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November 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 3
Reader's Guide

Shifting the "Cognitive Load" in Classrooms

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    EngagementInstructional StrategiesSocial-emotional learning
    Reader's Guide (stock thumbnail)
    Credit: Grinbox / Shutterstock
      If you're familiar with the work of instructional expert Zaretta Hammond, you know that she often returns to the question of who's carrying the "cognitive load" in a classroom. Is it the teacher or the students? As she told me in an interview last year, the true goal of equity work in schools should be "making sure every student reaches their intellectual capacity so they can carry a heavier cognitive load—so that they can take part in deep learning that is rigorous."
      This strikes me as a helpful way of thinking about the importance of self-directed learning in schools today, the theme of this Educational Leadership issue. Self-directed learning is not just a matter of "personalization" or providing occasional time for independent work. More foundationally, it's about fostering students' capacity for deeper intellectual work and increasing their personal investment in learning. As Hammond argues, this type of instructional approach—in contrast to what she calls the "pedagogy of compliance"—could make a critical difference in schools' efforts to address learning gaps from the pandemic. "We need to water up the curriculum," she insists, "not water it down."
      You could say this issue of EL is all about "watering up" curriculum and instruction. The articles outline ideas and specific strategies to help educators heighten students' intellectual engagement and strengthen their ability to take ownership of their learning. In the process, they highlight the urgency of rethinking teaching-and-learning conventions in the wake of the pandemic.
      As you will see, facilitating self-directed learning is hardly a hands-off or laissez faire approach. It requires intentional planning, scaffolding, and curricular depth. Here are some key recommendations from this issue:
      Teach it. Several authors stress the importance of intentionally teaching or integrating into lessons the skills and habits essential to self-direction, such as self-reflection, "noticing," goal setting, and persistence. The capabilities needed for self-directed learning are "unlikely to develop on their own" in most students, write Jay McTighe and Catlin Tucker, but they "can and should be cultivated by design."
      Foster expression and connection. Students are more likely to make the leap into self-directed learning when they feel a sense of personal belonging and connection in a classroom. For this reason, it's important to create opportunities for student expression and agency in the curriculum. This might include providing genuine elements of choice or discretion in a project or tailoring materials to students' interests. As Pam Allyn and Ernest Morrell note, it might also mean making more space for students to tell their own stories.
      Make learning socially relevant. In their article, Laura Bond and colleagues outline a nuanced curricular framework designed to use social issues to spark critical thinking and independent research. Other authors likewise point out the potential of "real-world" or socially relevant projects to heighten student engagement and purpose. By the same token, independent learning that's not connected to social meaning or collective interaction, as Kyle Redford explains, can become dry and transactional.
      Adapt instructional models. Most of the strategies discussed in this issue entail or presuppose a shift away from conventional, teacher-centric instructional models to approaches that support and empower student agency and discovery—that "give students the reins." For science teacher Jonathan Bergmann, that means a unique blend of flipped and mastery learning. For McTighe and Tucker, it's a gradual-release-of-responsibility approach. Allyn and Morell recommend "campfire" gatherings to bracket independent work.
      In her article, Tanji Reed Marshall sums up the basic premise behind such instructional shifts—and self-directed learning in general: "Student-agency development increases to the degree to which an adult understands and believes children should be partners in their education."

      Reflect and Discuss

      "Independent Learning Was Amazing—Until It Wasn't" by Kyle Redford

      ➛ If you now have students in class who've experienced two years or more of remote instruction, do you notice differences in how they work and learn? What's different, both positives and negatives?

      ➛ Does the "social magic" of cooperative learning Redford talks about ring true for you? How could you tweak your classroom setup or instruction to bring more "social magic"?

      "Learning to Notice" by Paul Emerich France and John Almarode

      ➛ Why do the authors see "noticing" as such a key part of self-directed learning? Do you agree?

      ➛ What is one strategy you could use to gather evidence of your students' thoughts and feelings about their learning experiences?

      ➛ What steps could you take to better support and encourage noticing in your own classroom?

      "The Art of Storytelling" by Pam Allyn and Ernest Morrell

      ➛ How might you incorporate elements of students telling their own stories—or any story—into the content you teach or learning activities?

      ➛ Do you agree that helping students to tell their own stories motivates them and fuels independent learning? If so, why?

      ➛ Does your school or district do enough to encourage students to write "across the curriculum"? If no, why not?

      "The Habits of Self-Directed Learners" by Seth N. Brown and Thomas R. Feller, Jr.

      ➛ When thinking about cultivating self-directed students, does your school also help develop self-directed teachers? How might training teachers in these methods improve students' confidence and experiences?

      ➛ Which of the 16 Habits of Mind do you find most valuable for your students to focus on?

      "Creating a Powerful Plan" by Laura Bond, Lauren Fullmer, Maurice J. Elias, and Richard K. Cohen

      ➛ What is the value of teaching students about complex social issues that have no certain solution? What are the challenges?

      ➛ Is the PLAN method applicable to your own teaching? Why or why not?

      ➛ What are two or three Self-Questions that would be helpful to ask your students?

      End Notes

      1 Rebora, A. (December 2021). Zaretta Hammond on equity and student engagementEducational Leadership79(4), 14–18.

      Anthony Rebora is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership.

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