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?
I would argue that there are two dimensions to CLT that need to be at the foundation of teaching if CLT is to realise its enormous potential in classrooms. The first dimension is that teaching is most effective when we present new material to learners in small parts that neither overload nor underload the brain’s working memory. This dimension to ‘getting the load right’ has to come way before the concerns regarding managing extraneous load (such as not over decorating powerpoint slides). Indeed, without matching the learner to the precise point in the curriculum learning journey first, the concerns/tips regarding how not to overload the WM in the throws of teaching become erroneous.
The second dimension is that CLT needs to be the driver of curriculum design if it is to become a transformational and embedded part of classroom culture. Basic logic takes us to a realisation that a single isolated teacher is somewhat limited in their implementation of CLT. There needs to be a whole-school systematic approach; a curriculum
designed entirely around the principles of CLT. What would that look like? Here are 5 key features of a CLT-driven curriculum design:
i) Curriculum Content Detail
Firstly, the breaking down of the learning journey into small parts needs to happen just once, from start to finish, in a well thought out manner that takes account of the domain specific journey to fluency that learners are typically on. All of the detailed minutia can be in place at the design stage, so that a teacher never needs to spend time deconstructing the curriculum for themselves, rather this detail is immediately accessible (i.e. in an online digital format) so that the teacher has less workload, not more. This curriculum understands that constructing schemas transcends year groups. Where schemas connect to each other, the curriculum chronology must ensure learners ‘turn up’ to lessons with the pre-requisite background knowledge. The successful following of this learning journey will prevent the crippling inefficiency teachers experience when they need to constantly check for, and perhaps suddenly find, learning gaps.
ii) The Expected Journey
Secondly, running through this curriculum journey there must be a timeline that describes a minimum, yet high, expectation for all learners (without a relevant learning difficulty) to acquire core knowledge. This allows teachers across the school to keep a large group together for explicit teaching of core knowledge, thus maintaining a correct cognitive load for the class, whilst reducing workload for teachers. The key point here is that this large cohort group will have a predictable background knowledge, as opposed to an unknown one. The actual standard of this minimum, yet high, expectation journey will be driven by a combination of;
• the research evidence available that identifies what children can reasonably be expected to achieve at a given age,
• the national/global age-related expectations, and
• the school’s individual ambition and identity.
This connecting of the core knowledge curriculum content to an expected timeline, happens at all levels of time considerations. Learners are expected to be kept ‘on track’ across a year, a term, a week, a lesson etc..
iii) Adaptive Teaching
Thirdly, from this core journey the teacher may/will need to adapt their teaching input to allow for the varying needs of learners. For more information then see my blog post ‘Adaptive Teaching is Alive’ here.
iv) Tracking of Key Content/Schemas
Associated with this curriculum design is a school’s internal tracking system that takes the key learning steps, the core content, and the crucial schemas, and maps these into a system that guides all learners along the minimum, yet high, expectation journey. This tracking system is the tool that gives teachers the confidence to carefully implement instruction with appropriate cognitive load without needing to continually be checking each learner against every element themselves. For this to happen, the system needs to have an ‘alert’ feature built in, so that any learning gaps that do arise can be identified and responded to immediately.
This tracking system needs to be state of the art if it is to be responsive in this way. It must be fit for the new age of teaching, i.e. it should be an online system that is engaging and motivating for students, yet immediately alerts the teacher to any potential learning gap developing with zero workload other than the response itself. This tool also provides the continual low-stake quiz/testing that we could also think of as ‘retrieval practice’.
v) School Leadership
Finally, as we go deeper here with the implications of CLT, we see a strengthening of the teacher’s role as being to focus learners, guide learners and to respond to learners. This is adaptive teaching, and it has many knock-on implications for school leaders. The need to design such a detailed and nuanced curriculum journey requires great expertise and time. Resources need to be instantly adaptable (again, probably digital) and numerous, if they are to support adaptive teaching at this level. The system that tracks key content providing effort-free alerts provides the school leader with a transparency to see the impact of the curriculum at a glance, and it empowers the school leader to go straight into the curriculum detail of any issue. In itself this returns school leaders to leading teaching! However this time there is a difference, the school leader is leading CLT-driven adaptive teaching.