled away from the green stuff.  

Examples: In our lesson about types of animals and how they are grouped into carnivores, herbivores and omnivores according to their diets….

  1. An image of a cute kitten wearing a collar with a bell is used. Rather than thinking about the characteristics of a carnivore, the learner thinks about why the kitten has a collar with a bell and what the bell might sound like.
  2. While giving an explanation, the teacher inadvertently mentions that her cat, a carnivore, is very fussy and always leaves his food. The learner then thinks about the teacher’s fussy cat and what happens to all the leftover food. It’s easier to let your mind wonder about left over cat food than complicated terms for different types of animals, right?

Like this, seductive details can prevent the learner selecting the right information to focus on in order to understand the main idea. Notably, we often try to guide learners to select the information to process by telling children to pay attention to the main idea, but Harp and Mayer’s research showed that for text at least, this did not reduce the affect of the seductive details – learners still got distracted and went off on their mental tangents. It’s because they’re seductive! It’s like when people say, ‘don’t look’ and all you do is look – so teachers saying ‘pay attention’ doesn’t decrease the seduction.

Disruption hypothesis here seductive details interrupt transition from one main idea to the next which interferes with the organisation of information involved in the main idea. Learners need to construct a clear mental model of the main idea that is linked to other related concepts in their own mental schemas. For example, in order to learn the concepts of carnivore, herbivore and omnivore, we also teach children about types of teeth, predators and prey which leads to learning about simple food chains. Seductive details can then disrupt the links learners need to make between concepts that formulate mental models of the main idea. The result is that learners then interpret each new piece of information separately instead of being as part of a chain of information. This interruption then hinders schema building. It’s a bit like building a jigsaw, but there’s pieces from another jigsaw mixed in and you’ve lost the lid of the box too.

Example: After presenting the concept of carnivore, omnivore and herbivore, the teacher plays an ‘entertaining’ cartoon clip about cats chasing mice, and mice eating seeds before turning to the idea of different types of teeth. For some children, this might break the link between what animals eat and types of teeth so they are unable to build a coherently organised mental model of how diet and teeth are linked.

Diversion hypothesis– seductive details here activate inappropriate prior knowledge which then hinders the interpretation of information into a learner’s schema understanding. Here the learner builds a mental model not around the main idea, but instead around those seductive details. Those entertaining additions, ‘prime the activation of inappropriate prior knowledge as the organising schema for the lesson’ (1998:3).

Example: The teacher uses an exciting image of a shark attacking a fish to talk about carnivores resulting in the learner thinking about the time they were scared swimming in the sea. They are misled into relating that image to their prior learning about the danger of certain carnivores. The information about diet and types of teeth then becomes secondary information and the learner regards this as only supporting information rather than the main idea.

To conclude, I’ve borrowed this idea of seductive details and thought about how this might be applied to presenting and explaining. Unlike Harp and Mayer, I haven’t tested my ideas at all and have to all intense and purposes, lifted a piece of research about reading and thought about what that might mean for presenting and explaining.

This is certainly not to say that teachers shouldn’t use anecdotes, interesting pictures or videos when they present or explain. However, as Harp and Mayer suggest, ‘one way to discourage inappropriate schema activation is to delay the introduction of seductive information until after the reader has processed the important material. Another way is simply not to introduce seductive details at all (1998:19). So, if this does have resonance in how we present or explain, then perhaps leaving that entertaining video, or that story about your cat to the end might help make it all stick. Here’s hoping!

Let me end with Harp and Mayer’s challenge for us all: ‘to find a way to present science lessons in a way that is interesting, without resorting to the use of entertaining but irrelevant details,’ (1998:20).

I’m up for it!

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A reflection on grouping pupils…

pawns-groups

We know now that most pupils benefit more from mixed ability grouping, although as Francis et al (2017) have suggested, a better term for this is: ‘mixed attainment grouping,’ because of all the connotations regarding ‘ability’ within educational discourse.

It is true that higher attaining pupils achieve slightly better under setting, at least academically, but the overall affect on pupils and schools is more negative than positive. As the EEF Toolkit concludes, ‘setting or streaming is not an effective way to raise attainment for most pupils (2018).

In this vein, I would like to share how I’ve developed grouping in my setting with good results, both in terms of hard data and the soft data of classroom climate, pupil well-being and attitudes to learning for both pupils and parents. Without doubt, there are always tweaks and changes that may suit one cohort better than another, and I’m sure, there is still yet more to learn here, but this is where I’m up to.

No doubt for some, what I describe here will be utterly obvious, much of this is simply about good teaching regardless of grouping; however, the focus here is on what works best for mixed attainment grouping as a pedagogy, not least because this approach as been proven to be important in terms of social justice, with the understanding that forms of segregation exasperate social inequities in most circumstances.

Around ten years ago we started questioning ‘ability’ grouping (as we referred to it then)  for all the reasons it has been found to be detrimental for middle and lower attaining children (Francis et al 2017).

Like this, we found that most pupils stayed in the same groups throughout school, never gaining access to the tasks set for higher ability pupils, and never having the opportunity to catch up with them either. We also found that the lower attaining groups were almost always populated by more less affluent pupils, while the high attaining groups were filled with mainly pupils from middle class backgrounds.

In addition, ability grouping created a self-fulfilling prophesy for pupils and was generally divisive for pupils and parents, both social and emotionally. It certainly created unnecessary angst for many parents and pupils, creating a labelling culture which all too often defined expectations in all quarters.

Over time, we woke up to these issues and we moved to mixed attainment grouping, differentiating learning tasks rather than pupils and offering open ended choice of tasks for all pupils.

(Recently, for a lecture I gave at Goldsmith’s on grouping and ground-up policy change, I reflected on this journey with two esteemed colleagues – it’s a ten minute watch here)

Since then and over time, I have recognised key ways that have enhanced mixed attainment grouping as an effective strategy.  Underpinning these factors is the fundamental principle (and a seemingly obvious one) that the aim is always to meet all pupils’ learning needs within lessons through highly interactive, responsive teaching. This might mean scrapping what’s been planned, shelving carefully chosen learning tasks, or shifting seating arrangements on the spot. I say this, because when declaring a commitment to a methodology, rigid dogma can easily follow. It should not be ‘mixed attainment grouping come what may’; this could be just as detrimental for some pupils as rigid attainment grouping.  As with all things in education, effective learning is what matters, methodologies and ideologies should not supersede what’s best for pupils’ learning. Teachers need to be ideologists at their desks, but pragmatists using evidence of what works at the chalk face.

These are some of the key strategies that have helped make mixed grouping work well:

Planning – Plan progressive learning tasks that move pupils from high scaffolding to independent thinking in relation to the topic. This means getting underneath the topic and understanding the knowledge goals really clearly, as well as the cognitive process of embedding concepts then applying and developing them. This is  no different from what would be required for fixed grouping, except here, children are usually sat alongside other children who might be at a different stages along the progression. It might also be that a wider range of progression is needed to accommodate the variety of attainment; however, it is my experience that gaps narrow more easily over time with this approach.

Direct instruction & cognitive load etc – This is the same for any type of grouping, but remains a key teaching point for me. When introducing new, or returning to unfamiliar content, direct instruction works best. This means breaking down material, appreciating the capacity for working memory to process brand new information and cutting down extraneous information in presentations and within the classroom. This helps all learners. Ensuring the knowledge goals are explicit and clear to learners is vital – what does success look like? Don’t leave them guessing or wondering here. Providing worked examples to support pupils processing new material is vital, as is recognising when to draw back and shift pupils towards more independence.

However, this recognises that engagement should not be sought through objects or images that distract the learner from what they need to learn. As Willingham (2009) asserts, ‘memory is the residue of thought,’ so that trying to maximise attentional focus in pupils with things that ordinarily attract their attention during their leisure time simply replaces their thinking with these other things. Like this, we have to take care not to mistake behaviour with cognition, but understand how they relate to one another.

Consequently, a teacher’s first call is not ‘making lessons fun.’ It is however, their duty to make lessons meaningful and challenging enough for all pupils to feel the rewards of successful thinking. Once pupils start to get a kick out of ‘getting it,’ and we know they do, when we hear kids shout out loud gleefully, ‘now I get it!,’ we know that children are enjoying learning for the sake of it. Successful thinking feels good, build on this as a teacher and you’re really on to something.  We do not need external bells and whistles here – save these for other times in school.

Assessment for learning and all thatMixed grouping has the potential to require more of AfL technique if there is a wider range to assess, although good practice is good practice wherever.

Teachers will need to act like air traffic controllers, scanning the skies for pupils coming into land, the ‘tipping point’ for successful thinking. The point is, we need to know when pupils need more or to move on. As Willingham (2009) notes, the human brain prefers not to think, but to use memory if it can; therefore, if tasks don’t feed the brain with the incentive to think, if they are just too hard or just too easy, then we lose pupils.

Assessment on the hoof is the key to this and putting all those AfL techniques, like mini white boards and hinge questions to good use will support teachers knowing when some pupils need to move on from direct instruction and worked examples to more independent learning. Good planning should ensure that this is prepared and resourced for so that pupils can go somewhere with new learning, refining their own mental schemata. ‘Tick, tick, tick, now go read a book’, is OK very occasionally (we’re all human) but not a good basis for providing pupils with a love of learning for itself. Also – if this is the default end of the lesson for some pupils every time, what are they learning?  What are you teaching them about themselves as learners?

The starting line – Last year in Year 2  we trialled a change in how we provided learning tasks for mixed attainment groups.

In the past, we provided differentiated tasks, named, ‘MUST, SHOULD and COULD, and sometimes even MIGHT, where pupils assessed themselves (sometimes with guidance too) and started where they thought they needed to. Children sat in mixed groups and worked from various starting points depending on the subject and topic.

However, we found that with young children sometimes this meant some pupils were jumping into more abstract or independent learning too soon, mistakenly assuming that the knowledge for this was embedded. This revealed itself as gaps in knowledge during more independent, open tasks.

This situation suggested that fundamental factual and procedural knowledge was not properly embedded into long term memory and had not become automatic.  This is built on the idea that expertise come about when access to knowledge in the long-term memory is automatic, without ‘thinking’, rather like driving a car after a while.  When pupils have this automaticity, they have much more working memory capacity to problem solve successfully and organise mental schemata further. Remember, the brain prefers using memory rather than thinking so when learners have more to access in memory – their processing is optimised. As Willingham (2009) points out, expert problem solvers may look like they are skilfully calculating, when in actuality they are accessing long- term memory while using their working memory to make links and connections into new knowledge.

In this way, we decided to trial these young learners all starting in the same place, appreciating that young learners will have fairly rudimentary mental schemata and are not experts with large bodies of background knowledge yet. We provided worked examples, leading to less and less scaffolded tasks, but all started off with the same task. Of course, some children needed to stay with the worked example stage for longer before moving on.

This meant that while some pupils spent more time working on the first tasks, perhaps needing more support and direct instruction, some pupils were using these tasks as quick retrieval practice which, as Kirpicke & Grimaldi (2012) assert, that far from being simple recall of old learning, acts to embed and extend knowledge further.

Through this leveling of the starting line, we found that overall pupils’ learning stuck much more than when some pupils had the opportunity to miss the initial first ‘easy’ activities. Although – again, flexibility is everything, sometimes it was abundantly clear pupils could skip and we let them, but the general, ‘all start here,’ approach was better in that it appeared to solidify connections – making learning more automatic for many.

In addition, we also found that this created a more equable working environment between pupils; often lower attaining pupils had the chance to ask their higher attaining neighbours about the initial task as they began together; they could absorb strategies and learning behaviour from them also, which I will elaborate on next.

Seating arrangements – These need to be fluid and flexible. I found that there were pupils in the class who acted as  effective role models for successful learning. These pupils engaged positively with the learning procedures. They were self-motivated to use the feedback and the class systems to enhance their learning and actively sort out help when they couldn’t work things out for themselves.  Some pupils just aren’t ready for this stage yet, some of this might be to do with the development of their executive functions, the cognitive control of behaviour which enables pupils to select and successfully monitor what they are doing towards their learning goal. It is almost always not laziness!

In a class of thirty children there will be a huge range of cognitive, social and emotional development.  We know that working memory increases with age in children, so that some children will have a surprisingly limited cognitive capacity, while others a surprisingly voluminous one.  With a limited capacity to process new information, some children will find it hard to hold everything they need to do in mind. For example, by the time some children pick up their book, find their seat and a pencil, the instructions for the current learning task have gone, literally gone! Seating children strategically next to children who are able to process everything, can help to remind them about what’s going on, and in a second or two, get them back on track.

In more extreme cases of course, these children need tasks broken down further to accommodate their capacity and perhaps a bit more ‘preparation for learning’ built around them.

However, human beings tend to watch and mimic the successful behaviour of others (this is to do with evolution and survival). For example, when I go swimming, I keep an eye on the best front crawlers in the fast lane and try to do what they do, I don’t copy the Jurassic strokes laboured over in the slow lane.

Like this, those children who tune into the processes in class that make learning successful, like checking the board for examples, asking for help, reading the success criteria against what they are doing, these act as role models for others who have yet to do this. This is not to say that teachers should not be intervening when children are struggling, and this is not to say that we use the higher attaining children as glorified teaching assistants, this is not what I mean. We have a duty to all pupils, including those further ahead (there is an excellent ‘dos and don’ts’ list put together through research by UCL here which details this). However, if we know that humans learn from each other simply by watching and modelling themselves, we should use it.

Seating these ‘effective learners,’ in the vicinity of those still struggling to adopt effective learning procedures is really effective for the whole class dynamic, as is explicitly teaching these procedures to some children too. Still, I found that the higher attaining children don’t lose out by having their time taken up ‘helping’  others because they are already tuned into prioritising successful learning, so they tend to steam ahead while the child needing a little ‘va va voom’ next door, watch and learn.  There are also times when pupils further ahead really benefit from explaining concepts to others – after all to ‘teach it,’ is the final point of mastery.

As said, this all needs monitoring and fine tuning, if a child gets needy and disturbs another, I move them, often back to more direct instruction and guided learning.

Flexibility in grouping In understanding the needs of all learners, the differing cognitive capacities, we also understand that there are times when we need to pull groups of similar attaining pupils together in order to maximise the overall benefit of mixed attainment grouping.

In understanding that some children need multiple attempts at processing new knowledge, because they have insufficient background knowledge or limited cognitive capacity, there are plenty of times when we take a group and pre-teach or over-learn new content. This is where we depart from the mixed attainment grouping and I think we should. Here we give pupils who need it a leg up so that they can then go back and reap the benefits of mixed attainment grouping. The point is that these groups are temporary, not set or referred to with a label.

Capitalising on forgetting & remembering – We have also come to recognise that retrieval is a powerful learning tool in its own right and not simply for assessment (excellent article in TES here about this). Research by Karpicke and Grimaldi, challenges the idea that retrieving and reconstructing knowledge is a ‘neutral process,’ but rather found that, ‘every time learners retrieve knowledge, that knowledge is altered, and the ability to reconstruct that knowledge again in the future is enhanced,’(2012:404).

There was a fashion not so long ago for teachers to be seen to challenge pupils continually by moving them on to new knowledge, this meant pupils were not going back enough, resulting in shallow and transient learning.

With this in mind, retrieval practice has become a feature in my curriculum planning while also being recognised as an invaluable intervention to support some pupils to catch up within a mixed attainment setting. This kind of practice is not repetitive chanting or learning by rote, but rather activities which involve the active retrieval of knowledge which can be in the form of low-stakes quizzes, series of oral questions, quick multiple choice sets, card matching, true or false checks – there’s lots of ways and I’ve found that children always enjoy this aspect of learning – as long as we keep it low stakes and allow pupils to feel in charge of it, for example, by them marking/assessing their own.

To finish, this is simply a reflection on practice changes I’ve made. As said, it’s useful to me and I hope might be useful for others who might be trying a mixed attainment approach. Plus, it’s my belief that  schools should be places where social justice motivates us to examine what we do.

Lastly, it is worth remembering that school is not all about this. Schools, and especially primary schools, are about social and emotional learning and fun as much as the academic.  If memory is what the brain prefers best, then we need all sorts of good ones… not just the academic, semantic kind. So, here’s to messy, goal free mucking around in school too!

References:

Francis, B., Archer, L.,  Hodgen, J. ,Pepper, D., Taylor,B. & Mary-Claire Travers, M. (2017) Exploring the relative lack of impact of research on ‘ability grouping’ in England: a discourse analytic account, Cambridge Journal of Education, 47:1, 1-17.

Karpicke, J.D. & Grimaldi, J.P. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning: A Perspective for Enhancing Meaningful Learning. Educ Psychol Review. (2012) 24:401-418.

Willingham,D.T. (2009)  Why don’t students like school? Jossey-Bass.

Lightening the load – how to make big gains in learning by doing less.

load

There’s so much snake oil in education that when something with the potential to really help learners comes along, there’s a chance it’s overlooked; this mustn’t be the case with cognitive load theory. The evidence to support this theory is compelling and educators should take note. Like much research in education, cognitive load theory has been around quite a while, but has only recently come to the surface for many teachers like me. What strikes me most about the theory is the hard evidence that supports the common-sense idea this theory asserts, which is that often less is more when teaching.

The evidence to support cognitive load theory tells us that we often make two distinct errors in teaching. Firstly, we frequently stifle learning because we overload children’s cognitive processing capacity so that little of what we teach sticks. Secondly, we give children problem solving activities prematurely, before content or skills are properly learnt, which slows down learning, or even prevents it altogether. These two points are driven firstly by mistaken ideas about the distinction between engagement and learning and then how children learn the kind of information we need to teach in school.

To begin with, we need to understand that  learning involves the processing of information in the working memory enough times that it transfers to long-term memory where it becomes unconscious or, what lead theorist John Sweller calls, automatic. Here information is imprinted onto the unconscious mind rather like a foot print pressing into fresh cement which then dries and remains. Information processing in the working memory is more like a foot print in very wet mud which soon disappears.

Another good analogy for the process of transferring from working to long-term memory is learning to drive a car. At first, we have to practice very deliberately, in a very controlled, clunky manner so we process each action and we have to do this a number of times (more for some people as we know).  Then eventually, our driving becomes unconscious and automatic, so much so that we often have that feeling that we have driven a whole journey without thinking about driving once. Usually, this doesn’t mean we were out of control, but rather our unconscious long-term memory was in charge.  This development in how information is processed is the transfer of information from controlled processing to automatic procedure. This is how learning sticks.

Cogntive load diagram

Now we experience distraction, engagement and learning (hopefully) in the classroom, but teachers are not routinely trained in understanding cognitive capacity. We recognise when children don’t learn, but it’s always hard to pin point why. Sweller asserts that working memory in most healthy humans can process around 3 to 4 ‘elements’ for around 20 seconds. This means that working memory is small and information doesn’t hang around in it for long at all, like that foot print in the soggy mud.

Cognitive elements are not the same for each person or for each set of information and they will change as learners develop, but essentially elements are chunks of information the mind processes. A very basic example might be the word frog. This might comprise of one element for an experienced reader, but f-r-o-g might then be comprised of four elements for a beginner reader. However, the working memory can only hold around four of these in a short period of time before that information is lost.

Now, when giving instruction to pupils there are two factors we teachers have misunderstood, or simply never thought about. Firstly, the limitation in the working memory and secondly the breadth of extraneous auditory and visual cognitive information created through either poor instruction, or an overloaded classroom environment. Put simply, when we create for example, an all singing, all dancing power point  to teach say column addition, it’s likely that the juicy information on how to actually add in columns doesn’t stick because the working memory of those pupils looking at that PowerPoint is overloaded with extraneous visual elements, or what Sweller refers to as ‘redundant information’ (Sweller calls this the redundancy effect).

Below is an example of the kind of power point page or flip chart I have seen many times in primary classrooms (in fact, I’ve seen many more that are even busier!) Now, clearly the maker of the page has gone to quite a bit of trouble to make it appealing to young children and help support pupils learning how to add in columns. However, it is likely that there is too much visual information to process here. In addition, the teacher will probably be talking at the same time to explain each part; they might even have music on to supposedly ‘settle’ the children – all adding more auditory information to the cognitive load.

busy powerpoint.png

The mind processes large amounts of information without us realising it, so while a child might try hard to take in the main points (adding units and then tens) their cognitive capacity will be bursting at the seams with two sets of basic instructions, a colourful bee character, leaves, grass, arrows, boxes… and so on.  It’s no wonder children might go back to their tables to add numbers and be unclear on what to do.

Cognitive load theory suggests that when we cut out the extraneous, ‘redundant’ information it will be easier to process. We cannot say for certain how many cognitive elements are on that page for each pupil, but cutting down visual and auditory extras will help pupils process the content we want them to. According to cognitive load theory, we are less likely to overload the working memory when instruction is pared down, such as with the page below for example.

Pared down powerpoint

Then the right information is more likely to be held in the working memory ready to be applied to repeated practice so that all important imprinting takes place and information is transferred to the long-term memory.

Learning through problem solving

Often as teachers we like to give children problem solving activities. We like these because they promote collaboration, dialogue and we believe they help children to develop their thinking skills. Learning through enquiry or discovery learning has come about through considering how children learn for example, how to speak and walk. In these situations, children aren’t given direct instructions from others on how to speak or walk, but rather they seem to learn by soaking up the skills and knowledge and simply ‘having a go’. This seemingly natural process of learning has been thought to also work when giving children problem solving activities. This is in the hope that by solving problems children learn how to solve problems.

However, according to Sweller, the information we want children to learn in schools isn’t the same as speaking or walking because humans have evolved to learn to walk and speak. This is, as Sweller asserts, ‘knowledge through instinctive acquisition’.  However, humans have not, for example, evolved to learn how to add in columns – this is what Sweller refers to as ‘non-instinctive knowledge’. In essence, some information we are pre-programmed to soak up and other information we aren’t born with the programming for, but only the capacity to learn it from others in a deliberate way.  Sweller calls this type of information, ‘knowledge absent from the natural world’.  Put simply, leave a bunch of homo sapiens on their own and they won’t learn algebra, but they will learn to communicate and walk about.

Essentially, this type of non-instinctive knowledge is learnt more efficiently from a more knowledgeable other who instructs or ‘teaches’ that information. According to Sweller, it is in this way that society or communities of people might remain illiterate or innumerate unless another human intervenes and teaches.  Because of this, it is very difficult to learn non- instinctive knowledge through problem solving. Children look busy and engaged when problem solving, but not much is being transferred from the working to the long-term memory because all that processing capacity is involved in lots of extraneous content outside the specific knowledge to be learned, as well as simply finding a means to an end rather than processing content information.

This is not to say that human beings can’t learn through problem solving at all, it’s just a slower, less efficient kind of learning. For example, a human being could get in a car for the first time (with the key in the ignition) and after much trial and error work out how to drive the car; many people won’t ever work out how to drive it though. However, we all know that having direct instruction from another will dramatically change this. This is why we have driving instructors… and teachers for that matter.  Like this, when it comes to the knowledge outside our natural evolutionary instinct, this is the best way to learn. Obtaining information from another is more efficient than learning through problem solving.  As Sweller notes, problem solving remains a ‘secondary option.’ Personally, when it comes to my son learning to drive, I’m glad I took the first option even though it cost an arm and a leg!
For example, a teacher might use this problem below in an attempt to help children learn their number bonds to ten:

NUmber bonds to 10.png

A child might spend a while with a set of 10 pencils and finally work out the answer is 7, but it’s likely they won’t have learnt about number bonds or how to solve missing number problems either. This would be much more appropriate to give to children who have learned their number bonds and how to solve missing number problems, then they can retrieve that information from their long-term memory and apply it to the problem. This retrieval of information back from the long-term memory to use in processing within the working memory also embeds information further into long-term memory. This is why returning to topics once they are learned is important.

In summary, cognitive load theory gives us the evidence that we need to cut down extraneous material when teaching and this might include doing away with busy displays too close to the area where the teacher gives instruction, cutting out background music and certainly reducing the redundant information in instruction materials like power ponuts  or flip charts. We must not be side tracked by wanting to engage children at the expense of learning. In addition, we also need to avoid using problem solving as a teaching tool, but rather use it as an ‘embedder’ when content and the problem-solving skills required have been learned.

The good news is that I now have a great excuse to cut down the time I spend making power points and displays! At last a theory about ‘load’ that cuts down load! What more do you want!

My grateful thanks to John Sweller for his generosity and advice. John Sweller is Emeritus Professor at the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Reference: Sweller. J (1994) COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY, LEARNING DIFFICULTY, AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN. Learning and Instruction, Vol. 4, pp. 293-312, 199 available here 

Another useful paper by John Sweller and Paul Chandler