I’m on the ‘About Us‘ page now, so it must be official! I’m very happy to say that Ceri Jones and I will now join Shaun Wilden, Lindsay Clandfield and James Taylor as part of the TEFL Commute podcast team. In season 13 you can hear Ceri and I co-presenting the episode ‘Women‘, and I join Shaun and Lindsay for ‘Young‘. You’ll also hear me do a few drop ins throughout the series based on the (Almost) Infinite ELT Ideas blog, and taking part in the round table discussion about podcasts at the end of season 12. I’ve really enjoyed our discussions so far, and I look forward to many more.
If you’ve never listened to The TEFL Commute Podcast before, here’s the full list of previous episodes: I’d recommend the ‘Who’s Zooming Who?’ episodes as a great starting point. Enjoy!
This post is based on emails I exchanged with one of my colleagues last week. He gave me permission to turn them into a blogpost – thank you!
The lesson was revision of superlatives with elementary 10-13 year olds. They had 8 prompts like this: young / person / my family. For each prompt, students needed to individually create a statement, some true, some false. This was very challenging for most of the students in the group, despite the teacher demonstrating it to them first. Only two students out of eight were able to complete the task as it was originally planned. The others ended up writing only true sentences. The teacher emailed me afterwards to find out how to do the task differently next time. The rest of the post is a slightly edited version of my reply (I’m happy to be corrected on my understanding of cognitive load!)
Especially at this level, it’s important to think about the cognitive load you’re putting onto students, and how many levels they need to complete the task on at the same time.
“Cognitive load” relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Sweller said that, since working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning.
work out what the prompts are/mean (i.e. what does the teacher want from me)
create a superlative sentence (a new grammar structure they’ve only just encountered)
decide whether to make it true or false
add the information – either true or false
…so they’re dealing with the task on 4 different levels. It’s an achievable task if you break up each of those levels so students are attacking them separately. This helps students by staging the task for them carefully, enabling them to successfully complete something quite complicated. You can think of this as providing scaffolding or a staircase to help the students reach the high point of the final goal. For example:
Have 2 or 3 examples completed already for reference, refer them to the references to show how the prompt turns into the superlative
Do 1 or 2 of them in the chat box so all of them complete it, then they complete all of them as stems only + feedback
Write T or F next to each piece of information with parameters e.g. 3 x T, 3 x F – check afterwards – have you got three T? three F?
Add the true/false information depending on what letter they wrote before
Alternatively you can remove/change some of the levels – this reduces cognitive load and takes less time in the lesson. You can think of this as students joining the staircase at a higher point, so they’re already closer to the final goal. Any of the levels can be removed:
Don’t use the prompts – make it free choice with a sentence stem e.g. The _______ in my ________ is…. make it a gapfill e.g. The _______ (tall) person in my family is… (requires careful instruction checking so they don’t fill in the end of the sentence yet!)
Supply the completed stem for them to just understand and complete with information (shift from a form focus to a purely meaning focus, but you don’t know if they actually understood how to form the grammar – you can get around this by asking them to write 2-3 of their own examples at the end)
and 4. Do what you did in the lesson and take away the true/false element.
Mind Tools theorises this process like this:
Reduce the Problem Space
The “problem space” is the gap between the current situation and the desired goal. If this is too large, people’s working memory becomes overloaded.
This often happens with complex problems, where the learner needs to work backwards from the goal to the present state. Doing this requires him to hold a lot of information in his working memory at once. Focusing on the goal also takes attention away from the information being learned, which makes learning less effective.
A better approach is to break the problem down into parts. This reduces the problem space and lightens the cognitive load, making learning more effective.
Other methods of reducing the problem space include providing worked examples and presenting problems with partial solutions for the learner to complete. These approaches are particularly useful, because they demonstrate strong problem-solving strategies in practice.