The cognitively curated day

A cognitively curated day.

Imagine you have just been to the most interesting, dynamic and stimulating training you’ve ever attended. It was really challenging and required huge concentration but your mind is now absolutely buzzing with fascinating new ideas and information.

You know you will be asked to comment on your thinking and talk or write about what you have remembered of this training’s content in the very near future.

With this in mind, which of these three options would you choose?

  1. Go headlong into another highly stimulating session but this time on a different subject.
  2. Remain in a learning frame of mind but attempt something slightly less cognitively challenging.
  3. Do something which gives you the time and space to think about what you have just experienced and the chance to reflect on it.

I have asked this question to hundreds of teachers over many years in training sessions and only a handful have ever chosen option A.

However, if we translate this model into our curation of a pupil’s day in school, we’re very often inadvertently asking our pupils to move from “A” style lessons to “A” style lessons with a frantic but relentless metronomic regularity up to five times per day.

We are all no doubt aware of the effects of Cognitive Load within Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory and the associated now famous Tweet from Dylan Wiliam about how he is increasingly convinced that CLT is one of the most important things all teachers need to know. Many of us are well versed  in the differences between germane, intrinsic and extraneous load and the pulls that they have on the cognitive resources available to  access and be successful with newly encountered information within lessons.

However, I believe there is another cognitive load dimension, that of incremental and cumulative chronological cognitive load. By this, I mean the effect of moving repeatedly from one highly cognitively challenging lesson or session to another without a consideration of the effects of this sustained level of cognitive demand.

If we look through the lens of practicality and direct observation, we all know afternoons are harder to teach when children are less fresh or receptive. Anyone who has tried hauling children through the detailed finer points of challenging material in a hot and often fragrant classroom in the final period of the day, knows that it is not so much a sparkling lightfooted well choreographed intellectual dance through fascinating content but is instead often akin to singlehandedly dragging thirty anvils through an academic quagmire.  Not only that but we joke about it ourselves as adults if we are holed up in a conference room for a full day of “inspirational content”. We know we are utterly saturated with inspiration by around 1.30pm and even before the speaker has made the statutory gag about the “graveyard shift”.

This cumulative cognitive load is especially apparent in primary and early years settings where the children are often utterly exhausted after lunch. We could attribute this to a simple case of fatigue, the children having  been busy and therefore tired but, during weekends or holiday times,  these same children are often not almost falling asleep at two in the afternoon or becoming fractious or unable to concentrate.

What is the difference?

Cognitive challenge.

Often, because of the high pressure environments created by overly stuffed curriculums, high stakes accountability and the enduring hangover of the false conflation of “pace” with “great teaching”,  a child’s day can be a Mario Kart style hurtling around an academic track with little time to pause, reflect or consider the content of what the hell just happened.

In primary, there has long been a tendency to front load the day with English and Mathematics, covering off the, “most difficult” or seemingly “most important” aspects of the curriculum when children are traditionally at their most receptive in the mornings. There is also a recognition that this pace cannot be sustained across the whole day so often afternoon lessons have a slightly different look, feel and design to them. However, the curation of the day in this way to have a slightly gentler afternoon is often born of observational necessity rather than strategy. Looking at the curation of a day through a cumulative cognitive load lens gives us a chance to view the Mario Kart track of potential relentless demand from a different angle.

What if we took some of the principles that so many are championing and curated them over an entire day? What if we looked at lesson design from an A, B C perspective?

What if we looked at where we put in opportunities for “B”, the spaced, interleaved and retrieval practices alongside “C”, planned and deliberate opportunities for developing fluency and automaticity across a multi disciplinary carefully curated diet which created a very deliberate ebb and flow to the cognitive demands of a day? Of course, you can have a balance of A, B and C and combinations thereof within an individual lesson but by the very nature of the individual content and stage within each subject unit, some lessons on some days at some stage within a unit are going to be more cognitively demanding than others. 

What if we imagined ourselves in the shoes of, or actually shadowed, a child or class for a day or a week and sampled their cognitive diet? Could we keep pace? Would we encounter a carefully structured and deliberately crafted balance? Would this balance be of periods of intense concentration and highly demanding new content juxtaposed with strategically placed lessons/sessions where the focus was on retrieving knowledge, practising previously encountered skills or on developing the fluency and automaticity required for mastery of our carefully planned curriculums? 

What if we viewed what we know about how humans learn and stopped applying this only in artificial 45 or 60 minute blocks? It is as if each subject is planning its teaching and working as a separate limb within the body of knowledge and skills we are wanting our children to acquire. There is little synchronicity between the artificially carved chronology  of the timetabled day and the intellectual demands of each individual subject. It can therefore result in a situation which reminds me of the famous episode of The Vicar of Dibley where Dawn French’s character has to eat Christmas dinner multiple times over at various other characters’ houses and cannot refuse to eat for fear of offending each generous host. The result is that she is fractious, unable to move, cannot digest another morsel and can do nothing more productive than lie on the settee and bemoan her overloaded state.

We are hungry for information which the learning sciences and research can give us. As a profession we have a current seemingly insatiable appetite for discussion around how children learn and how to adapt our lesson practice to include some of these elements. But maybe now is the time to go even further than this and look beyond the potentially stifling elements of the designs of our days to the broader overview of our cognitive diets.

Jared Cooney Horvath wrote about these effects in an article for TES on May 2020, outlining the specific processes which occur within the brain and body when we try and sustain attention and focus and processing of new information for prolonged periods How can we better structure the school day? | Tes News

Within primary there is the immediate opportunity to do this kind of remodelling with the same teacher(s) all day, one class model, but even here there has not been the strategic and overt discussion about the curation of a day to include deliberate periods of high cognitive demand and contrasting periods of retrieval, reflection, consolidation and practising.

Where front loading of literacy and maths in the mornings has long been a historical default, this also sends a potentially problematic message to our pupils about the relative value of those subjects studied in the afternoons. By planning a day differently, and front loading the day differently – choosing instead those subjects which are at a point in their unit of teaching which is particularly cognitively demanding, we can head this myth off at the pass. What this approach also does is to look at the overall cognitive demands of each planned phase or session within units and structure not only the cognitive demands of each subsequent lesson but also each day and the overall week, creating a deliberate ebb and flow of cognitive demand.

An example of this would be to top and tail a particularly demanding unit in Maths such as introduction to fractions and percentages with a point in a literacy unit where children are potentially redrafting or editing their work rather than encountering the initial challenging new content. This could also be looking at the design of a day to consider putting your particularly demanding RE lesson where children are required to take part in thinking hard about an aspect of new learning just before a PE lesson or where they will be continuing to make or decorate their recently built models in DT.

We are currently borderline fanatical about our devotion to ensuring our curriculums are razor sharp and that so too are the teaching tools from Cognitive Science which we employ in order to enact them. But in the rush to focus on the content and the delivery, maybe we are forgetting what it feels like to be on the receiving end of our apparently careful crafting. Maybe now is the time to begin to align what we know about how children react to extended periods of intense attention and challenge and begin to think more deliberately about their overall cognitive diets.

It needn’t be hard either.

It could be a simple as A, B,  C

(see table below)

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