Throughout my career, teaching to the middle meant focussing, unintentionally or as a means of survival, on the needs of those pupils whose attainment was at or around the mode for the class. Pupils whose attainment was higher or lower tended to be less well catered for.
Following Sweller et al’s (2019) paper it is possible to look at this issue again from a different perspective. In the introduction to the paper, you sense his frustration at our current working practices, “Our knowledge of many of the characteristics of working memory, long-term memory and the relations between them had been well-established for many decades … this knowledge has had a limited impact on the field of instructional design with most instructional design recommendations proceeding as though working memory and long-term memory did not exist.”
The inherent danger in this lack of attention to working and long term memory and the novice to expert continuum is that our instructional design and delivery is below par. Too little attention is paid to the complexity of the knowledge being taught, the relative expertise of the learner or the progress over a unit of learning, topic or programme. We end up teaching complex materials to novices as if they are semi-expert; teaching pupils who have become considerably more expert as nothing more than advanced novices.
Cognitive Load Theory (2019) identifies a set of five compound effects that alter the characteristics of other simple cognitive load effects. These compound effects can be extrapolated to form underpinning principles that are likely to chime with experienced teachers. In the hugely complex environment of the classroom they can provide the “go to principles” that support and enhance professional practice. Three are of particular interest.
Element Interactivity Effect
Cognitive load theory is only applicable to complex (high interactivity) learning. Element interactivity can be altered by incorporating fewer/more elements or showing fewer/more of the connections between elements into teaching and resources, depending on the expertise of the learner.
Limiting and sequencing information available to novices reduces cognitive load. For example, the Isolated Element Effect proposes teaching the individual pieces of knowledge required by a pupil and then the connection between them.
Expertise Reversal Effect
Expert learners have more developed schemas; this knowledge is held in their long term memory and can be transferred to working memory with increasing automaticity.
Instructional procedures designed for novices contain information already known by experts that unnecessarily adds to extraneous cognitive load. Hence, with increasing expertise, practice at solving problems becomes increasingly important. By contrast, novices need worked examples – including explaining the different steps or stages of the process or solution – and partially completed examples.
Over longer educational programmes learners gradually acquire more expertise. This increased expertise makes information and activities required by novices redundant. Instructional methods (teaching) need to change over time to recognise this increased expertise.
These three cognitive load effects are dynamic and interrelated. The various effects in cognitive load theory can provide teachers with a starting point for their practice. Teaching is complex, challenging and nuanced; ever more so in the reality of the classroom. The eternal classroom interaction of the knowledge to be acquired and its complexity; the pedagogical approaches chosen by the teacher and what the pupil does and doesn’t know is inexorable.
When different aspects of research and experience meld; it’s time to pay attention. Bauersfeld (1979) identified three aspects to the curriculum at a classroom level (above).
- The element interactivity effect pertaining to the complexity of the knowledge links to what Bauersfeld termed the “matter meant” (the structure of the subject/knowledge to be taught).
- The guidance-fading effect relating to pedagogy corresponds to Bauersfeld’s “matter taught”, the teaching process as determined by the teacher.
- And the expertise reversal effect which relates to learners’ expertise is related to Bauersfeld’s “matter learnt”; the cognitive structures acquired by the learners.
Cognitive Science teaches us that deep understanding of abstract concepts is always preceded by shallow understanding tied to specific examples (Willingham). Rosenshine emphasises stages of practice and the importance of sequencing concepts and modelling. The SOLO Taxonomy builds from the uni-structural to the extended abstract in a staged manner.
Good teachers have the knack of building pupils’ understanding over time in a systematic way alongside the relationship building and motivating pupils to work hard. Their approach rooted in experience, is supported by the evidence. It’s time to stop teaching to the middle.
Bauersfeld, H. (1979). Research related to the mathematical learning process. In International Commission on Mathematical (ed.), New trends in mathematical teaching (Vol. IV, pp. 199-213). Paris, France, UNESCO
Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J. and Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educational Psychology Review.