Cognitive Load Theory

Have you heard of this term? I first heard about it while studying my Masters in Education (shout out to Flinders Uni) and it is a theory that resonates beautifully with TCI/TPRS. The reason this is on my mind at the moment is due to an amazing presentation by David Morkunas that primary staff watched yesterday for PD. Hard to believe that at that point David had taught for almost 4 years!! Loved how he used established education research to underpin his teaching practice. He states that the site he works at “prides itself on delivering evidence-based instruction” (ref: http://pamelasnow.blogspot.com/2020/08/i-now-understand-that-for-many.html). There is no way I was familiar with education research in my third (almost fourth) year of teaching and can only do so now as a result of postgraduate study! While his presentation is aimed at classroom teachers, the underlying message is extremely pertinent for all teachers. It focuses on the understanding that learning is solely about transfering knowledge to long term memory. For language teachers, this sums up our job succinctly. Our students arrive in our classroom with generally zero L2 (the language we teach) and our job becomes linking their prior knowledge (L1), to building up a solid mental representation of the L2 in ways that transfer it to long term memory (acquisition) without overloading working memory. As David states, this can only be done effectively when cognitive overload (overloading working memory) is avoided otherwise there becomes an increased potential for poor student learning outcomes. The most important message of this post!!

David in this video outlines spaced practice, the idea of regular repetition as opposed to cramming, interleave practice, varying the learning topics rather than a single focus, and finally retrieval practice, the practice of retrieving knowledge from long term memory and working with it in working memory. How beautifully does this sum up why TCI is such a successful approach for language learning! David, through Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, illustrates how moving knowledge from long term memory to working memory strengthens memory. Look at how the vertical gradient lifts with each repetition!!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgetting_curve

During his presentation, I tried to remember (long term memory to working memory: smiley face) how I incoporate the three types of practice within my teaching. Here are some of the strategies I use:

Spaced Memory
Limiting target structures is the fundamental key to this step. Once a story has been selected/written, it is VITAL that it is tweaked to ensure it contains no more than three new structures. Wherever possible, replace unfamiliar language with cognates or familiar vocabulary/phrases. More than three new structures and the possibility for cognitive overload increases and the chances for successful knowledge transfer to long term memory decreases.
VPQA (visual personalised questions and answers): I love finding quirky pictures that deliver opportunities for circling and personalisation. For example, when introducing the structure topi (hat) for Judy Dubois’ story ‘Jaket Terlalu Besar’ (The too big Jacket), I found hilarious pics on google images of hamburger hats, hotdog hats, donut hats, etc. which worked perfectly for JP Indonesian students as it gave reps on the structure topi through cognates of food items that are easy to personalise using retrieval practice for familiar language (mau, makan {want,eat})!

Mata-mata (spy): The credit for this technique goes to Ibu Sharon Mann. Again like most TCI strategies, we all do them differently (and that’s totally ok) so inevitably my version differs to the way in which Sharon did this years ago when I was observing her. (Side note: I can’t recommend observations highly enough!) On a PowerPoint slide, I write a small number (10 – 12ish) of structures that we’ve covered or are covering. This slide is purely for me. I ask the students to turn around so their back is to the slide  and I move so that the class is between me and the slide. Firstly I say each L2 word and accompany it with its gesture and ask students to echo me in L2. Secondly I go through the L2 words one at a time and gesture yet students echo me in L1 with each gesture. Standing next to me are two students whose sole jobs is to watch the class to choose an amazing student to whom they will give a sticker. I can glance up at the slide behind them when I need to. For me, this prompt is essential as I am so forgetful. The words are strategically added during planning as they cover a mini list of words to review; either because they will come up during the lesson or because I’ve noticed that a particular word needs more repetition to strengthen its transfer to student long term memory.

Calling the Roll – I use class dojo to call the roll. First term, this is about establishing routines, vocabulary structures and cultural norms. Gradually I introduce aspects of challenge for older students including class time challenges (who can call the roll the fastest) and by term 4 we are making up hilarious stories about why a student is absent which is then repeated to the student when they next turn up to class!

Interleave Practice This practice also represents exactly how TCI is planned and taught. A TCI language lesson incorporates variety and in no way represents block teaching i.e. a solid focus on just one topic. While our subject is taught in lesson blocks, and the focus may be on a single vocabulary item (particularly in a JP context), lesson practice adapts with the age of our students. For JP students, an up/down approach is essential. This looks like 5 minutes of stationary focus followed by 5 minutes of movement for 5 year olds and increases incrementally for each age group. Movement can take the form of brain breaks, All the World’s a Stage, TPR, singing and dancing. For older students, brain breaks don’t need to last 9/10/11 minutes, a brain burst may all that is needed.
Planning a TCI lesson also incorporates a variety of ‘activities’ (not the best choice of word, but hey, it’ll do for now). Rather than plugging away to achieve the set lesson outcomes, TCI lesson plans include a blend of both targeted and focused attention to gain maximum repetitions of the target structures as well as offering students contribution opportunities through long term memory retrieval. The first is definitely teacher led however the latter is student directed following the direction of student input/output. The balance between teacher led ‘activities’ and student directed ‘activities’ is heavily weighted towards the latter. The teachers role here is to model, scaffold, restate (repeat student output correctly in a way that celebrates their contribution) and have fun!

Retrieval Practice
Almost everything we do in a TCI classroom incorporates retrieval practice. This is why language learning is so exhausting and needs constant brain breaks for successful learning. It uses a significant amount of brain energy to retrieve knowledge and then to manipulate it in working memory. I highly recommend learning a new language asap if it has been a while for you. My foray into Spanish last year with the wonderful Margarita Perez has made a huge impression on me both as a teacher and a learner. My brain is aching now just thinking about it!!
Here are a few ideas from my lessons that enhance retrieval practice:

Kursi Luar Biasa (special person interviews) – Credit for this goes entirely to Bryce Hedstrom.
I love how the questions used in KLB offer linguistic and cultural opportunities. The questions facilitate students searching long term memory for acquired structures before manipulating them within working memory to output totally original sentences. Soooo cool.

Calling The Roll – see above

Brain breaks – Love, love, love using brain breaks that require students to listen to simple comprehensible instructions using acquired structures. My favourite go to is satu kaki (one foot). it is simply asking students to stand on one leg and see who can stand for twenty seconds! I then count to twenty in Indonesian and we then celebrate those is still standing. The second time, to ramp up the challenge, students swap legs and for the third time, they close their eyes. The first time this is played, safety rules are given in English to ensure no one is hurt. The last version can have arms waving madly!! Thus there is no wobbling, no hopping, and also a remiinder that it is just a game and if you get bumped, tidak ada masalah (no problem)!

Comprehension Checks – Celebrating those students who comprehended through long term memory retrieval to working memory.

Story Asking – class created stories based on student contributions underpined by comprehension.

Circling – asking yes/no, sudah/belum, either/or questions supporting comprehension through pointing and pausing acknowledges the hard work happening in students’ working memory.

Gestures – establishing gestures with classes, for some students will help prompt their working memory and assist with acquisition. This is a great tool for differentiation.

For more discussion on retrieval practices, I highly recommend the following podcast by Liam Printer; Retrieval Practice: 11 zero-prep strategies for an engaged classroom? Also don’t forget to search for his program notes. Well worth a read to strengthen your own memory!!

Back at Uni….

The amazing rollercoaster ride finished temporarily last night and I now have 5 weeks of NOTHING to look forward to! What do I mean? Well….. I am back at university and have just completed the first semester of my Master of Education – Languages. Literally, just finished! I handed in my final two assignments last night however it wasn’t till this morning that I finally felt the relief.

Have you ever been tempted to go back to uni? If you have, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to look into it. For me, I wish I’d done this years ago. Not only has it been too long since I completed my Batchelor of Education (30+ years), but everything I have studied so far has been significantly more practical and enjoyable; I am itching to put it to the test.

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Looking north west from the third floor library window. Love the various magpies that keep me company!

In semester one, I completed 4 compulsory units;
– Motivation, cognition and metacognition,
– Approaches to research,
– Developing Literacies through intercultural language teaching
and
– Exploring languages pedagogy.
Which one do you think looks the most interesting and practical for teachers? Surprisingly for me, it was the one that I least expected to connect with. It was without a doubt, the first one. This was for many reasons; all of which are fascinating from a teacher/learner perspective, especially when you consider that initially I was ‘amotivated’. Even though the weekly workshop was only 60 minutes long, the pedagogy of the class was spot on and reflected the course content. We covered an interesting selection of topics including self efficacy, Deci & Ryan’s model of self determination, memory and the theories suggesting how  information is processed so as to be transferred to long term memory. Did you know that working memory has a very short 15- 30 second limit for retaining thoughts/information unless it is attached to meaning or constantly attended to eg repeating it over and over (sound familiar?)  Another fascinating fact relevant for us CBLT (comprehension based language teaching) teachers is that short term memory functions best if new information is limited. 7 is the maximum quantity of information that can be processed at any one time in our working memory (Miller), yet when this information is in the form of words, 3 – 4 items is the ideal number. Please keep this in mind when tempted to use unfamiliar vocabulary in a lesson!

While I have loved many, many aspects of my postgraduate study, there have been two aspects that have been very frustrating. The first is the strong anti CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) sentiment and the other is the heavy intercultural language learning emphasis. Both have been confronting because there appears to be little room for negotiation, although I am hoping to push back a little more from now on.

When I first heard Bill VanPatten talk about the anti CLT rhetoric, I really didn’t understand just how strong it is. At the chalkboard, we are largely protected from it in Australia, however at the tertiary level, it is loud and strong. All set readings about CLT were written by ignorant authors whose understanding of CLT is based solely on opinion gained from seemingly flicking through a ‘CLT’ textbook. I’ve discovered that the majority of my class colleagues come from countries whose curriculum is delivered compulsorily through designated ‘CLT’ texts, however I fail to understand how a constant diet of negativity supports them in any way. I hear them say over and over, that their curriculum content and delivery is set by the government, yet they are still expected to design lesson plans and unit plans based on other approaches. How is that good pedagogy?

My other beef has been with intercultural language teaching. While it has been fascinating to have the opportunity to study the beliefs underpinning this and I totally agree that is imperative for our students to develop skills necessary to be culturally competent citizens in our global world, I disagree that it should be to the extent where communicative competence is prejudiced. At the bare minimum, they should be valued equally in a language classroom. Furthermore, I suggest that if we agree that language and culture are tightly intertwined, then CBLT is undoubtedly the best approach to actually achieve this.

An unexpected bonus from my study has without a doubt been my fellow students. One of my units that I fortuitously selected, was also chosen by a TCI colleague (shout out to the inspirational Heather)! This was amazing because it meant we could discuss readings through our CBLT and junior primary lens.  We also collaborated on a TCI/intercultural language lesson presentation for which Heather took a day off school so that we could present together. As this was Heathers’ penultimate unit for her masters, I am so thrilled we had the opportunity to overlap. Her final unit will be conducting and writing up a research paper and as I am in no way ready for this, I will support and cheer her on from the sidelines. A large percentage of my fellow students are largely international students. In two of my classes, I was the only native English speaker and the nationalities represented were vast. Students come from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Lao, Vietnam, China, Bhutan, Timor Leste, Saudi Arabia and of course, Indonesia! It is brilliant studying with Indonesian students – all are incredibly warm and friendly, so tolerant of my passion for Indonesia(n) and also happy to answer questions about current usage, culture and education. How lucky am I? It was sad though, saying goodbye to Sol who finished his course and has since returned home to Nusa Tenggara Timor and fingers crossed we cross paths again one day.

The most exciting thing that happened last semester was finally holding in my hands a copy of Bill VanPatten’s book ‘While We’re On The Topic‘. While a hard copy of the book itself is not too expensive, postage to Australia is. I know I could get a e-version, but this is a book that really needs to be in paper form. A copy of his book is apparently not available yet from any other Australian university so this copy was borrowed from Iowa University!! Heather has since requested that Flinders University invest in a copy – can’t wait!! IMG_8932

 

I have enrolled in three units for next semester. The first two are compulsory subjects (as were all I studied in first semester) and the third one is my first optional unit. I had planned to enrol in the introduction to second language acquisition but unfortunately it is only offered in first semester. I look forward to enrolling in it next year!
My semester two units are:
– Visualising language learning,
– New technologies and e-pedagogy in foreign language education,
– The psychology of learning and instruction.

I am thoroughly enjoying being a uni student again and am so looking forward to next semester. I absolutely love the writing and readings (when not bagging CLT) although do feel guilty that my blog is more neglected than I expected. Maybe this semester with one less subject and a greater familiarity of the system I will be able to share ideas that are relevant to TCI.

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Looking south from the third floor library window on the final evening of semester one while completing my final two assignments!