Carrying the Cognitive Load

During our most recent PD, I was sitting with a group of teachers and the conversation was focused on what it means to “carry the cognitive load.” What does this look like for our students? How are we going beyond just the generic DOK questions to really provide opportunities for students to think critically and creatively on their own? How powerful would it be if we used the supports like sentence frames to actually help students make real world connections during times when they do not have those supports available? How are we, as a school, moving towards this goal?

After reflecting as a whole staff about our guided visit data, a lot of the conversations that I heard were focused on how we get our students to explain their thinking. Everyone does this just a little bit differently in their classrooms. How is it that we get students to go beyond just explaining a procedure to actually explain the reason why the procedure they are doing works?

The great thing about this concept, metacognition, thinking about thinking, is that it will build on itself, so it not necessarily grade level specific, but it is more focused on the thought process behind the skills being taught. This means that in kindergarten through eighth grade, if we can get students in the habit of going beyond just saying, ” I am doing ___” to really say “If I ____, ____ will happen because ____,” their thought process will develop and grow as the content gets more rigorous.

DOK Questions

As I was researching for this post, I saw a lot of videos about metacognition and ways to verbalize thinking. A majority of those videos referred back to the DOK Question Stems that a lot of our teachers have been using:

Screen Shot 2019-02-02 at 5.52.21 AM.pngI started thinking about a lot of questions…What does it look like when students explain their thinking? How do we get beyond an explanation of a procedure? How powerful would it be if the students explained the reason behind the procedure?

I do not have the answers to all of these questions, instead, I see this as more of a collaborative process where we all work together to help our students get into a thinking routine where it is an automatic reaction to dive in deep with their verbal explanations about thinking. This is going to mean a huge shift in mindset for our learners, getting them to really go beyond explaining the process or procedure to give an in-depth explanation of their thoughts causing the process to work.

Think Time

Resource Video (from an upper grade class): Independent and Group Work with Metacognition 

  • Grade: All grade levels
  • Time: Done throughout the lesson
  • Purpose: Giving time to think

Do our students understand the difference between explaining what they are doing and explaining what they are thinking? Providing time to think before collaborative conversations can help our students get their thoughts in line so that they are prepared to say more than the steps they took to complete a task. This is metacognition, we are getting our students to think about their thinking.

When we discuss metacognition, thinking about thinking, we are supporting our learners to go beyond just explaining what they did. This video from Edutopia discusses the process of metacognition:

Students ask 7 questions that gradually get more in depth to the point where they are explaining more than just the procedure:

  • What should I do first?
  • Is anything confusing me?
  • Can I explain what I have learned?
  • Should I ask for extra help?
  • Why did I get this answer? (original video, says “Why did I get this answer wrong, but that is not applicable in all situations)
  • Can I apply this in different contexts?
  • How can I do better next time?

The third question, “Can I explain what I have learned,” is where a lot of learners will go back to explaining the procedure to complete something. Instead of going over steps, it is much more relevant if students explain why they are choosing those steps. This is where the learning is really internalized and becomes routine. When students make it a routine, they are more likely to recognize experiences and times outside of school when the learning is applicable.

Collaborative Thought

Resource Video (from a grade primary class): Student Collaborative Thought

  • Grades: All grade levels
  • Time: Beginning of a lesson
  • Purpose: Pictures that spark curiosity about a topic

During this strategy, students work in groups to analyze a picture. They look at the pictures about a topic. These inquiry groups encourage curiosity centered around a specific topic. Students work to ask and answer their own questions and the questions of others as they continue their learning. Starting a unit of study with this strategy helps teachers understanding more about the student’s prior knowledge and help them develop new knowledge that is more than just completing a procedural task.

Thinking Logs

Resource Video (from a dual language fifth grade class): Thinking Logs

  • Grades: All grade levels
  • Time: Throughout a lesson
  • Purpose: Recording thoughts in writing (for primary, could be done as video recording where they explain in words instead of writing)

During this strategy, students are encouraged to tell more than just the process because they are showing the process through the product of their work. Students record wonderings, thoughts, questions and reflections. At the end of the lesson, they explain what they learned and how they know they have learned this concept or skill.

I would love for our entire staff to start sharing some of their own strategies and ideas for incorporating ways for students to go beyond explaining what steps they took to complete a task. This could be done during collaboration or as a collective whole by sharing to our Twitter page using #FeasterLearns.

A lot of this blog post focuses on metacognition and bridging the gap between thinking about the process and explaining the learning. John Spencer wrote a great blog post about the metacognitive process – Five Ways to Boost Metacognition in the Classroom -it is also a podcast!!


The Productive Struggle

The term “productive struggle” has been around since the beginning of Common Core (probably even before) and has often been a concept that teachers have been encouraged to consider when lesson planning and creating resources for their students. Productive struggles happen when challenging tasks are met and learners use strategies and tools to try various solutions while understanding that the first solution may not work but also knowing that they will not give up. Experiencing productive struggle can help set students up for working through potentially stressful and anxiety-inducing situations and completing them with a sense of confidence and pride. How powerful would it be if we could reduce the anxiety and pressure that students feel by giving them time to practice using various strategies to arrive at a solution for a complex problem? When we give opportunities to productively struggle, we are helping our students gain skills in critical thinking, problem solving, reflecting and showing grit.

Feeling Supported

Before giving our learners something that, on first glance, may seem impossible, it is important to make sure that we have set up routines where they know that they will be supported in any strategy they choose – except giving up. Support can come in the form of team work, use of technology, communication – anything that helps our students know that they are helping their brains grow by working through things that seem impossible. In this way, productively struggling can have a lasting impact on the classroom community by showing everyone how effective it is to work together and feel supported.


All Grade Levels, All Subjects

When I was researching this topic, I found so many examples of math in upper grades. However, there are opportunities to pose challenges that will allow your learners to experience how to productively struggle in all subject areas, that simply means allowing your learners to show determination in figuring something out. There is no limit to age or subject when it comes to struggling through difficult problems:

“…giving students an opportunity to struggle through a difficult problem with a clear learning goal in mind, combined with just enough stretch and strategic assistance, students can develop lasting connections about important ideas, increased capacity for productive struggle, and durable skills for solving novel problems in life.”

Beyond Growth Mindset: Creating Classroom Opportunities for Meaningful Struggle

Brad Ermeling, James Hiebert, and Ron Gallimore

As the quote above notes, it is important to have a learning goal and make sure that there is some assistance when the students are facing anything that they will struggle with. Assistance may come in the form of a help chart, a buddy in the class, the opportunity to do online research, a strategy that was taught earlier, small group support…any resources that will help our students feel like they are getting somewhere and making progress instead of feeling anxious and stressed.

When opportunities to experience these challenges come up in class, it helps students get in the mindset of figuring it out and using grit to continue working towards a solution. The idea is that experiencing the productive struggle will eventually lead to less testing anxiety because students know they have overcome complex challenges in the past and they can do it!


Social Emotional Learning Connections

Productive struggle can help our learners better face challenges with a sense of confidence and pride especially when they have faced other challenges and felt supported and prepared for the task ahead.

  • Building a stronger classroom community: students work together to resolve problems and begin to rely on one another
  • Grit: students learn to try multiple strategies and use every resource they have been given while following through and making sure that the challenge is completed
  • Support: students know that they are able to get resources and strategize with each other in order to figure out a solution that will work
  • Taking risks: students are more confident in trying new things because they are not forced into a “one answer is the only answer” mentality all of the time – I am not saying that there are not times when there is only one answer, but I am saying that our classrooms should have a balance between things that you can google and figure out and things that you need to use critical thinking to solve


Teachers Productively Struggling

John Spencer wrote a great article recently about teachers experiencing productive struggles and connected it to feeling empathy for what our learners go through: Why Teachers Should Experience Productive Struggle. If time allows, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to read (or listen to, this is also a podcast), this article. I would also encourage you to think about:

  • What opportunities do your student have to productively struggle?
  • How will this better impact their education and future?
  • What strategies do you have or in place or what strategies do you plan to implement to make sure that your learners feel supported?