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 CLT-Driven Curriculum
The implications of 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 has come out of that research. So, can CLT actually transform teaching in the way that it promises, and, if so, how?
The 5 Megatruths of Great Teaching
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.