By: Jessica O’Toole, Ed.D.
The best part of education is that we get a new start every year. In August, we come into the school year feeling revitalized, energized, and excited for a fresh start with students. Each August, I feel a mixture of excitement and anticipation for the new year; I spend a lot of my time reflecting on the previous year and planning for the year ahead. After this last year in education during the global pandemic, I have been wondering what made last year feel so different from my previous 15 years in education. When I think of my work with teachers last year, I find myself thinking about a trend that I have noticed, all conversations centered on measuring our impact on student learning. Over the past few years, we were just struggling with figuring out how to keep moving forward when our classes went remote, or we were missing many students due to illness. As the world slowly returns to normal, I reflect on how to recalibrate our thinking so that we are starting to spend more time measuring our impact on student learning. I am committing this year to refocus on the basics, the solid instructional practices that produce results and enable students to succeed; I find myself shifting my perspective from the newest educational practices to how to measure the impact of teaching (Hattier & Zierer, 2018). When we shift our perspective to focusing on what our students understand and our impact on their learning, the instructional practices we choose become easier to identify.
In order to grow in our ability to assess our impact on student learning, three structures need to be in place. The first is to start by analyzing the curriculum and standards so that there is a clear understanding for both the teacher and students around what mastery will look like and develop a learning progression to help students move towards mastery. Secondly, we need to plan for a robust menu of formative assessments to evaluate students' level of understanding of the content. Lastly, we need to develop a collaborative community to help analyze and evaluate the students’ understanding in order to gain insight into what they know and where they are still struggling with mastery.
Over my years in education, I have found that whenever I mention analyzing the standards, it is often met with annoyance and frustration by many experienced teachers, especially teachers who have taught the same content for some time. Understandably, it can feel like a waste of time when teachers feel confident that they know what they are teaching and understand the learning progression they have used to help students achieve mastery. However, we must analyze the standards and curriculum every year, so we don’t become comfortable with the familiarity. When we become comfortable with the standards, it is easy to allow content slippage to happen, where we unintentionally start to focus on specific aspects of the standards and content and unintentionally allow other parts of the standards to slip away from our focus, therefore becoming an area of weakness in instruction (Fisher, Frey, Almarode, Flories, & Nagel, 2020). We need to analyze the standards every year so that we ensure that we are hitting mastery for every component of the standard. We also need clear learning progressions to help students achieve mastery. A learning progression will break down the necessary subskills students need and create a logical pathway with these subskills for students to move towards mastery (Popham, 2008). For experienced teachers, this is an excellent opportunity to reflect on what our students did last year and consider whether our learning progressions are serving them or need to be tweaked to better meet the student's needs. Through the iterative process of continually analyzing the standards and our learning progressions, we can ensure that we continue to provide our students with the most effective route to mastery.
The next step in assessing our impact on student learning is considering how we will assess what students understand. As many educators know, we need formative assessments to help us evaluate where students’ understanding of the concepts lies and to assess the areas that need more support to get to mastery and the areas that need extensions because students have already reached mastery. Unsurprisingly, formative assessments are one of the most impactful strategies we can use around student learning (Hattie & Zierer, 2018). While formative assessments are not a new idea to teachers, it is one that we should revisit at the beginning of the year as we think about setting up our classroom instruction. We need to have a clear plan of how we want to assess students often and regularly so that as we set up classroom routines, it becomes a routine that students come to know and expect. For example, some teachers choose to start their class every day with a quick three to five question quiz on the learning from the day before, some teachers opt for a more traditional quiz at the end of every topic, while other teachers choose for daily exit tickets to gather a quick snapshot of what students understand from that day of learning, and other teachers choose a combination approach. The approach is not necessarily important; what is important is establishing a routine so that formative assessments are a daily process that gives the teacher and the students timely feedback on the learning progression so that adjustments can be made to instruction.
Lastly, we need to create a community of collaboration to aid in the analysis and reflection of our instruction to help each other learn and grow in the practice of teaching. Teachers benefit from collaborative work when collaboration is viewed as a form of discussing ideas, raising questions, examining different perspectives, and raising curiosity around instructional practices and formative assessments (Little, 1987). However, it is not enough to just collaborate; we need to establish expectations around collaboration that push us to question our work and consider alternative approaches. When we approach collaboration with the intention of learning and growing, it sets a different tone for the time we spend together. As we think about starting the school year, we must put time and effort into how we set up our collaborative relationships with colleagues so that we can create a space where we have authentic and meaningful conversations around the data we collect from our students with the purpose of learning and growing in our professional practice.
As you reflect on the upcoming year, what are your next steps for thinking through how you want to assess your impact on student learning? The structures we put in place now, when we feel refreshed and excited at the beginning of the year, will serve us well as we move into the busy school year. How will you create space and time in your year to analyze the standards and learning progressions, think through formative assessment routines and develop authentic and meaningful collaboration with colleagues?
Fisher, D., Frey, N., Almarode, J., Flories, K., & Nagle, D. (2020). PLC+ better decisions and
greater impact by design. Thousand Oakes, California: Corwin A Sage Publishing CO
Hattie, J & Zierer, K. (2018). 10 Mindframes for visible learning: teaching for success. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group
Little J. W. (1987). Teachers as colleagues. In V. Richardson-Koehler (Ed.), Educators’
handbook: A research perspective (pp. 491-518). New York, NY: Longman.
Popham, W. J. (2008). Transformative assessment. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Jessica O’Toole is a middle school assistant principal in the St. Vrain Valley School District. She has served as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator. Jessica has her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Northern Colorado.
By: Sarah Cavender
The anticipation for the new school year is settling in. There’s a bit of nervousness topped with a strong helping of excitement. As with every year, I find myself thinking about what my new students will be like. After two solid years of adapting and changing expectations due to COVID, this year seems like it could be the first for a while that has a sense of normalcy to it - the new normal. But with that new normal comes a host of questions that aren’t at all new. How will we create a classroom community that underscores the fun in thinking and creating? How will we develop an inclusive environment where students come to know their voices matter? What do we need to do to make sure all students walk away from the classroom loving to learn, through all of the ups and downs that come with the learning process?
The first days are always the most important days, so they say. We lean on learning student names and become investigators of our students over those first few weeks. What personalities exist in our classroom? Who are the cutups and who are the quiet observers? Who exudes confidence, and which students are unsure of themselves? Our classrooms are made from a wide and varied cast of characters that, in the middle school years, change and shift and grow over the course of the year. This is the exciting part of teaching in a middle school - watching these humans grow and change - trying on new hats, feeling out new friend groups, surviving the middle school drama that inevitably shakes things up along the way. My goal, in the end, is to use these first days to help show my students that all of this growth and change is supported and encouraged in my classroom - for who are we, if not middle school students coming of age in all of its messy and unpredictable ways?
In building a classroom of inclusive acceptance, I often turn to the students to share their thoughts and ideas. The joy of teaching language arts is that there are no right and definitive answers when it comes to interpreting a story. Every conjecture is viable, as long as you can use textual evidence to support it. So - we start there…every voice and every idea is interesting and worth investigating and discussing. The voice of the quiet observers are encouraged, the ideas of those who see things through a different perspective are championed, the jokesters are taken seriously, and everyone in between finds their own ways to share and grow as students and human beings.
Going into a new school year starts with building trust and camaraderie in the classroom. When trust exists, and students understand that their ideas and voices are valued, it leads to a fulfilling learning experience for both students and educators. What works one year may not work the next, but reflecting on those experiences that were so fulfilling the previous year is a helpful place to start. It's not about recreating the same experience, but rather figuring out what that experience will look like this school year, with these students.
Of some great things that came out of my classroom last year, one that stands out was the confidence to share writing. We held a contest in writing, each Friday, where students shared the paragraphs they developed using vocabulary terms correctly. This seems like a simple task, but middle school students often lack the confidence to share their work (especially reading aloud) with peers in a whole class setting. The interesting thing about this experiment (yes - all new things tried are experiments!) was the involvement of students! The first time we tried it, there were 6 students who volunteered to share their writing. Some paragraphs were hilarious, others serious. Some were descriptive, and others used the words incorrectly altogether. But, week after week, more and more students volunteered. Two students decided they would use this time to add to an ongoing short story. By the end of the year, students were upset when testing schedules shifted our ability to fit in our paragraph contest. They begged to have an end-of-the-year extravaganza sharing their last pieces of writing. As an educator, I sat back in awe and loved every moment of it. These students, who at the beginning of the year proclaimed to hate reading and writing, were now fighting for the ability to do both, and share about it. These students, who at the beginning of the year were shy, lacked confidence, and were more apathetic about participating in language arts discovered, over time, that this place was the place they could trust their peers, be vulnerable, and share their ideas. They learned to be proud of being learners. Of being confident. In building a community of trust and valuing the voices of all.
The takeaway from this is, of course, a question: How do I help students discover their confidence over the course of their year in our classroom? Trust. Love. Respect. Inclusion. Voice. These are the backbone of my classroom.
Sarah Cavender is a middle school Language Arts teacher. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and completed her English Education program at Colorado State University.
By: Paige Jennings, M.Ed.
First, it's real. And it doesn't get nearly enough air time. There’s a reason why Dylan Wiliam posted on Twitter, “I've come to the conclusion Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know” (Wiliam, 2017). I agree. Here’s why.
In a nutshell, cognitive load theory (CLT) refers to the capacity of our working memory (Mayer, 2017). Information comes in and sensory memory either immediately discards it or moves it into working memory (Cognitive Load Theory, n.d.). Once in working memory the information is either discarded or processed further and eventually moved into long-term memory. Our working memory system also takes prior knowledge from our long-term memory and combines it with the new incoming information to develop schemas, which are organized frameworks of knowledge. This bolstered construct is sent back to long-term memory. The good news is that long-term memory is infinite.
The not-so-good news is that the capacity of our working memory is extremely limited; it can only ‘hold on’ to 3-5 chunks of information for a very short period of time (Cowan, 2010.) If working memory is overloaded with more information than it can process (cognitive overload), the information will be discarded, and not put on the path towards long-term memory. This predetermined ‘load’ is referred to as cognitive load theory (Cognitive Load Theory, n.d.).
Because of the limitations of the brain to work with no more than 3-5 chunks of new information at one time, it is important that educators design learning experiences that keep cognitive load theory in mind (pun totally intended.) We must:
Let’s look at a few concrete application examples of how to manage cognitive load.
One way teachers can reduce cognitive load is through note-taking. Any time a student is learning something new, writing information down has the potential of reducing cognitive load because they are not trying to hold all of the new information in their working memory (Nuckles, Roelle, Glogger-Frey, Waldeyer, & Renkl, 2020). As the lesson continues, students can continue to pay attention, knowing that the previous information is not ‘lost.’ They can refer back to it anytime. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night and had to write something down so you were sure to remember it the next day, you understand this feeling of relief that the information has been ‘captured.’ You can let it go and go back to sleep just like our students can let it go and pay attention to the next part of the lesson.
Worked examples can also reduce cognitive load, particularly for students who are learning brand new information or learning information that is particularly complex. Worked problems help reduce cognitive load by freeing up space in working memory. Students don’t have to ‘hold on’ to all of the details of the problem. They can study one aspect of how it’s solved and easily reference various parts as needed while they acquire the new information. As future examples are scaffolded to include less help, students can reference back to completed examples to check their understanding and identify and correct errors.
Chunking information also reduces cognitive load (Thalman, Souza, & Oberauer, 2019) When similar material is combined into one chunk, working memory can hold that one chunked unit instead of the individual components that make it up. Imagine if you were going to the grocery store and had to remember 7 items: apples, cucumbers, broccoli, bananas, lettuce, strawberries and cauliflower. Chunking them into fruits (apples, bananas and strawberries) and veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber and lettuce) would help you remember more easily since fruits and vegetables are known constructs in your brain and would count as 2 ‘chunks’ of information instead of the initial 7 individual food items.
Cognitive load theory also explains why students need memorized, factual knowledge (information that is stored in long-term memory) in order to think critically and creatively. Because working memory can only hold between three and five units of information, a robust amount of content-specific knowledge must be stored in long-term memory so that there is enough space available in working memory to creatively and critically think about that information (e.g., making new connections, analyzing information, etc). Willingham points out, “Critical thinking is not a set of skills and strategies that can be directly taught, practiced, and applied to any topic. Students need deep knowledge of a subject in order to think creatively or critically about it” (2016, p.1).
Cognitive load theory affects every aspect of learning. Educators must always keep working memory capacity at the forefront of our lesson planning and ask: what can we get rid of that doesn’t matter (reduce extraneous load), how can we help students manage what does matter (manage essential load) and how can we connect what matters into existing schema and move it into our infinite storehouse of long-term memory (increase germane load or learning)? We got this.
Cowan, N. (2010). The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721409359277
Cognitive Load Theory on My Mind - The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://www.thecttl.org/2021/07/29/cognitive-load-theory/
Mayer, R. E. (2017). Instruction Based on Visualizations. In Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203839089.ch21.
Nückles, M., Roelle, J., Glogger-Frey, I., Waldeyer, J., & Renkl, A. (2020). The Self-Regulation-View in Writing-to-Learn: Using Journal Writing to Optimize Cognitive Load in Self-Regulated Learning. In Educational Psychology Review (Vol. 32, Issue 4). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09541-1
Thalmann, M., Souza, A. S., & Oberauer, K. (2019). How does chunking help working memory? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 45(1), 37–55. https://doi.org/10.1037/XLM0000578
Wiliam, D. (2017). I’ve come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know http://bit.ly/2kouLOq. Twitter.
Willingham, D. T. (2016). Knowledge Matters Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking. 1. www.KnowledgeMattersCampaign.org
Paige Jennings is the Professional Development Coordinator for Weld Re-4 School District. She has a Master's degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Northern Colorado and a graduate certificate in Mind, Brain and Teaching from Johns Hopkins University.