The Leap of Faith

March marked our second Teach Meet at NWC, where I was once again blown away by my colleagues’ passion for Teaching and Learning, as well as their thoughtful reflections on the material we were discussing. Again, I cannot thank them enough for their contributions as they have all directly inspired this blog. For tonight’s meeting we looked at a couple of areas that are very topical in the educational world, as well as being at the forefront of research and pedagogy: Cognitive Load and Digital approaches. All very exciting (and research based), so then why the title ‘The Leap of Faith’? What became clear from the articles and our discussions, was that often our teaching is ‘what we know’ and we employ strategies that keep us comfortable. But ‘comfort’ doesn’t always result in progress, or high attainment. It’s for this reason that as teachers, we perhaps need to take some ‘leaps of faith’ in our teaching strategies that will make us uncomfortable in the short term, but will also bring results.

The first article that we explored was ‘Using Cognitive Load Theory to improve slideshow presentations’ by Andy Tharby. I decided to open the discussion by being brutally honest, I have committed many of the ‘Teaching Sins’ that are referred to in this article, the main one being ‘death by PowerPoint’ and PowerPoints filled with too much information. Since subjects in KS4 and 5, have been going through educational reforms and an increase in subject content, the default for many teachers has been ‘let’s cram everything our students need to know onto the PPTs slides’, but learning is not simply acquired through reading from a PowerPoint. So why do we do it? For most, it is the ‘comfort blanket’ of knowing that all the information is there, and therefore at ours and the students’ disposal. Yet, research tells us that this isn’t the most effective way to teach. Cognitive Load Theory, developed from psychologist John Sweller, refers to the types of information held in our working memory at one time (1994) and tells us that over populated, busy, clunky or animated presentations have a detrimental impact on students learning. If our working memory is overloaded; it becomes difficult to transfer information into our working memory. Imagine pouring a whole packet of skittles into a milk bottle at the same time, only so many skittles are going to go in, the rest will simple fall to the floor. This is the same as our overloaded PowerPoints, only so much of the information is going to end up stored in the memory of our students.

Our working memory is merely the capacity of ‘intrinsic, extraneous and germane load’ and the one we have the most control over as teachers, is ‘extraneous’. Extraneous load refers to how material is presented, as we can only hold a limited number of items at once – between 3 and 5 for young adults (Cowan, 2010) – therefore we should be really thinking about how much we pack onto a PowerPoint presentation. What is really important is how we teach, not what we teach. This led us onto a discussion about the impact that ‘flipped learning’ could have; we could reduce ‘extraneous load’ as this meant that rather than spending valuable classroom time simply ‘giving’ information, and could maximise ‘germane load’, the productive thinking that causes our students to form and consolidate long term memories (this is real ‘learning’, the goal of teaching). If we give the information, then from this there is more room to build in learning experiences which allow for creativity, discussion, enquiry, debate and then application. This research was also supported by the second article we looked at, ‘How multimedia can improve learning and instruction’ by Richard E Mayer, which is based on an extract from Dunlosky J and Rawson K, The Cambridge Handbook on Cognition and Education. Here, the evidence suggest that people learn better from ‘narration and graphics simultaneously’, and has the biggest impact on learning. This also got us onto a discussion about the presentation of our lessons and how we could strip back our worksheets. Here came the next ‘leap of faith’. We know our girls also like the comfort blanket of having a printed copy, electronic copy, textbook and anything else that contains course materials to be handed over to them, so that they can read and highlight. In fact, girls have grumbled when this isn’t the case, and so our desire to please them means that we just hand it over willingly. But, we need to take that ‘leap’ and trust that we know what real learning looks like, and that this is not simply re-reading or highlighting, a strategy that we all know doesn’t have a significant impact on their learning.

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Here our discussion took another route, note taking. If we are going to reduce the materials we give the girls, we need to trust that they have the ability to make effective notes. So what should these notes look like, and how can we ensure students have all the information? This was a particularly interesting avenue as two of the members of staff present were American (not Canadian) and so had note taking taught as part of their education. In Year 12 our girls have an EPQ session on ‘The Cornell Method’, but in reality, this is too late in their academic path to be teaching this. Most of them have already established learning habits, and although they might not be the most effective, they are just as reluctant to change as we teachers are. Here, our members from Junior School mentioned how they do teach a couple of session on note taking in Years 4 and 5, but equally acknowledged that they didn’t think it was revisited enough. So for this ‘leap’ we need to consider embedding a ‘how to take notes’ element into the Senior School from Year 7 to ensure that our girls are confident in taking their own notes in an effective and efficient format.

Our final route, and perhaps the ‘biggest’ potential ‘leap’, was looking at Blended Learning. The article ‘Interweaving traditional and digital approaches: The development of blended learning at Sandringham School’ happened to be written by an old colleague of mine, Fergal Moane, who I worked with on the Blended Learning programme and staff CPD at that school, Blended Learning is the ‘thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences’ (Garrison and Kanuka, 2004, pp.96-7). It is called ‘blended’ to emphasis the fact that technology can be a tool to enhance learning, it has a time and a place (much like a calculator) and is certainly not a substitute for real teaching. Sandringham introduced a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model, and provided funding for families that needed financial support, thus all parents agreed to provide their children with devices.

A question asked about how we at Sandringham selected the specific applications for our digital toolkit. We identified which tools were ‘essential’ and so these applications were expected to be on every students’ device. Furthermore, we decided on applications which were essential for Teaching and Learning, such as Padlet, then at a whole staff inset, we asked departments to identify which applications were most useful for them. Giving staff ownership over what apps they wanted to use really supported engagement with digital usage in the classroom. Furthermore, for this ‘leap of faith’ to be as successful as the one taken by Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, we must ensure that there is quality CPD and time to allow staff to explore the applications that can enhance our students learning potential. So, at NWC we are seeking to provide CPD in a sample of key digital tools that will really be able to enhance the learning experience of our girls, whilst still maintaining that this is simply complimentary to the fantastic teaching strategies that are already in place.

The article referenced a student survey of the first year group who had been part of the Blended Learning pedagogy from its conception to GCSE. In this survey, 80% reported that they thought having devices at school had enhanced their learning, and implies that devices can support student engagement in the classroom. In fact, this is something that I have noticed, when I tell the girls to go get the iPads there is a sense of excitement. However, I was asked, why did 20% not think it had helped? Well, as I left Sandringham with this cohort, I can’t say I saw the result analysis, but based on my experience, I can speculate that the 20% could be due to the inevitable distraction that technology (well, social media) brings. At this point, another colleague queried whether this pedagogy contradicts what we are telling the girls about limiting their screen time, which is a valid point as we are trying to encourage good study habits, such as taking a break from social media. But in reality, we cannot ignore the growing exposure that our girls and future generations will have to the digital world. But equally, this exposure won’t all be bad either. The jobs of the future will require our girls to be digitally literate and resilient. Furthermore, as educators, isn’t it our responsibility to ensure that they know not only the positives of the digital world, but also the dangers and the responsibilities that come with having technology at their fingertips? If we ignore the digital era, we are short-changing our girls. Not one of us want to walk into a classroom where our girls are hunched over looking into the screen of a device. We want to see real engagement with their learning, independence and enquiry. That’s why, Northwood College’s plans for a digital strategy as an organic one, fills me with real excitement. This ‘leap of faith’ is a leap into the future and one which open up so much potential for our girls.

As our Teach Meet drew to a close, one thing was clear, we all really want what is best for our girls. We know that there are many challenges that face them such as huge specifications, perfectionist tendencies (which are often counter intuitive to learning) and the unknown of the digital world. Yet we as their teachers, who are constantly reflecting on practice and research, are in a position where we can take a ‘leap of faith’ and adapt our practice to support their learning. Change can often be synonymous with fear, especially when we have been doing something a certain way for so long. However, once that fear is overcome, the character, independence and intellect that our girls will develop, will set them up as those who will take ‘the leap of faith’ in the future.

Mrs Hughes, Head of Cognitive Learning