Big Maths was launched in the UK in 2010. It immediately introduced the idea that the bulk of the cohort (indeed any child without a genuine learning difficulty for maths, or what looks like a genuine gift for maths) should all be brought to the same point in the numeracy journey and guided forwards together as one large group. In 2014 the English government ‘introduced’ this idea as an Asian approach called ‘mastery’. This has since made its way into Wales and Scotland. Since Big Maths was around before the word ‘mastery’, it appeared to some that Big Maths wasn’t a mastery curriculum, yet, in reality it is the original UK mastery curriculum.
If we return to the principles of Big Maths (and a mastery curriculum) then we see the following features:
There is a belief that all children can attain the expected journey being outlined. Indeed, this shouldn’t just be a ‘belief’, but rather the rationale for this should be evidenced in the curriculum design. In Big Maths you can always see why all children can attain the progression in fluency being described.
For this to work, then the early stages of the journey must be light and doable for all. Big Maths has a relatively low age-related expectation in the early years. This allows children who start school with relatively low attainment to still be quickly brought into the expected journey for fluency with number. This happens by having a strong press (i.e. intensity and consistency) on the teacher-modelling and the child copying, with explicit instruction of doing and understanding from expert to novice.
Again, for all this to work, then children who have mastered the expectations of fluency ahead of the rest of their cohort (or ahead of the fluency journey expectations) are stretched with their mathematical thinking into other areas of the maths curriculum (for example, problem solving, maths investigations and connecting their number fluency to shapes, fractions etc.). These children do not simply press on with the fluency journey.
However, there may be a small group of genuinely elite mathematicians (and it may well look as if they are gifted) who are ahead of the expected fluency journey. This small group provide a management challenge to the teacher (as do those with a genuine special need) and may well need different input to the main group.
The outcome of the successful implementation of this curriculum is that the teacher can give input on fluency journey progression to one large group. A common error of a mastery curriculum implementation is that the teacher gives input to one large group where there is a spread of number ability, the teacher then attempting to differentiate through group work after the main input. A successful mastery curriculum provides the teacher with a ‘pre-managed spread’ (due to the reasons described above), not an unmanaged spread. Notice how the teacher in a well-implemented mastery curriculum has a reduction in workload in this regard (preparing less inputs and managing less group work).
Cognitive Load Theory: 10 Things You Need to Know.
In 2017 Dylan Wiliam tweeted to the education world that he had ‘come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is the single most important thing for teachers to know’. Back came a tweet, ‘shouldn’t they know their students?’. I’m not sure if that was a wisecrack or a serious challenge to CLT. Either way, it shows how easy it is to misunderstand the offering that CLT provides to teachers. The great thing about CLT is that it is a lens through which to view learning before teaching. CLT provides the door into a new age of teaching that allows us to leave behind any teaching strategies that weren’t in alignment with the research into how the human brain learns. For too long teachers have been blind to the architecture of the human brain…the only place where learning actually happens! According to CLT, when it comes to providing a productive and yet manageable cognitive challenge to students, then we need to know students’ brains. Indeed, it is CLT that invites us to really know our students. CLT invites us all to consider the brain first, learning second and teaching third. Further to this, the CLT door isn’t just the end of the ‘teaching-blind journey’, it’s also the beginning of a new journey. If you’re just stepping through this door and you wish to know what CLT is, then you might find it useful to read what I consider to be the 10 things you need to know about CLT. I ’ve written a short ‘start-up’ booklet that unpacks these 10 things. It can be found here. My aim is that on reading this document you will quickly grasp the key principles of CLT. There is more to be said for each aspect of CLT, and there is a wealth of research to read, so, enjoy! It’s a wonderful journey and, by traveling with intellectual humility, we can all travel it together!
The 10 things you need to know are:
The working memory of the brain is very limited.
Use explicit instruction for new content.
New knowledge needs to then be stored in the long term memory, ready for retrieval and transfer.
Learning happens through schema extension and connection.
Break the curriculum down into very small chronological parts.
Know the learners’ background knowledge.
Focus the attention of learners on the new content…only!
Teaching becomes redefined as ‘focussing, guiding and responding’
Identify the key schemas operating across the bigger learning journey.
Systemise CLT across the school to maintain CLT principles and reduce workload.
Cognitive Load Theory Download
Download your FREE Cognitive Load Theory booklet here
Cognitive Learning tells us to clean up our ‘Explicit Instruction Act’
You may already be familiar with the three inner dimensions of the brain’s working memory; the intrinsic load, the extraneous load, and the germane load. Out of all of them, the extraneous load appears to be the simplest one to ‘get right’. It is to do with the instructional design of the learning episode, i.e. what you as teacher choose to present to learners. In that sense, you have more control over it than the actual content/nature/subject of the ‘curriculum moment’ and the wiring already present in the learner’s brain as they walk through the door. Generally, the extraneous load is thought of in terms of the medium you use to present your teacher input.
The most basic message is ‘don’t provide busy PowerPoint slides’, but the overarching CLT truth is that anything that occupies the brain’s working memory (that is not an integral part of the teaching/learning process) is taking away precious focus. If we look particularly at explicit instruction for primary school mathematics we see that there are more extraneous load factors to consider than just busy slides and making sure the window cleaner doesn’t suddenly appear just as the kids are hanging on your every word and are about to ‘get it’!
The implications of CLT (Cognitive Load Theory) for teachers are becoming well established. However, the end result for busy teachers can end up looking like a list of ‘tips for teachers’:
(‘remember not to have unnecessary animations in your powerpoint slides’,
‘remember to wait in silence while learners are processing new information before talking again’ etc.).
This would be a serious watering down of the extensive research that has gone into CLT and the profound implications for teachers that have come out of that research. So, can CLT actually transform teaching in the way that it promises, and, if so, how?
In my previous post I noted that exploring adaptive teaching can lead schools into advancements with their curriculum design, quality of teaching, and, crucially, the joining of the two. Here, I present 2 basic features of curriculum design that spring out of adaptive teaching, and then 3 broad modes for approaching adapting teaching, and finally 3 classic implementation errors. Adaptive Teaching is Alive!
Curriculum Design: 2 Basic Features
There are two basic requirements of a curriculum designed for adaptive teaching (i.e. one that empowers the teacher to be constantly responding to learners in a purposeful way).
I was an NQT in 1993. I can still recall the mixture of emotion in the last week of the summer holidays, preparing to launch into my teaching career proper. The usual format was to spend the day excitedly cutting out giant letters for display and writing names on books/pegs/trays etc. only to be followed by a night of waking up in a cold sweat, having dreamt – yet again – that I’d lost control of the class. Except, one night I slept really well; I was so happy because I’d had the brilliant idea to call my higher ability group ‘Smarties’! Of course, this meant calling my middle ability group ‘Skittles’ and my low ability group ‘M&Ms’. By definition, I had already told two of my groups that I didn’t consider them ‘smart’. I shudder to think of the long term damage being a member of ‘The M&Ms Group’ had on those poor children (now aged 34), but that was the way of it at that time. Every primary teacher had fixed ability groups, notwithstanding the occasional battle for individual promotion/relegation from group to group.
Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition (Part 3/3)
This blog follows on immediately from; Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition! Part 1 & Part 2.
We are picking up on children learning to add two 2-digit numbers together for the very first time in their life, and in the previous blog (Part 2) we looked at using Cognitive Load Theory to ensure that the child’s Working Memory (WM) is prepared for this moment. Here is a step by step guide to what this episode of explicit teaching looks like:
Using Cognitive Load theory to Crack Addition (Part 2/3)
There is a day in a child’s life when they first learn to solve ‘2-digit add 2-digit’ addition questions. Every child has this day! The child’s teacher wakes with great excitement. This is what it’s all about. Within this day there is an actual moment when the teacher starts their explicit instruction. This will be a beautiful moment since the child’s life is about to change…well, mathematically anyway! There are a lot of steps to teach in a child’s mathematical learning journey. They don’t all have equal weighting; some are more important than others and some are just crucial. This one is one of those crucial ones; tying shoelaces, riding a bike and ‘2-digit add 2-digit’.
Cognitive Load Theory is a ginormous beast of a pedagogical concept. At times it’s mightily complex and far from being visible in a moment, yet at other times it couldn’t be more simple, more clear and more beautiful. It is CLT that gets us to this beautiful moment!
How fantastically big is this question, ‘What makes great teaching?’.
It’s quite a scary question for an actual teacher… because it challenges you to answer it! At first it sounds rhetorical, and perhaps we would all feel safer if it was. The question seems to be asking you to explain your professional worth and even your professional qualification. If you are given a few moments to jot down some bullet point answers, then you may struggle. Why? Well, if we listen to John Sweller (the TES referred to him as the ‘Godfather of Cognitive Load Theory’), then we can’t even begin to know about great teaching until we know about how the brain learns. Sweller says, ‘Without knowledge of cognitive processes, instructional design is blind’. In other words, we need to know about the brain in order to teach. No wonder ‘great teaching’, then, is so elusive. The brain is, after all, the most complex structure known to humankind.