Published in Professional Learning

Derby FE Showcase Conference

Yesterday, I presented at the Derby College Showcase conference whose theme was inclusion.


It was easy to place the value of visual communication in the theme of inclusion. I started off with two exercises to immerse the teachers into what it feels like not to understand seemingly simple communication.

The first activity I took from my days of presenting day-long INSET courses on visual teaching techniques. It involves me explaining a concept that I show, piece-by-piece, on the whiteboard, helping to build up understanding. However, only half the audience was able to see this visual counterpart to my speaking. The other half had its back to the board and had to rely on their working memory to process and store the incoming information.

And, that, in essence, was the main point of my presentation — that spoken information is transient. During my previous life as a trainer I used to make the self same point but had no evidence, or indeed language, to back this up. 

All I had were the teachers’ own experiences. But without authority to back up their insights, I guessed this interesting insight simply fell away from their memories the following day.

Last week, while studying John Sweller’s magnificent Cognitive Load Theory book, I came upon an explanation of this phenomenon. It’s called the Transient Information Effect

Whenever a teacher orally explains something to a class…the information presented is transient.

Sweller et al, Cognitive Load Theory, 2001, p.220


Here is the one-sider handout for my presentation.

Presentation slides

And here are my presentation slides for the 35 minutes slot. The first section (Experience) comprise of two exercises, so the slides on themselves won’t give much away.

This is the concept I explained to the teachers only half of which saw the supporting visual build up (the other half had their backs facing the screen). As you can see, the content is about retrieval practice. It is explained in the form of a concept map that I created in partnership with the two founding members of the Learning Scientists, Dr Yan Weinstein and Dr Megan Smith, both professors of cognitive psychology who have published articles in academic journals on the topic.

After demonstrating the transience of spoken communication, I then moved to what should have been a simple solution — the use of the written word. While this is the proposed solution put forward by John Sweller and his fellow authors, there still remains a problem with text-only approaches.

Elsewhere in the evidence of cognitive science, there are very many experiments that shows that text-only communication can be less effective than a text-and-graphics strategy. This activity showed why that should be so.

I presented the teachers with this very simple, and short, account of the make of the personnel in The Lasagna Project. Despite its brevity and simple vocabulary and grammar, very few of the teachers were able to answer the three questions put before them. But, when showed the corresponding visual, the answers became self-evident.

The combination of these two activities were — to my thinking — obviously highly significant to the issue of inclusion. But, given that the trainee teachers had trouble, too, with these activities, the transience of spoken communication and the complexity of written communication, can’t be considered solely as problems with low-knowledge students. 

As the presentation continued, I argued that these psychological constraints were pertinent to the professional learning of teachers themselves.

Now I return to the first activity by referring Sweller et al’s Transient Information Effect (chapter  17) of Cognitive Load Theory.

After the Transient Information Effect activity, I proposed a solution in the second activity by asking the teachers to answer questions based on a simple piece of text. As anticipated, they found this difficult. Until, of course, I showed the same information depicted in a diagram. The quote below, to some degree, explains their experience. The one below that, by philosopher Bertrand Russell, I still find the most compelling explanation.

This slide shows the books I have been reading these past few months on cognitive science/psychology that have influenced my thinking. Their references are in the handout.

The next two slides are about the work I’ve done on Twitter to make cognitive load theory more accessible to teachers. I have summarised every one of the 17 chapters of Sweller et al’s 2011 book into both sketch notes and a corresponding PDF presentation slides (that can be imported into your PowerPoint document if needed). 

The following three slides are about working memory limits and the problems the pose in learning new material. In the context of the conference’s theme of inclusion, I’d say this knowing this is essential for FE teachers in order to tweak and monitor their teaching in relation to this phenomenon. 

Just “going visual” however is insufficient. Pretty much most education strategies have both disadvantages as well as advantages. The danger with using visuals is in using distracting, attention–sapping decorative images that have nothing to do with the concept at hand.

At best, visuals should help organise the information (as we saw in the Lasagna Project activity).  Organising information is crucial in helping students encode it into their long–term memories. However, as  Reif warns us, students are not very able in doing this. Not surprising if we remember that they are novices in the context of the material they are learning. So teachers must organise the material for them. This accords with Sweller’s view that learning consists of borrowing information, already organised, from others.

The two following slides come from the FE section of the special school at which I was head teacher. So will see that the teacher has organised information about the topic she was about to teach. The information is nested. 

In the first slide, note the outer branch circled — hygiene. Then go to the following slide and see that hygiene is now in the centre (well it should be but appears to have been dropped from the slide). 

Now return to the top slide and you can see how the second slide that expands on the Hygiene topic could be drawn on its borders. Similarly, every other outer portion of the slide could be expanded in this way. However, and very wisely, the teacher recognised that presenting such a full and complex map to her students with severe learning difficulties would be overwhelming. Some have termed this unskilled use of visuals as map shock

But, by nesting the information in this layered way, the teacher was able to build up the student’s knowledge, layer by layer.

At this point, I switched the attention away from students as learners to teachers as learners, pointing out that all the psychological constraints and solutions we had covered were applicable to adults too, including the area of professional learning.

The two slides below illustrate a point Dylan Wiliam used to make — that teachers misinterpret, unknowingly, these verbal descriptions of assessment for learning techniques. Then go on to tweak them still further back in their classrooms. These distortions are extended and repeated as teachers verbally share their learning with one another. 

While this is not a bad thing, it does however, mean that we don’t build an accurate shared understanding of what specific teaching techniques consist of. My explanation of this is because our communication is based on words alone, either spoken or written, and then serially communicated along a path of what could be called Chinese whispers. 

The development of the HOW2s came about to address this problem. 

Accordingly, I finished off by showing part of a HOW2 in two of its three visual formats (infographic and presentation slides). The one I showed came from the collaboration with the Learning Scientists (Drs Yana Weinstein and Megan Smith). The full set of 6 cognitive science HOW2s are free and available from our website homepage.

In the link below, you can download my full presentation which includes more of the HOW2 you see partially here.