Avoiding TMI (too much information!)

Darren Goode

Darren is an English lead practitioner and director of social enterprise KEYS Education, which delivers supplementary education to young people in the community. His organisation also provides mentoring and intervention for vulnerable children.

Follow @KEYSschool

Website: www.keystolearn.org Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Image credit: Flickr // UBC Learning Commons. Image credit: Flickr // UBC Learning Commons.

“I've got the children to tend, the clothes to mend, the floor to mop, the food to shop.”

This is an excerpt from Maya Angelou's brilliant poem Woman Work, where she reels off a litany of the chores and duties that a woman in her circumstance has to honour.

If we were to replace the noun ‘woman’ with ‘student’, it might sound something like this: “I've got the tricky algebra to defeat, the literature homework to complete, the History essay to correct, the lab rats to dissect.”

Yes, I'll say it: students have it difficult too. In no way am I advocating we ease up on them. In fact, we could argue that they should be given more to do, as research shows that we learn best when our brains are challenged. This has been called a ‘state of disequilibrium’, where the stress derived from tackling challenging tasks actually makes the brain change shape. But what I am saying is that we can't give the challenge without the tools or support.

Firstly, let's look at the notion of support. In a typical lesson, a child might be introduced to new concepts, new words to define these concepts, and new processes / ways / styles of capturing new information. Too much information is likely to cause the brain to overload. Cognitive psychologists “Too much information is likely to cause the brain to overload.”call this ‘cognitive load’: the idea that the brain can only deal with about three-to-five pieces of new information at a time. This scientific fact should cause us to deeply reconsider the student learning experience over an average five-to-six period day, with most schools having a different subject for each period. Perhaps we can better support students if we design the learning opportunities so that we don't overload students' brains, lesson-by-lesson, over the school day. Notwithstanding, this also should cause us to consider how we design our timetables.

This brings me to the final point: equipping students with the necessary tools to learn. By tools I mean the concrete and practical strategies students can use to master concepts and skills, and then efficiently retrieve these when called upon, whether it be an examination or pub quiz as soon as they’re old enough to down a swift peg. Below is a short summary of the tactics that could be employed in schools.

1. Build vocabulary explicitly. By doing so, students develop a storehouse of words to be able to name and describe things with laser-like precision. As a result, when writing, they will have a greater level of detail. Don't forget to regularly test understanding, application and spelling of new vocabulary in both oral and written assessments.

2. Teach knowledge. Students need to know things. In fact, lots of things. Further still, the more things they know, the more they are able to draw upon a cornucopia of facts to make new connections, place new knowledge within an existing and ever-expanding context, and use prior knowledge to evaluate and reason with new information. Psychologists call this ’ever-expanding context’ schema. Daisy Christodoulou's book Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning has a helpful explanation of this concept. She uses the term ‘mental models’ to describe the web of ideas and understandings that our brains build over time.

3. Finally, handle with care. Yes, human beings are incredibly resilient but, paradoxically, we can be very fragile. Show your students that you care, and work out when to push and when to ease back.

Smile and enjoy your teaching. I'd be interested to know how you equip students with tools as well as provide support to ensure they learn. Share your methods with us in the comments section.

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