The fundamentals of challenge – expectations and cognitive load

9 January 2019

Author: Andy Tharby

‘Challenge’ has become an important idea in education in recent years. To avoid the danger of setting low expectations that lead to low outcomes, schools and teachers are regularly exhorted to raise the challenge of their teaching and the curriculum. This is a very worthy aim, of course, but this must lead to clear actions that are supported by a clear vision of what ‘challenge’ really means for teachers and our students.

This post aims to do two things: first to introduce some of the research findings around teacher expectations and classroom practice; then to consider what kind of teaching practice might genuinely challenge our pupils.

The expectancy effect

Fascinating, if controversial, research from Rosenthal and Jacobson in the 1960s into what they dubbed ‘the Pygmalion effect’ suggests that our expectations of students can have a profound effect not only on how we interact with them, but also on their future achievement. They found that teachers in their study would interact differently with those students of whom they had higher expectations. They would be ‘warmer’ towards these children, teach them more material, give them more time to respond to questions and provide them with more positive praise. The findings showed that changes in teacher expectations can produce changes in student achievement; in this case, improved performance on IQ tests. It would appear that when teachers expect students to do well, students tend to do well.

However, the results were only consistent in younger children, not older children, and researchers have struggled to replicate the findings. Most researchers agree, however, that teacher expectancy has some impact on student achievement and that there may be certain student sub-groups (and individuals) whose achievement is particularly influenced by their teacher’s high or low expectations.

Stereotyping pupils from poor homes

A 2015 study which followed almost 12,000 children in England found that teachers stereotype pupils according to their level of poverty, gender and ethnicity. The study compared teachers’ judgements of students’ maths and reading ability with reading and maths assessment outcomes. Boys, SEN students and children who speak other languages were less likely to be judged as ‘above average’ in reading than other pupils performing at the same level. In maths, there were fewer differences; however, girls, Black Caribbean pupils, SEN students and those from low-income families were less likely to be judged as ‘above average’. It is important, therefore, that schools and teacher training institutes ensure that professional development time is used to address these potential biases.

Cognitive overload

The principle of ‘high challenge for all’ remains a laudable aim, but it remains crucial that the challenge is pitched at an achievable level for all pupils. Cognitive Load Theory gives us a useful model for thinking about this. This has developed from the work of Australian educational psychologist John Sweller. It is based on the types of information held in working-memory, the part of the mind where new information is held for a limited duration. 

The problem is that working memory capacity can easily become overloaded, meaning that new information is not transferred to long-term memory. Working memory capacity difference, therefore, is one of the main reasons why some students learn more than others given the same teacher input. It explains why when teachers deliver too much new information at once, learning can be reduced. In fact, we can only hold on to a limited number of items at once – between three and five for young adults depending on the difficulty of the task – and there are differences in capacity between individual people.

Therefore, a careful balance must be struck between making the work ‘too easy’ and ‘too hard’. Tasks that mean that students have to synthesise lots of information from different places, or tasks that rely on background knowledge that students have yet to acquire, are tasks that can quickly lead to cognitive overload, especially for those students who have a lower-than-average working-memory capacity. A useful rule of thumb for challenge, therefore, is ‘fewer items = deeper thinking’.

I will leave you with four top tips for improving the level of challenge in your lessons:

  • Set fewer success criteria for each task, but make these very challenging.
  • Explicitly teach essential background knowledge before moving on to more challenging tasks.
  • Plan for the thinking students will do in lessons. As Professor Robert Coe states, “Learning happens when people have to think hard.”
  • Remove anything superfluous that causes unnecessary difficultly or shifts attention away from subject content.
Posted on 9 January 2019
Posted in: Blog

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