Many teachers, myself included, will have ventured into school over the Summer holidays (which already seem impossibly long ago) to clear out their classroom and freshen up displays or even change room layouts. And the research tells us that this is really important. Fisher, A., Godwin, K. and Seltman, H. (2014) published a rigorous study in Psychological Science where children were observed and tested in a highly decorated and cluttered classroom and a sparse classroom (see figure 1 below for the actual classrooms used in this study). The authors found that 85% of children in the study spent more time off task in the highly decorated room and made less progress in testing. So declutter your classroom by all means, as it will help your students (to be clear, the authors don’t call for sterilised whitewashed rooms, just clean learning spaces with meaningful displays).
Fig. 1: From Fisher, A., Godwin, K. and Seltman, H. (2014), the cluttered and the decluttered classrooms used in the study. Which would you be more focused in?
However, if we really want to promote progress in our classrooms, we need to look beyond the walls and reflect upon our lessons. An article that I have recently read made me do just that. Kirschner and De Bruyckere (2017) wrote of the fallacy of the multitasker. Humans, and therefore the students in our classrooms are not able to multitask. Instead, there is a large amount of evidence showing that we merely engage in task-switching where “a person first shifts the goal and thus makes a ‘decision’ to divert attention away from the task being carried out to another task” (p. 138). This results in students’ attention being divided and performance in one task limiting that in any others.
It was at that moment that I realised that I am guilty of cluttering some of my lessons merely in the name of increasing engagement. I thought about one lesson in particular that I had been proud of where I used the haemophilia in Queen Victoria’s bloodline to create a puzzle that students used to identify the rules of inheritance.
Fig 2. I cannot believe I made them try to get to grips with all of these names!
I thought about the questions students were asking, some of which were more focused on the history and the family names than the science that I wanted students to actually develop an understanding of.
It made me think back to a tweet from Dylan Wiliam last year in which he asserted the importance of us, as teachers, embracing the psychology of Cognitive Load Theory:
One of the fastest growing areas of educational research is that into Cognitive Load Theory. If you haven’t heard about it yet, the NSW Department for Education released an excellent primer for teachers entitled Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand in 2017. The theory discusses how long term memories are formed:
Fig 3. The basics of how we form long term memories.
It also considers how we can maximise learning efficiency by balancing the three types of cognitive load that we place on students;
- Intrinsic – the difficulty of the material that we actually want them to learn,
- Extraneous – the complexity of the instruction or task that students work through and,
- Germane – explicit instruction and guidance developing the knowledge.
What I was unwittingly doing, in my inheritance lesson was overloading students’ working memory by increasing the extraneous cognitive load and therefore reducing the amount of science that could be encoded into students’ long term memory. Simply, I had overcomplicated the task and students were busy task-switching between the science and the puzzle that I had created to make efficient learning gains.
So does this mean the end of context or problem based learning? I don’t think so. I still believe it is good for increasing engagement and inquiry skills. However, there is a time and a place. Perhaps if I had used this task to test application of knowledge that was already in the long term memory then I believe there would have been less cognitive over loading.
How will engaging with this research affect my teaching? Well, I will now be looking at the tasks I use in my lesson and consider the key points that I want students to learn and whether I am covering them in layers of redundant information and instruction just for the sake of it. Instead I will use the year ahead to adjust my lessons so that I increase the germane cognitive load by providing clear and detailed instruction and modelling rather than just baffling my students. Then, as consolidation I will return to my cheesy context based lessons…
- Kirschner, P. A., & De Bruyckere, P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67, 135-142.
- Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological science, 25(7), 1362-1370.
- Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2017). Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand, NSW Department of Education, Sydney.
For the link in Dylan Wiliam’s Tweet: http://edrev.asu.edu/edrev/index.php/ER/article/viewFile/2025/545