Accompanying video (What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?):
It was a cold winter morning in Bangor, North Wales (UK). The year was 2004, and I was a second-year molecular biology bachelor’s student at Bangor University. My professor had given my group of students the task of finding a genetics-related research paper from any academic journal in the library, and then breaking it down into simple language so that we could present our findings to the rest of the class.
The task was incredibly difficult! In fact, it was so difficult, that it’s up there with one of the most cognitively demanding tasks I’ve ever completed. The paper our group selected centered-on ‘apoptosis’ (that’s when cells basically ‘commit suicide’), but the context and language of the paper was so specialized that the majority of what was written in it went right over our heads. The research had been written by PhD-level and post-doctoral experts and specialists.
Nowadays, educational experts would argue that the ‘cognitive load’ of the paper was too much for us to glean anything significant from it. We didn’t even have the language skills to understand what most of the paper was describing.
Difficulty vs. Pace
Cognitive Load Theory is a research-based tool for assessing the difficulty and pace of the tasks, assignments and instruction we deliver in-class to our students. In essence, when difficulty is high and pace is fast, then the cognitive load is high. When difficulty is low, and the pace is slow, then the cognitive load is also low.
That’s a very simplified synopsis, however. According to Mindtools.com, Cognitive Load Theory “takes a scientific approach to the design of learning materials, so that they present information at a pace and level of complexity that the learner can fully understand.”
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds on earlier models of memory and knowledge retention (such as the Atkinson and Shiffrin model of human information processing) and was developed in 1998 by psychologist John Sweller. The theory is considered to be the most modern and ‘up-to-date’ explanation of how memory is developed and stored. In the past 5 or so years, the theory has gained momentum and popularity in teaching circles, thanks in some part to Dylan William’s iconic tweet of 2017:
I’ve taken the excellent image below from a 2015research paperby Edwards, Aris and Shukor, and I’ve modified it slightly to highlight what I believe to be the key takeaways:
Key points to bear in-mind about CLT:
Keep unnecessary, superfluous material to a minimum (e.g. news articles that may be topical and interesting, but link tentatively to the content that the kids actually need to learn for the final exam).
Increase exposure to actual, relevant learning material (this is called ‘intrinsic load’). This may include textbook sections, websites, learning software and summaries.
Present information through all of the senses (use movement, action, practical activities and outdoor activities where possible). See my blog postson outdoor learningandspatial learning for more tips on how to embed this.
Practice, practice and practice some more! Use past-exam paper questions, quizzes (e.g. Kahoot!, Quizlet and BBC Bitesize), textbook questions and exam-style questions to really get the students to process the information they have learned. This is called ‘Germane load’, and it must be maximized in order to create long-term memory.
Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. (eds.). The psychology of learning and motivation. 2. New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.
Edwards, B., Aris, B., Shukor, M. (2015). “Cognitive Load Implications of Social Media in Teaching and Learning”. Journal of Multidisciplinary Engineering Science and Technology (JMEST). Vol. 2 Issue 11, November – 2015.
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On Wednesday of this week I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Diane Jacoutot of Edvectus: one of the world’s most respected international teacher recruitment agencies.
The webinar’s theme was centered on the impact that Covid-19 has had on international school recruitment, along with predicted trends for the near future. However, I found that the conversation between Diane and Dr Stephen Whitehead covered many important topics that are relevant to anyone currently teaching overseas, or those who wish to make the move one day.
You can watch a recording of the webinar at theVimeolink below. However, in this blog post, I will provide a bulletpoint summary of the key points I took from this excellent dialogue, for those who prefer a quick read.
General points on teaching overseas
Making the move to teach overseas is a life-changing decision that should not be made lightly. Host culture, school culture, cost of living and your ability to teach the relevant curriculum/curricula are factors that should be considered.
International schools teach various curricula (e.g. the IB Diploma, the ‘British’ curriculum, the ‘American’ curriculum, etc.), and embody various approaches of applying said curricula (e.g. enquiry-based learning, Montessori pedagogy, traditional techniques, etc.).
80% of international education caters for the host nationality/populace. This means that international school teachers are typically working with manystudents who are ESL/EAL/ELD. In addition to this, one has to consider native sensibilities when applying an international curriculum to a host culture (e.g. teaching freedom of speech and freedom of expression related-issues in China requires extra consideration. Teaching sex education in some southeast Asian countries can be tricky, as the host culture may not teach this until a later age than, say, the UK or US, and may not be as open to ideas related to gender fluidity/homosexualtiy as a western culture may be).
Culture-shock hits you regardless of where you go, or how many countries you’ve been to. In addition, many international school teachers face reverse culture shock when heading back home after a number of years. This is because not only has their home town/city changed in the interim, but they have changed too.
Transitioning from a state school in your home country to an international school overseas
You may find that:
There’s less paperwork and systems are more ‘streamlined’.
Class sizes are smaller.
Some schools can be very ‘corporate’ and business-driven.
It’s a good idea to do your due diligence before making the decision to take up a job at an international school. Ask if you can be put in-touch with a teacher who works at that school. If the school is reluctant to do this, then that’s a definite red flag.
The effect of Covid-19 on the current international education jobs’ market
Vacancies are down by about two thirds/66% and the market is depressed.
Lot’s of online teaching is happening right now.
Having a poor internet connection can be a major disadvantage now, as this is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for getting an overseas teaching job.
Key skills that schools are looking for now include being tech savvy (why not become a Google Certified Educator?), being adaptable, evidence of outstanding teaching abilities and good subject knowledge (as teaching from home means that you can’t rely on your team as much as when you’re physically at school).
Schools are basically recruiting teachers with online teaching capabilities in-mind (preparing for the possibility of a second lockdown, or in some cases, for the lockdown that’s already in-place).
China is now open for applications, and it’s pretty much business as usual there.
In the Middle-East it’s 50:50 – around half of the teaching that’s happening right now is online; half is in-school.
Kuwait is still in total lockdown. Schools are shut and online learning is taking place.
Presenting the best impression of yourself in the application process
Make sure you have a great C.V.:
Talk about the things you’ve actually done. Don’t just copy tidbits from the published job description of the job you are applying for.
Describe what you’ve done to get excellent results (attainment is an especially important consideration for schools right now).
Explain your tech skills. Get tech skills if you don’t have them!
Demonstrate good communication skills – schools are really looking for this now, as you may have to teach online in the event of a future lockdown.
Show that you areresilient. Schools will look at your C.V. to determine this. A big factor will be how many schools you’ve worked at, and how long you’ve stayed at each school. Do you come across as a ‘job hopper’ or a loyal, stable employee? Schools are really looking for stability right now, so try to capitalize on any evidence of ‘sticking with it’ that you can show, If you’ve left a school in the past, then why? Does this demonstrate resilience?
Reputationis more important now than ever: and that means your current school’s reputation as well as your own. Develop a strategy: Teach abroad for a few years at a decent school before moving on to a more elite establishment (with higher pay and more benefits). Be careful about what you post on social media: your personality will be judged (e.g. openly supporting Hong Kong protesters may not be looked upon favorably if you’re applying for a job in China).
IB (International Baccalaureate) experience is extremely valuable. If you don’t have any IB experience, then it will be probably be worth doing some IB courses (e.g. IB Category 1 courses in your subject area, which can be done online) prior to applying. Getting into IB schools when you have no IB experience can be tricky, but it is possible if you are tactical: look at less desirable locations to teach at an IB school for a few years first (e.g. Kyrgyzstan) – this will give you valuable experience that you can use to support an application to a top-tier school in a more desirable country later on.
The basic theme that you want to keep in-mind when preparing your application is this: Can I cope with the unknown?Can you show a potential employer that you are adaptable?
The international education market experienced an explosive growth track in the years immediately prior to Covid-19. The market has now been effectively ‘dampened down’ by the pandemic. The market is still expected to expand, however, but in different ways to years prior.
Top-tier schools are not offering as many high-end packages for teachers as before.
Dubai and other countries in the Middle-East have local education markets that are very much dependent on oil prices, which have been very low for quite some time. Covid-19 has added fuel to this fire as fewer people can, and are, travelling there. At the moment, the Middle-East is understaffed and when lockdowns are finally lifted and travel resumes, demand for expatriate teachers will be at an all-time high.
High fee-paying schools have been losing students to mid-level schools, and this trend is expect to continue as we enter 2021.
China is expected to continue running normally. China is closest to the ‘old normal’ than any other international school market on the planet right now. There are around 3.6 million Chinese millionaires in China and there exists a ‘pent-up’ demand for international education in wake of restrictions on international education being recently lifted.
Global demographics of international schools
British curricula (EY, KS2, KS3, IGCSEs, ‘AS’ and ‘A2-Levels) are taught in roughly one third to a half of all international schools globally.
The American system is popular at affordable schools in the Middle-East and Japan. Approximately 15-20% of all international schools follow an American curriculum.
The remainder of the schools are IB World Schools, and these tend to be high-paying, top-tier establishments with great expatriate packages. As mentioned earlier, IB experience is extremely valuable on the international marketplace.
The market will recover, albeit in different ways depending on location.
Africa and Latin America are expected to recover slowly.
The Middle-East is expected to be depressed for a number of years: this region has been hit with a ‘double whammy’ of Covid-19 and low oil prices.
One-year contracts are becoming the norm in many schools, but some clients are asking for two or three-year contracts (and schools sometimes offer these). Permanent contracts are extremely rare at international schools (due to visa and immigration regulations).
The application and renewal of contract process is expected to keep moving to earlier and earlier dates in the calendar. Teachers will be expected to notify their school of their intentions early (typically in Term 1/the first semester) and more and more schools will begin recruiting in November (or earlier) for the following academic year.
Questions and answers
Is this a bad year to be thinking about changing jobs?
Yes and no. On the one hand, there are fewer teachers on the market this year, so there is less competition for jobs. On the other hand, there are fewer jobs available. Early years positions, for example, have seen a massive drop globally as this is non-compulsory education (and parents are choosing to keep their kids at home).
2. Have leadership posts changed?
Not really, but again: this is regional. Senior management positions are relatively unaffected, but many schools are cutting middle-management positions in order to save money.
As mentioned earlier: China is relatively unaffected. 200 new international schools were planned to be built in China (prior to Covid-19). Around 100 of those are actually happening and are being built.
3. Have contractual obligations been affected?
For the most part, no, but there have been anomalies. Contracts are dependent on teachers getting a visa. If you can’t get a visa, then a contract may be cut. Recently, contracts at some schools have been cancelled prior to the position starting due to a drop in enrollment.
4. Will a gap year due to Covid-19 reduce my chances of getting a job?
It depends. A potential employer will most certainly want to know what you’ve been doing to keep your ‘finger in the pie’ whilst you’ve been away from work. Think about taking some online courses (e.g. through Udemy, Coursera or EdX). There are many great online courses in educational theory/pedagogy that are free to take.
Please watch the full interview at the top of this blog post to hear answers to more questions (such as ‘Does age matter?’ and ‘What do you need to be considered as a ‘qualified teacher?’)
He sits in class quietly, fumbling through the pages of his end-of-topic test. He’s not used to achieving well academically. He tries to revise and study, but finds that distractions at home get in the way (e.g. online gaming). He receives validation and enjoyment from the superfluous, and has not yet learned to gain power from personal progress that is real and tangible, as opposed to intangible and virtual.
He leaves around 50% of the paper blank. I mark it, hand it back to him the next lesson, and he find out that he got a grade E. He’s not surprised. He’s used to this.
Then I decide that this simply cannot happen again. I decide to end the cycle of mediocrity.
I talk, at length, with Michael about what went wrong in his test. He tells me that he ran out of time. He tells me that he didn’t understand some of the questions (so we go though them, together). He tells me that he truthfully did not spend any time at home revising.
I tell him that he absolutely MUST get a grade D in his next test. Failure is not an option.
“What’s your target for your next text, Michael”
“A grade D, sir”
“Yes, and I know you can achieve that because I’ve seen your amazing work in class with me before” (I prime him – I tell him that I believe in him and, crucially, why I believe in him. And it’s not a lie I’ve made up. I mean it).
“What can you do to make sure you get that grade D”
“I can review the textbook questions on Google Classroom. Look at notes. Go through the BBC Bitesize material. Go through my past test again”(I make sure he knows what he can do to make this big change in his life – going from an E to a D)
His next test is not until 5 weeks time – perfect: this gives me the opportunity to work on his self-motivation, subtly (a process I call ‘subtle reinforcement‘).
I see him on the corridor infrequently, and I ask him“What’s your target for your next test, Michael”.
“A grade, D, sir”.
I see him in class as the 5 weeks pass by. I ask him“How’s your prep for the next test going”.
“I’m working on it”.
The test day comes. He gets a D (and is one mark off a C). He asks to see me at teh end of class. He can’t contain himself:
“This is the first time this has happened to me”, he says.
“You made it happen, Michael. We can all achieve what we aim for, if we do actually aim and work.”
For the first time in Michael’s life, he feels deeply (at an emotional level), what it means to make something happen.
We collect data, but do we use data?
My question to teachers this week is this: We’re all very good at collecting data, but do we actually use that data to enact massive change in our students? Do we use that data to initiate the momentum of self-actualization for our students?
Michael’s story is typical of hundreds of students I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past 15 years. When a teacher truly and genuinely believes in a student’s capabilities, and then uses the leverage that data provides, amazing things really can happen.
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