TOT #004. John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory, Using Question Stems, and What does Ed in Australia Need?

Find all other episodes of Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways here, find it on iTunes here, or on your favourite podcasting app by searching ‘Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways’. You may also like to check out Ollie’s other podcast, the Education Research Reading Room, here

Show Notes

Cognitive Load Theory, John Sweller.

Wiliam then posted a link to Sweller’s article entitled ‘Story of a Research Program‘. The following excerpts are from that article.

It starts off biographically,

I was born in 1946 in Poland to parents who, apart from my older sister, were their families’ sole survivors of the Holocaust.

With touches of dry humour…

At school, I began as a mediocre student who slowly deteriorated to the status of a very poor student by the time I arrived at the University of Adelaide…. 

Initially, I enrolled in an undergraduate dentistry course but never managed to advance beyond the first year. While I am sure that was a relief to the Dental Faculty, it also should be a relief to Australian dental patients.

Given the physical proximity of the teeth and brain, I decided next to try my luck at psychology. It was a good choice because my grades immediately shot up from appalling back to mediocre, where they had been earlier in my academic career. I decided I wanted to be an academic.

Sweller eventually ended up at UNSW. Then he details the seminal experiment. 

After several non-descript experiments, I saw some results that I thought might be important. I, along with research students Bob Mawer and Wally Howe, was running an experiment on problem solving, testing undergraduate students (Sweller, Mawer, & Howe, 1982). The problems required students to transform a given number into a goal number where the only two moves allowed were multiplying by 3 or subtracting 29.

Each problem had only one possible solution and that solution required an alternation of multiplying by 3 and subtracting 29 a specific number of times. For example, a given and goal number might require a 2-step solution requiring a single sequence of: x 3, – 29 to transform the given number into the goal number. Other, more difficult problems would require the same sequence consisting of the same two steps repeated a variable number of times.

My undergraduates found these problems relatively easy to solve with very few failures, but there was something strange about their solutions. While all problems had to be solved by this alternation sequence very few students discovered the rule, that is, the solution sequence of alternating the two possible moves. Whatever the problem solvers were doing to solve the problems, learning the alternating solution sequence rule did not play a part.

Cognitive load theory probably can be traced back to that experiment.

But this was an isolated case. Sweller needed to demonstrate it in an educational context. Research was taken to the fields of maths and physics education, and it did indeed show the effect. I’ll talk briefly about  some of the Cognitive Load Effects in education, and we’ll save some more for the next two or three episodes of TOT. 

The Goal Free Effect: 

If working memory during problem solving was overloaded by attempts to reach the problem goal thus preventing learning, then eliminating the problem goal might allow working memory resources to be directed to learning useful move combinations rather than searching for a goal. Problem solvers could not reduce the distance between their current problem state and the goal using means-ends analysis if they did not have a specific goal state. Rather than asking learners to “find Angle X” in a geometry problem, it might be better to ask them to “find the value of as many angles as possible”.

A couple of other effects are worth noting, these are the worked example effect, the split-attention effect.

Using Question Stems in the Classroom

Jennifer Gonzalez’s ‘Is Your Classroom Academically Safe?’

Gonzalez’s question stems to scaffold student questioning:

  • This is what I do understand… (summarize up to the point of misunderstanding)
  • Can you tell me if I’ve got this right? (paraphrasing current understanding)
  • Can you please show another example?
  • Could you explain that one more time?
  • Is it ______ or _________? (identifying a point of confusion between two possibilities)

I said:

  • What is ___ in the diagram
  • Am I right in thinking that ___
  • What’s the difference between ___ and ___

Would love more suggestions.

What Would it Take to Fix Education in Australia?

Full article here, but I’ll just talk briefly about two comments made in question time.

Larissa made an interesting point on the role of literacy. Following up on a question from Maxine McKew on the inclusion of Australian literature in Australian schools, she suggested that the literature studied in schools must represent the diversity of our Australian society. If we don’t do this then we’re effectively saying to vast swathes of our society ‘You do not have a place here’.

Glenn: There’s a misalignment between the locus of policy making and the locus of accountability in Australia. We’ve increasingly got federal bodies making decisions that have implications for education right across the country (locus of policy making), whereas the accountability to the impacts of these decisions actually falls not at the federal level but at the state levels. Fundamentally this is a broken feedback loop (my terminology) that undermines improvements and accountability right throughout the system.

Several times whilst I was listening to this very high level discussion on education a quote came to mind that I heard a couple of years ago,  ‘If you change what happens in your classroom, you are changing the education system.’

TOT #003. A student reflects on learning strategies, Edu podcasts for kids, computers vs. paper for note taking, and the rise of randomised control trials.

Find all other episodes of Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways here, find it on iTunes here, or on your favourite podcasting app by searching ‘Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways’. You may also like to check out Ollie’s other podcast, the Education Research Reading Room, here

Show Notes

A Student tries out effective learning strategies

Original Author,Syeda Nizami

The Strategies: Spaced Practice, Retrieval Practice, Elaboration, Interleaving, Concrete Examples, Dual Coding

“Overall, each of the six strategies had their strengths and weaknesses, and it somewhat depends on which method is preferable to you, but I think the two that are truly essential are retrieval practice and spacing. Retrieval practice was and is my preferred way of studying for a quiz or exam, but this experience made me realize how truly useful it is. To be perfectly honest, spacing was a strategy I had never tried out before, even though teachers had always stressed that cramming wasn’t effective.”

Edu Podcasts for Kids (or for inspiration!)

The Show about Science: This science interview show is hosted by 6-year-old Nate, and while it has some serious science chops, it’s also just plain adorable. Nate talks to scientists about everything from alligators to radiation to vultures, in his distinctly original interviewing style.

Episode on Ants! Nate’s first interview : ) 

Are laptops and tablets a help or a hindrance to note taking?

The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance: Evidence from a Randomized Trial at the United States Military Academy (Carter, Greenberg and Walker, 2016)

We present findings from a study that prohibited computer devices in randomly selected classrooms of an introductory economics course at the United States Military Academy. Average final exam scores among students assigned to classrooms that allowed computers were 18 percent of a standard deviation lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers. Through the use of two separate treatment arms, we uncover evidence that this negative effect occurs in classrooms where laptops and tablets are permitted without restriction and in classrooms where students are only permitted to use tablets that must remain flat on the desk surface.

One of the highlights of my day at researchED Amsterdam was hearing Paul Kirschner speak about edu-myths. He began his presentation by forbidding the use of laptops or mobile phones, explaining  that taking notes electronically leads to poorer recall than handwritten notes. The benefits of handwritten over typed notes include better immediate recall as well as improved retention after 2 weeks. In addition, students who take handwritten notes are more like to remember facts but also to have better future understanding of the topic. Fascinatingly, it doesn’t even matter whether you ever look at these notes – the simple act of making them appears to be beneficial.

The rise of Randomised Controlled Trials

Original article by Robert Slavin, told us about reciprocal teaching effects in TOT001.

A nice quote to end on


TOT #002. Teaching ‘The Scientific Method’, Growth Mindset Hoax? Instructional Techniques, Class Sizes, and Addressing Visible Disadvantage

Find all other episodes of Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways here, find it on iTunes here, or on your favourite podcasting app by searching ‘Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways’. You may also like to check out Ollie’s other podcast, the Education Research Reading Room, here

Show Notes

Teaching ‘the scientific method’

Superb post from @mfordhamhistory, on how we can teach students the discipline through a curriculum of case studies:

— Harry Fletcher-Wood (@HFletcherWood) January 10, 2017

Original post by Michael Fordham

‘1. Disciplines are characterised as much by their internal differences as their similarities.

2. There is no Platonic ideal of each discipline

3. Generalised models of disciplines rarely reflect what happens on the ground

All of these points lead me to great scepticism about curriculum theories in history, science or other disciplines that work by distilling the ‘essence’ from those disciplines, and teaching those. I am not all convinced that we can teach children ‘the scientific method’ in a general sense before they have learnt a number of cases of scientific research in practice.

History teachers have produced numerous examples of this over the last few years. Steve Mastin, for example, designed a scheme of work in which he taught his pupils how one historian (Eamon Duffy) had worked with a particular body of source material to answer questions about the impact of the reformation in England. Rachel Foster has a similarly well-cited example where she designed a scheme of work around the way two different historians (Goldhagen and Browning) had interpreted the same source material (a report from a police battalion involved in the Holocaust) in quite different ways. In examples such as these, children are taught about a specific example of where historians have undertaken research. Over time, as pupils learn more and more cases of disciplinary practice, we can then teach them the similarities and differences between different approaches: we thus end with abstract ideas, rather than beginning with them.

This means that I would suggest the following as an alternative way of teaching disciplinary practice to school children. Rather than distil some general, abstract ideas about ‘how the discipline works’, we would be better off specifying a range of specific cases of disciplinary practice for children to learn, from which we can as teachers tease out the similarities and differences in approach that characterise our respective disciplines.’

Is Growth Mindset a Hoax?

Original article by Tom Chivers, about hype of Growth mindset, being able to do everything from help struggling students to bring peace to the middle east.

‘Scott Alexander, the pseudonymous psychiatrist behind the blog Slate Star Codex, described Dweck’s findings as “really weird”, saying “either something is really wrong here, or [the growth mindset intervention] produces the strongest effects in all of psychology”.
He asks: “Is growth mindset the one concept in psychology which throws up gigantic effect sizes … Or did Carol Dweck really, honest-to-goodness, make a pact with the Devil in which she offered her eternal soul in exchange for spectacular study results?”

Strongest evidence from Timothy Bates’ research…

‘Bates told BuzzFeed News that he has been trying to replicate Dweck’s findings in that key mindset study for several years. “We’re running a third study in China now,” he said. “With 200 12-year-olds. And the results are just null.

“People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.”

Dweck told BuzzFeed News that attempts to replicate can fail because the scientists haven’t created the right conditions. “Not anyone can do a replication,” she said. “We put so much thought into creating an environment; we spend hours and days on each question, on creating a context in which the phenomenon could plausibly emerge.’

Reply by Scott Alexander.

‘it mentions a psychologist Timothy Bates who has tried to replicate Dweck’s experiments (at least) twice, and failed. This is the strongest evidence the article presents. But I don’t think any of Bates’ failed replications have been published – or at least I couldn’t find them. Yet hundreds of studies that successfully demonstrate growth mindset have been published. Just as a million studies of a fake phenomenon will produce a few positive results, so a million replications of a real phenomenon will produce a few negative results. We have to look at the entire field and see the balance of negative and positive results. The last time I tried to do this, the only thing I could find was this meta-analysis of 113 studies which found a positive effect for growth mindset and relatively little publication bias in the field.’

‘I guess my concern is this: the Buzzfeed article sounds really convincing. But I could write an equally convincing article, with exactly the same structure, refuting eg global warming science. I would start by talking about how global warming is really hyped in the media (true!), that people are making various ridiculous claims about it (true!), interview a few scientists who doubt it (98% of climatologists believing it means 2% don’t), and cite two or three studies that fail to find it (98% of studies supporting it means 2% don’t). Then I would point out slight statistical irregularities in some of the key global warming papers, because every paper has slight statistical irregularities. Then I would talk about the replication crisis a lot.’

‘Again, this isn’t to say I believe in growth mindset. I recently talked to a totally different professor who said he’d tried and failed to replicate some of the original growth mindset work (again, not yet published). But we should do this the right way and not let our intuitions leap ahead of the facts.

I worry that one day there’s going to be some weird effect that actually is a bizarre miracle. Studies will confirm it again and again. And if we’re not careful, we’ll just say “Yeah, but replication crisis, also I heard a rumor that somebody failed to confirm it,” and then forget about it. And then we’ll miss our chance to bring peace to the Middle East just by doing a simple experimental manipulation on the Prime Minister of Israel.’

Using private school instructional techniques in a public school

Greg Ashman pointed me to an article by Joe Kirby on how public schools can adopt some of the practices that high achieving private schools implement, without the massive cost barriers.

e.g., ‘Teaching writing is heavily guided, even up to sixth form. In History, for instance, starting point sentences are shared for each paragraph of complex essays on new material. Extensive written guidance is shared with pupils. Sub-questions within each paragraph and numerous facts are also shared.’

Does class size matter?

Original article by Valerie Strauss
(read whole article)

How do visible disadvantage impact student outcomes?

Original post by Megan Smith.

Asking students to raise their hand to signal their achievement (when they knew an answer) highlights differences in performance between students, making it more visible. This can lead to students in lower social classes, or with lower familiarity with a task, to perform even worse than they would have. In other words, highlighting performance gaps with no explanation for the gap can make the gap even wider! However, making students aware of the fact that some are more familiar with the tasks, due to extra training, can mitigate these issues.

Working towards a more evidence informed Professional Development Review process.

My school is currently reviewing our PDR process. As the new head of senior maths this is a really crucial time for me to step up and try to bring some things to the table that will ensure that, as a team, the senior maths teachers are teaching in an evidence informed fashion.

I’m posting now, prior to submitting final ideas to our college, in order to share some thoughts and hopefully open up a discussion with others so that I can improve and optimise this process.

In partnership with my colleagues we’ve brought in a whole new instructional process this year at our senior college. At the moment we’re working on bedding it down, and having imput into the PDR process means ensuring that we’re all being asked by leadership to provide evidence for instructional practices that we actually think are going to contribute to student learning.

I’ve drafted the document below as a list of things that I myself would like to be measured against and I’m looking to take this to our maths team meeting soon to see if there’s anything that the team would like to add or subtract as we make our submission to leadership. (Hover over the top right of the doc to open in a new page).

I’d love any thoughts or comments on what I’ve put together thus far and how it can be improved.

Note: The ‘goals’ across the top come from our pre-existing PDR process. They’re non-negotiable so each of the elements I’ve included below will fit under those three goal headings (I’ll work out which goes where later, they’re each broad enough that alignment shouldn’t be an issue).

Note 2: SIM stands for ‘Sunshine Instructional Model’, we have a pre-established instructional model so I’ve just highlighted the main points that I think map really well onto that.

Any thoughts or comments appreciatively received : )


Edit, I have replaced the original version with the most recent version, as attached below.

It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t think they can succeed

I just attended a lecture by Roy Beaumeister. It was a wide ranging talk about the past, the future, and how predictions and prospections of the future influence decision making. One experiment that Roy spoke of piqued when considering it in relation to what I’ve seen with my students, and their motivation, in the classroom.

The experiment had two conditions (let’s call them red and blue). To start off with, individuals in both conditions were asked to answer six questions. However,  the results were rigged such that individuals in the blue condition were told that two of their answers were correct, and those in the red condition were told that five of their six answers were correct. Then all subjects were asked to make a happiness forecast, they were asked a question like ‘We’re now going to give you six similar questions, how happy do you think you’d be next time if you got all six correct’*. Their happiness forecasts can be seen in the image below.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 6.46.41 pm

That is, individuals who only got two questions correct the first time (blue) said something along the lines of ‘oh yeah, I guess I’d be kinda happy if I got all of the correct’, whereas those who got five correct the first time, and thought they had a pretty good chance of getting six correct, said something like ‘oh yeah, I’d be really quite happy to get six correct!’.

Then came the moment of truth. All were again presented with six questions and this time all participants were told that they got all six questions correct! So… how happy were they? Here are the results.

Office Lens 20170222-183320

When looking at this graph I thought about my own classroom. I thought about all of the students over the years who have said ‘I hate maths’ or ‘I don’t care about this anyway’. Could it be that it isn’t that these students don’t care, it isn’t that they hate maths, it’s just that they rate their chances of success so low that it’s a pragmatic decision for them to assume that they don’t care? This could in fact be a rational and calculated decision on their part that aims to lessen the pain of anticipated failure. Beaumister alluded to one of Aesop’s Fables

An hungry Fox with fierce attack
Sprang on a Vine, but tumbled back,
Nor could attain the point in view,
So near the sky the bunches grew.
As he went off, “They’re scurvy stuff,”
Says he, “and not half ripe enough–
And I ‘ve more rev’rence for my tripes
Than to torment them with the gripes.”
For those this tale is very pat
Who lessen what they can’t come at.

It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t think they can succeed. It’s our job as teachers to teach in such a way that these students experience success and, bit by bit, they’ll come to value success higher because they’ll believe it’s achievable, and they’ll be willing to invest more effort to attain it. The good news is, as the right two columns of the graph show, the further behind the students come from, the more they’ll enjoy the achievement when they get there!

*I’ve recounted this experiment as well as I can remember, but this is currently in press so I wasn’t able to go over it to fact check my recollection of Roy’s explanation of the study.

‘The blogosphere recapitulates the teacher’s career’

Earlier on today I came across a blog post from Michael Pershan collating a whole heap of golden posts from 2016 (from other bloggers), as well as a few interesting reflections. My interest was piqued when Michael wrote:

When I started reading and writing about teaching back in 2010-2011, it seemed to me that the vast majority of math teachers were blogging about the activities they made or used. Most people were embedding slides or worksheets, or describing progressions of questions they had used.

Michael then shared what he’s most been enjoying most from the year just past…

I think of many of my favorite posts from 2016 — like Lisa and Grace’s above — and they focus on relationships and culture. But how do you talk about relationships and culture? This is hard stuff! It’s what, perhaps, teachers will be blogging about more in years to come, but it’s not easy to figure out how to talk about. The language isn’t always there for us in the way it is about designing a great task.

I was struck by these ideas off the back of a conversation I had with another early career teacher today in the maths staffroom. My mate Ben and I were talking about our responsibility to our current Y12 students, and how our No. 1 goal is to prepare them for their end of year exams; ‘we can’t let them down’. As our brief chat ended and Ben swivelled back around to his desk, I was left thinking. I was struck by the gap between my main focus at the time of lesson planning, giving my students the skills required to have success in the exam, and the more grandiose teaching values I’ve espoused over time; develop questioning and critical thinkers, independent learners, considerate democratic citizens, (etc).

Rather than becoming depressed at this apparent gap between ideals and reality I was somewhat liberated by my inchoate understanding of the difference between novices and experts, and simultaneously somewhat tickled by a phrase that came to mind somewhere out of the recesses of my long term memory. That phrase was, ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny‘*, or as I took it to mean, ‘The developmental stages of the individual’s life mirror the evolutionary stages of their phylum’.

I realised that a parallel could be drawn between the above phrase and Michael’s observations regarding the development of the maths blogosphere. Maybe the blogosphere, in a way, mirrors the development that I currently feel myself going through. The equivalent phrase could be something like, ‘The blogosphere recapitulates the teachers’ career‘.

I’m at a time in my novice development where I’m really focussing on the ‘what’ of classroom instruction. As I develop and bed down the basics of good instruction, space will open up in my working memory (I hope) whilst I’m in the classroom by enough to enable me to ask more complex questions, instruct and guide the lesson more spontaneously, and think more about classroom culture and the other ‘hard stuff’.

Perhaps the we’ve just seen the development of the first cohort of maths bloggers move from novice to expert, with the content and focus of their posts naturally progressing from the concrete to the abstract. If it is fair to say that I’m part of a second generation then I’m just glad there’s now a (sometimes slightly overwhelming) repository of content spanning the entirety of the developmental progression that I can now sink my teeth into!

*It’s a nice quote, but it isn’t necessary true!



TOT001: What is Direct Instruction? Dylan Wiliam takeaways, and Building Habits

Find all other episodes of Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways here, find it on iTunes here, or on your favourite podcasting app by searching ‘Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways’. You may also like to check out Ollie’s other podcast, the Education Research Reading Room, here

This is the first ever episode of the Teacher Ollie’s Takeaways podcast, the podcast in which I summarise my key takeaways from twitter, blogs, research papers, conversations, and even my own classroom, from the week just past.

If you have any thoughts or comments after listening to this podcast, please share them with me via twitter: @ollie_lovell

Show Notes

John Hattie on Direct Instruction

“John (Hattie, 2009) defines direct instruction in a way that conveys an intentional, well-planned, and student-centered guided approach to teaching. “In a nutshell, the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modeling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-tells them what they have been told by tying it all together with closure”(p. 206).”

“When thinking of direct instruction in this way, the effect size is 0.59. Dialogic instruction also has a high effect size of 0.82. This doesn’t mean that teachers should always choose one approach over another. It should never be an either/ or situation. The bigger conversation, and purpose of this book, is to show how teachers can choose the right approach at the right time to ensure learning, and how both dialogic and direct approaches have a role to play throughout the learning process, but in different ways.”

“Precision teaching is about knowing what strategies to implement when for maximum impact.”

Some comments on my Masters Project…

“This study shows that, for under-achieving students, the bridge from mathematical challenge and disengagement to success and motivation is a fragile one, and the journey across it becomes more perilous the older a student gets. The ongoing challenge for teachers is to shore up and scaffold this fragile bridge’s structure, and to ensure that the scaffolding provided is appropriate to both the ‘who’ that is crossing, and the ‘when’ of their traverse.”


“Factor Game ( http:// teachers/ mathline/ lessonplans/ pdf/ msmp/ factor.pdf ) in which an understanding of primes and composites was crucial to developing strategies to win”

The Mr Barton Podcast with Dylan Wiliam

Original article here.

Reciprocal Teaching

Robert Slavin: When we encourage students to help each other, whilst there are great benefits to both students, the students who learn the most are the ones who do the most explaining.

The Relevance of Problem Contexts

Jo Boaler:
Q: ‘When do girls prefer football to fashion?’
A: When it’s the context of a maths question. Presented with a structurally identical maths question in two different contexts, girls do better than boys when the context is that of football (soccer). This is because they bring less irrelevant and confounding background knowledge into the solving process.

What is learning?

Paul Kirschner: Learning is a change in long term memory, Aka: if they don’t remember it in 6 weeks, they haven’t really learnt it.
Relatedly… John Mason: ‘Teaching takes place in time, but learning takes place over time.’

Ref: Jame’s Manion’s article, Learning is Meaningless.

We don’t actually Know what Good Teaching Looks Like!

Heather Hill: We need to stop kidding ourselves by thinking that we can pick a good or a bad teacher by observing them teach a class. Hill suggests they would need to be observed in 6 different classes by 5 different observers (a total of 30 observations) to obtain a reliable rating.

Edit: I emailed Heather Hill about this, and this is what she said: “hanks for your question. For my own instrument, it originally looked like we needed 4 observations each scored by 2 raters (see attached paper). However, Andrew Ho and colleagues came up with the 6 observations/5 observer estimates from MET data:” Ho’s paper

Dan Goldhaber: Comparing two models of ‘good teaching’ (a fixed effect and a random effect model) based upon ‘value added’ metrics, the best 9% of teachers as rated by one model were classified as the worst teachers in the other!
Dylan concludes that we can only really comment in the extremes, i.e., ‘We can be pretty sure that a teacher who appears to be very very good is in fact not very very bad, and we can be pretty sure that a teacher who appears very very bad is in fact not very very good.’, but that’s about the extent of it.
So… where to? Dylan says that team leaders should focus on one question: ‘What do you want to get better at and how can we do it?’. I’m (Ollie) a bit dubious about this and I think that team leaders could help by guiding efforts to areas where we can be pretty sure that they’ll have a positive effect on learning (more frequent assessment and better feedback, distribution of practice, better modelling, etc).

Thinking Hard and Distributed Practice

Robert Bjork: The harder you think about something the better you remember it. Relatedly, the best time to study something is at the point just before you’ve completely forgotten it!

Simple Hacks to improve Assessment

The hypercorrection effect: You get two benefits of assessment, the first is when the testee is forced to recall the information in the first place, this strengthens the synaptic connections. The second benefit is when they see the answer. Thus, in order to maximise learning, the best person to mark a test

Synoptic testing: Testing shizzle up to the point that you’re now up to!

Building habits (NY Times article)

Charles Duhigg’s TED talk.

“the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.

The summary of this article is that you want to get to a point where the reward is internal, i.e., you don’t need any external input from yourself (or your students), to feel good about the habit that you’re trying to establish. However, the interesting thing that this NY times article points out, is that you can start of with an external reward, and use this to build the neuro-associations in such a way that the external reward will eventually be no longer required. I’ll read an excerpt from the article that provides a good example.

“If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or always going for a run at the same time of day) and a clear reward (like a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog). But countless studies have shown that, at first, the rewards inherent in exercise aren’t enough.

So to teach your brain to associate exercise with a reward, you need to give yourself something you really enjoy — like a small piece of chocolate — after your workout.

This is counterintuitive, because most people start exercising to lose weight. But the goal here is to train your brain to associate a certain cue (“It’s 5 o’clock”) with a routine (“Three miles down!”) and a reward (“Chocolate!”).

Eventually, your brain will start expecting the reward inherent in exercise (“It’s 5 o’clock. Three miles down! Endorphin rush!”), and you won’t need the chocolate anymore. In fact, you won’t even want it. But until your neurology learns to enjoy those endorphins and the other rewards inherent in exercise, you need to jump-start the process.

And then, over time, it will become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. You won’t want the chocolate anymore. You’ll just crave the endorphins. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, will start triggering a craving for the inherent rewards to come”


Sweller’s Goal Free Effect… giving it a go.

Thanks to a recent tweet by Dylan Wiliam, and a great article that it linked to by Michael Pershan, I gained a fuller understanding of a cognitive effect that I’ve been exploring recently (see this paper), the ‘goal free effect’.

Discovered by John Sweller, it essentially posits that explicitly trying to solve a problem can result in a lot of ‘attention’ or ‘working memory’ (see here for a discussion of which term to use) being expended in the search process, limiting (or eliminating) the working memory available for ‘learning’ from the actual task. The result is that the problem gets solved, but the problem solver fails to make any generalisations from the solution and won’t be able to necessarily do it again in future.

It doesn’t come across as a a particularly complex theory, but what I’ve been trying to work out is how to make it work in a classroom. I read Pershan’s post but was keen to know more about linking the goal free approach to explicit learning intentions that the teacher has for the lesson (we discuss that here if you’d a bit more detail on this chat).

Sometimes it takes trying something out to get your head around it, and I was determined to do so. This week I encountered a question that I wanted my students to be able to solve, and I thought the goal free effect might be relevant. Here’s the question (see part b):

Question to use with the goal free effect

I recognised that there was a danger here. This was a relatively open question and I anticipated that several of my students would find it difficult. I could anticipate that many of them would just stare at the table without making connections and then after some work time and a few prompts I’d show a solution (or they’d find it themselves in the resource) but, because they’d been so solution focussed along the way, they’d just write the provided solution down and try to memorise it (the provided solution just focussed on the trend for 19 years and under) and fail to see all of the associations that they could have pointed out in the table.

What I did instead was try out Sweller’s theory.

I clipped out the table and showed it by itself on the whiteboard with my projector. I then asked ‘Look at this table… What can you tell me by looking at it? Do you notice any patterns?’

I also gave the following hint: ‘Focus on one row ( ← a row goes like this → ) at a time’.

We then shared as a class and it was an incredibly rich discussion. What I hadn’t anticipated was how asking such a question reduced the barrier to participation for students. I had students point out the patters for each of the age groups, but I also had one student say ‘The years go up in 10s’ as well as another similarly volunteer that ‘The years all end in 6’, this was in addition to associations being found between the year of first marriage and age of first marriage for each of the age categories in the table.

I then gave each student a half sheet of A4 paper and got them to put into words their association (I’d identified from the discussion that students were struggling to put their thoughts into formal mathematics terms, so wanted them to make these descriptions less transient by eliciting a written response) and collected up these bits. I read some out and, as a group, we identified what it was that made the strong ones strong. I hadn’t anticipated this at all, but we ended up making a template for answering these such questions, here it is:

Template from goal free effect activity

For me this was an incredible experience. We’d made it all the way from an open question to a generalisation, and scaffolded literacy along the way too (I work in a very low SES school with a large English as Additional Language student base, literacy needs are a constant in all classes), something I’d failed to anticipate in my planning.

In carrying out this activity I managed to get a much deeper understanding of how the goal free effect can work, and how it can be tied into a generalisation directly in line with my learning intention for this segment of the lesson (FYI, the explicit learning intention was for them to be able to identify associations from a two-way contingency table then describe the association and back up their claim with data from the table). In future cases, especially when there’s a lot going on in a diagram (see ‘split attention effect’ on bottom left of page 6 in this paper) I’ll definitely have the goal free effect in the back of my mind as one option in my teacher toolbox.


If students can’t be little scientists, can PSTs be little teachers?

When I read the above tweet I made a connection. A lot of people have been writing recently (and not-so-recently too) about the fact that trying to teach students science by the scientific method doesn’t work because novices approach problems in different ways to experts. Novices don’t have the same background knowledge as their expert counterparts, meaning that they don’t have sufficient info in their long-term memory to evaluate complex problems and are essentially rendered ineffective in complex situations due to overloaded working memory.

But have we applied this to our teacher training too? Is it reasonable to expect a pre-service teacher to comprehend and apply the science of learning in a complex classroom that requires them to simultaneously apply content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, then pedagogical content knowledge.

I’m thinking about what load reduction instruction look like for pre-service teachers. Surely we’d need to “Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step” as Rosenshine tells us.

A good lesson is made up of a balanced confluence of clear instruction and searching questions, teacher direction and independent work time (etc,), with key transition points existing at the junction between each of these facets of the lesson. Maybe micro-teaching is the gateway for novice teachers to master these skills, with an expert teacher guiding and holding the other elements of the class as the novice focusses on one at a time.

Food for thought, and something I’ll be keeping in mind when I take on my first pre-service teacher later this year.

What would it take to fix education in Australia? Notes from a Symposium

What would it take to fix education in Australia?
This was the title question of a recent symposium that I attended at the Melbourne Graduation School of Education. Moderated by Tom Bentley with a panel comprised of Professor Geoff Masters (AO, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research),
Associate Professor Larissa McLean Davies, Dr Glenn Savage, and Dr Jessica Gerrard (all three from MGSE), the discussion was held in conjunction with the launch of a new book entitled Educating Australia: Challenges for the Decade Ahead. Here’s wot-I-got from the discussion.

Glen Savage spoke first, introducing some of the themes from the book. Containing 22 chapters Glen suggested the content was diverse, but broadly in line with four themes. The first is the Evolving the purposes of schooling. This section of the book suggests the reframing and considering afresh of some of the purposes of education. The second section ‘New Pathways to Student Achievement’ focusses on the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that young people need, and the ways that these are changing. Section three ‘The role and impact of teachers’, explores advancements in teacher training and teacher education, with a focus on work that’s been done with respect to the clinical model espoused at MGSE. Section four is on the challenges of system reform. This section goes into battle with some of the long standing challenges in education.

Glenn suggested three implications from the book. He suggested that one of the main findings was that growing inequality and inequity poses great challenges to education in Australia in the decades to come. In some cases, policies designed to break down some barriers have actually exacerbating challenges. For example, achieving fair funding is undermined by decades of entrenched unfair funding policies. The second take away was in regards to the vital role that public policy plays in achieving positive change in schools, however, policy is never sufficient in achieving such positive change. Somewhat contrary to this, in the book it was often highlighted how politics often get in the way of good policy.

Glenn closed his introduction by highlighting the encouraging number of chapters on ideas and approaches that promise to bring positive change in education, from new collaboration platforms to technologies that will allow people to learn online.

Jessica spoke next. She suggested that in order to answer the question ‘What would it take to fix education in Australia?’ we need to first ask ‘What’s broken?’. She expanded suggesting that any answer to such a question depends on who you ask. She spoke of four key elements that she herself feels are key to consider. 1. Constantly decrying the failure of education can lead dangerously to fast tracked and piecemeal solutions to eduction. 2. We need to create a space to debate the purpose and role of schooling. How do and can schools and school systems reflect and shape Australian society? 3. We need to take as a starting point the rapidly changing conditions and social relations in Australia. We live in uncertain times. From our settler history and the unresolved challenges that remain, to the current challenges relating to asylum seeker policies. In understanding public schools and their roles we must also understand our diverse and changing populace. 4. The future of public schooling relies on understanding that the state is not a stand in for the public. The state and state funding does play a role in public education, but fundamentally ‘public’ education is a place where communities come together and take control of their own education. Governments can and do take a moral and political position that seeks to undermine the safety of certain groups in Australian society, so we can’t just leave it to them. In summary, we face a challenge challenge of coming to a collective focus for education whilst acknowledging and embracing the diversity of Australian society.

Geoff Masters, looked at school improvement also, but from the viewpoint of Assessment. He suggested that the current approaches, terms, concepts, and distinctions of assessment are reflective of the way that we think about schooling itself, and that this traditional way that we think about schooling is what you’d hear from anyone on the street. This idea starts with the curriculum, what teachers are expected to teach in a year of teaching. The role of teachers in the traditional model is to deliver this curriculum, and the role of students is to learn what these teachers teach. Finally, the role of assessment is to determine how well students have mastered the body of content that was ascribed to their school level. Geoff then argued that this only really makes sense if all students start at the same starting line at the start of the year. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Why are we then judging all students by the same finishing line? In such a system, the outcome is predictable, those who start further back end up further back, and those who start ahead generally tend to stay there. This means that for some students, who get Ds year on year, they could justifiably be forgiven for concluding that they’re not making any progress at all, even if this may not be the case. A challenge exists for those who start and end at the front in that they aren’t being stretched? Thus, Geoff concludes that the traditional view of schooling isn’t supporting this diverse community. So what’s the alternative? Geoff suggests that we could think of the curriculum instead as a map of long term progress against which teachers can monitor the progress of students. Assessment is then the process of establishing where students are on this progression at a particular point in time, and using that to help direct the next step for them and the support of their learning.

Finally, Larissa McLean Davies spoke. Larissa focussed on clinical teaching and took a strength based approach, ‘what is working already?’, to her chapter. Drawing quite heavily on the Master of Teaching from the MGSE as a case study, she then broadedned this to the discussion of teacher education more broadly. Larissa interestingly opened by acknowledging and naming the co-orthers of the chapter that she contributed to, and talked about how she did this as an acknowledgement of the importance of a communication and cohesion between the different levels of teacher education, from the pre-service phase right through and into schools themselves. Larissa argued for a fundamentally different conceptualisation of ‘teacher education’ beyond the walls of teacher education institutions. We won’t solve the challenges that we face without bridging the gap between policy and practice.

In question and answer time the discussion moved into Geoff Masters making the oft heard assertion that the inevitable destination for schooling is to move away from students being divided by year levels. He cited the role of technology in this and how technology would facilitate better tracking of students along his aforementioned curriculum progressions. I’m still not sold on this one, I haven’t as yet seen a successful model of this working. Would love for someone to point me to one!

Jessica made an interesting point in question time about how we operate on an assumption that equality and equity are goals for education but once we leave school and head into work and life we assume that there’s going to be inequality everywhere. Is such a schism in expectations justified and, if it is the case, what does that mean for what we expect of education? Glenn added: are we placing too much pressure on schools to fix society’s problems?

The four speakers then closed…

Glenn: There’s a misalignment between the locus of policy making and the locus of accountability in Australia. We’ve increasingly got federal bodies making decisions that have implications for education right across the country (locus of policy making), whereas the accountability to the impacts of these decisions actually falls not at the federal level but at the state levels. Fundamentally this is a broken feedback loop (my terminology) that undermines improvements and accountability right throughout the system. .

Larissa made an interesting point on the role of literacy. Following up on a question from Maxine McKew on the inclusion of Australian literature in Australian schools, she suggested that the literature studied in schools must represent the diversity of our Australian society. If we don’t do this then we’re effectively saying to vast swathes of our society ‘You do not have a place here’.

In closing, Geoff spoke about the importance of clarifying what highly effective teaching looks like, and how do we evaluate whether teachers are implementing these processes? What is it that teachers who stay in the classroom and are supposed to be getting better, supposed to be getting better at. Again here I’m not totally sold. I think we know a whole heap about what makes good teaching (see ‘The Science of Learning‘, Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction‘, and ‘Why Students Don’t Like School‘ for just three starting points). The challenge is for us teachers to become better informed about the basis of good teaching, and then to apply it.

Larissa closed by suggesting that if she could pull one lever it would be to establish sustainable funding for teacher professional development for the entirety of their career.

In her closing address, Jessica responded to a question from the audience about the way in which the structure of ‘the academy’ undermines some of the suggestions that were made throughout the evening around having a diversity of contributors to education and involving communities more broadly. She then mentioned how the definition of what ‘public’ is has changed from the times of Gough Whitlam to today, where we now believe that a system can still be public whilst at the same time accepting private funds. Jessica purposely resisted, and spoke about resisting, the pull to answer the question ‘Which one lever would you pull’, and did so in order to acknowledge that education is not a sectioned off system, but actually a complex part of a complex society, no one lever will ever do the trick.

Glenn closed with an analogy. ‘As a gardener, monocultures are a bad thing’. He asserted that we should be wary of top down solution proposals, and consider the strength and power that comes from diversity more broadly.

All questions at the end came thick and fast, and the facilitator Tom took about 10 questions in a row prior to giving each of the panel members 3 or so minutes to sum up. The question that iI asked was ‘If we ever do manage to ever agree on what the purpose of education is, what do we need to do as teachers, academics, members of the public, or educational change makers to get there?’, none of the panellists addressed this question directly, but I think it was somewhat addressed by Tom, the facilitator, in his closing. Tom spoke about the role and importance of us building community. He spoke about how, at whatever level of education we engage in, it is communities that underpin communication and collaboration. By building such communities we can amplify the good work of any single individual, as well as support each other throughout the whole process*.

Several times whilst I was listening to this very high level discussion on education a quote came to mind that I heard a couple of years ago,  ‘If you change what happens in your classroom, you are changing the education system.’ So now I guess it’s time to stop blogging and turn my head to lesson plans for tomorrow.

*For a little on an initiative that I’ve started to try to build the community around education research here in Melbourne, check out my page on the Education Research Reading Room here