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Ep 4. Cognitive load theory with Greg Ashman transcript

This transcript was created with speech-to-text software.  It was reviewed before posting, but may contain errors.

You can listen to the episode here: Chalk & Talk Podcast.


Episode 4: Cognitive load theory with Greg Ashman transcript

Anna Stokke: [00:00:00] Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor, and your host.

You are listening to episode four of Chalk and Talk. My guest in this episode is Dr. Greg Ashman, an Australian teacher, writer, and researcher.  Dr. Ashman's expertise in cognitive load theory and his dedication to improving education make him an invaluable resource for any educator or parent.

We cover a lot of ground in this interview.  Some of the things we discuss include his journey into education writing and research, some of the pitfalls of education research studies, and what happened when he tried to track down the references for a claim that timed tests cause math anxiety. We also delve into cognitive load theory and its [00:01:00] implications for effective teaching.

He talks about what good explicit instruction looks like in a math classroom and gives some practical advice for new teachers.  Dr. Ashman’s sincerity and passion for education shine throughout our conversation. I have admired his work for many years, and I hope that listeners will find his insights and practical advice as helpful as I did.

Be sure to check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the episode. Now, without further ado, let's get started.

Anna Stokke: I'm excited to introduce my guest today, Dr. Greg Ashman. He is joining me from Australia. He is a teacher and a researcher with a Ph.D. in instructional design. He has a very impressive resume. He's taught math and physics. He's now the deputy principal at Ballarat Clarendon College. He's a writer and a podcast host, and he runs a popular educational blog called Filling the Pail, which you can [00:02:00] follow on Substack.

He has authored three books: The Truth About Teaching and Evidence: An Informed Guide for New Teachers; the Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction; and most recently Cognitive Load Theory (A Little Guide for Teachers).  And I read that one fairly recently. I recommend that book to anyone who teaches.

For many years, he has demonstrated a deep commitment to improving educational policy and practice. In addition to educating numerous individuals through his blog, which is very accessible, many educators find his writing to be reassuring and relatable. In fact, you're probably one of the first people I started following when I joined Twitter.

A warm welcome to you, Greg. Welcome to my podcast!

Greg Ashman: Oh, you are too kind, Anna. What an introduction. Thank you for that. Really appreciate it. Really glad to be here.

Anna Stokke: So, let's start off with a bit about who you are and how you ended up where you are. Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and, and why you [00:03:00] chose teaching as a career in the first place? And what grades and subjects have you taught?

Greg Ashman: Sure. So, I grew up in a town called Dudley in the West Midlands of England. So, it's not a very glamorous place - fairly working-class area. And so, I went to a government comprehensive school, went to the local sixth form college, then I went off to Cambridge to study physics. And, in my last year of studying physics, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to go into.

So, I thought I know what I'll do. I'll do a teaching qualification, a one-year teaching qualification at the end. And then what that means is if, if I'm - I'll never be unemployed. I'll always be able to find work as a physics teacher. But that wasn't what I assumed I was going to do for a career. Someone stood up in our lectures and said, “Hey, we're, we're running this expedition to Uganda. They're short of teachers,” because it was the height of the, well, it [00:04:00] wasn't a height of the AIDS epidemic, but the AIDS epidemic was still raging in the late nineties at the time. And, they're short of teachers and we want to go over there and help.

And, so I thought, “well, I've applied for a teach training course. So, yeah, that's, that's me.” So, I joined up with this. I became quite jaded about the idea of people from the developed world going to the developing world and, and, and helping out in this way. It seemed to be more of an expedition for, for us.

The people that organized the, the trip were evangelical Christians, and it turned out that one of their objectives was to try and convert all the others to being evangelical Christians. So, it was all a bit, it was all a bit odd in the end, and I, I was questioning the value of what we were doing, parachuting in for three months to teach physics and then just leaving again and, and how, and, and what value that had.

But what I did discover is that I love teaching, so I just loved it. From the first, no one had shown me how to do [00:05:00] it. I was using chalk on, on a blackboard. It was really very, very basic. But I loved it.

And I remember at one point complaining to my colleagues in the staff room that some students were not paying attention in my physics class, and they were reading a magazine and they said, “oh, well those students. They don't take physics, and they just sit in the class.” Anyway, so that was news to me.

So, then when I came back, I'd already applied for this teaching course in London. And, but now I, it was what I wanted to do. So, I trained in London and then I spent from 97 to 2010 working in government high schools in London.

Well, high school, I think that means something slightly different - secondary schools - from 11 years old to 18 years old. I was eventually a deputy principal of one of those schools. But along the way, I met my wife, who is from Ballarat in Australia. She was in [00:06:00] London teaching.

We had a couple of girls. We decided that we could give them a better lifestyle in Australia. So, we moved across in 2010. I initially planned to work in government schools. That was, that was what I intended to do, but they weren’t actually that interested in me. It's quite difficult in a funny sort of way to get into the, the government sector.

And I got several offers of jobs from independent schools - and a family to support - and one, one government school saying that they'd be advertising a few months later and I'd be a strong candidate. So, I just, I took a job in an independent school and then I fell in love with that school. That's Ballarat Clarendon College.

That's where I am now. And the deputy principal at the time, Jan McClure, was really focused on research and it's, it's amazing to think about it really. I'd managed to be a deputy principal of a school in London without really spending much time engaging with education research at all. We, we had a few little booklets that were sort of [00:07:00] supplied by the government that summarized various ideas, including learning styles, I remember, as if that was something that was useful in any way.

But I'd never really engaged with education research. And Jan handed me John Hattie's Visible learning, and I read that. And I started looking through the references. I now don't actually think that Hattie's method of combining all these effect sizes to, in this big meta meta-analysis way, I, I'm not sure that's valid anymore. But, certainly it was really valuable to me to read that book because from that book, I found “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work” by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark, which got me interested in cognitive load theory.

And then as the years progressed, I contacted John Sweller and I ended up doing a PhD with him as my supervisor and Slava Kalyuga of the expertise reversal effect as my other supervisor. And then I finished that PhD last year, so yeah. Sorry if I've gone on a bit, but that was my attempt to, at a [00:08:00] very brief run through of my life story.

Anna Stokke: Oh, no, that was, that was great. And, you kind of got the teaching bug at one point. That's what I call it, because when you, when you teach and, you can reach people and, and they feel good and, and you've helped someone to learn something that they thought they couldn't learn, you just feel really great.

There's really no going back after that. So, so you're, you're a really great writer and I, I really enjoy reading your, your blog and, you're a very prolific blogger. I don't know where you get the time. And your blog is really, really popular and it's, and it's very useful and you're always sort of blogging on what's going on, at the time.

So, it's, it's always really current. So why did you start writing about education?

Greg Ashman: So, in 2012, I'd started to read a lot of research. And I, I began to I began to, well, I wouldn't say I got angry, but I got annoyed [00:09:00] because when I had trained it was presented to me that constructivist approaches to teaching - it's really, names for things in education are fraught - everyone will always debate them, but I think at the time people would've called it constructivist approaches to teaching. And, and there are those who say there's no such thing. A constructivist approach to - constructivist approach to teaching constructivism is a theory of learning. And let's just caveat all that.

But, this idea that say as a science teacher, cuz I started off as a science teacher and I gradually moved into maths. At the time the, the ideal way to teach science would be to set up an investigation. Students would do an investigation, they'd, they'd figure out for themselves that something - so classic experiment is you'd react marble chips with hydrochloric acid and the students were spent supposed to figure out that the smaller the chip, the larger the surface area, the faster rate reaction.


And, of course, they never did because they're spending all their time thinking, where do I get a [00:10:00] test tube from? And where, where's a, I needed a clamp stand and we've run out of acid. Can we get some more acid? And all that sort of stuff. So, they never figured this, this out, but I centred that on myself and, and my own failings.

And I would default once they hadn't learned it that way to a form of explicit teaching, but that form of explicit teaching was not optimal. I know that now, so but I didn't know that at the time, but I could have, because the research was available at the time. But I didn't know about it. And what I'd been told as a trainee, I now think was, was largely wrong.

So, when I started reading the research and reading about cognitive load theory and reading about explicit teaching and reading about Project Follow Through and all, all these things that I'd never heard of before, I got annoyed. And I thought, well, people need to know about this stuff.  So, I started blogging and I blogged under a pseudonym Harry Webb because I just wanted, I wanted to be free to, to say these thoughts that are, and not worry too [00:11:00] much about, because it is quite risky being yourself on the internet.

Since I've been myself and not under a pseudonym, people have used that against me. People have contacted my employer if they don't like what I've had to say. People tried to get my university to discipline me because of something I said on Twitter.

So, it's safer often to be pseudonymous, but after a while - so in about 2015 - so I was tweeting and I was blogging, and in about 2015 I, I did a ResearchED conference in Australia. The first ever ResearchED in Australia that took place. And I turned up and basically people put two and two together. I, I, I was essentially the only person in Australia saying these things. And the things that I was saying on my blog were the things I was saying when I turned up in real life to give this presentation.

So, people connected it and figured out who I was. And then I got doxed. So, someone who didn't like what I had to say, went on Twitter and started saying, “oh, this guy's Greg Ashman.” And I thought, “well, look, there's no [00:12:00] risk here.” Like my school, I, well, there is a risk I suppose, but I wasn't sort of, I wasn't talking about kids.

I wasn't slandering anyone. I wasn't saying that my school administration were no good. I wasn't doing any of that sort of stuff. I was just talking about research. So, I thought, well, I, I might as well, I might as well get rid of the pseudonym and just be myself. And so, from 2015 onwards, that's what I did.

But yeah, just to go back to your original question, which I strayed off of - I do apologize - it was, it was just this feeling that these ideas needed to be out there and needed to be better known. And, and this was a medium with no cost of entry. It's the revolution. It's almost like the printing press, isn't it?

So, so now we've got this way of disseminating information horizontally from teacher to teacher, not mediated by bureaucracies and administrators and things like that. And so, I just thought, let's make use of it and let, let's make sure that teachers don't go as long as I did without knowing the, the truth about what the research really does show.

Anna Stokke: Yeah, and I mean, it's great because it's [00:13:00] actually a really valuable service that you're providing to people. And, as an example, and I'll, I'll bring this up cuz it's kind of current. You often actually review popular classroom methods and you review books and you look into claims that are made by prominent educators and you'll track down the truth.

And so, you were actually recently quoted in an article called “The Divider,” which appears in Chronicle of Higher Education and people can maybe look that up. But you were quoted because you criticized an influential math educator’s claim that for about one third of students, the onset of timed testing is the beginning of math anxiety.

Okay. And, and this is a common misconception and this actually causes a lot of damage because, children do actually need to learn their times tables, and, and we'll talk, we'll lead into cognitive load theory in a little bit, but that's a repeated claim that's had a huge impact, a really negative impact on classroom [00:14:00] practices.

So, when you attempted to track down evidence for that claim, what did you find?

Greg Ashman: Yeah. Well first of all, the claim in question, is this for one third of students timed testing is the onset of maths anxiety. I can't remember the exact wording, but a similar claim has been made in much stronger terms that essentially timed testing causes maths anxiety by the same person, the same academic figure.

And when I tracked this, this claim down, it's, it's interesting. A person, an academic called Professor Victoria Simms of Ulster University in Northern Ireland did the same. You go from the book where the claim's made to a website, where the claim's repeated, that that's the first reference, and then to an opinion article where, which is supposed to provide the evidence.

Cuz that's, you know, it's, that's the reference next to the claim in, on the, on the web article.


And if you read the, this opinion piece, [00:15:00] there's no evidence in there at all that would support the claim that for one third of students, timed testing is the onset of maths anxiety or something. And, but if you, if you look at the references, the closest it comes, it talks about an experiment where students who were given the same questions under timed conditions experienced more anxiety than the, the questions without being in under timed conditions. Now, that in itself does not necessarily support the claim because maths anxiety is a debilitating condition that's supposed to you know, it, it, it spans a certain period of time.

It's not just feeling a bit anxious in a moment. It's, it's something that makes you want to avoid maths over an extended period of time. So even if that experiment was, was true, we could still debate whether this was evidence for timed testing causing math anxiety. But when you look at the reference there, it's to a paper about [00:16:00] working memory, which has absolutely nothing to do with the experiment that's described.


And that paper is referenced elsewhere in the same article correctly as a source on working memory. So, I think what's happened is whatever that reference is supposed to be, there's just been a mistake and the, the authors used the same reference twice instead of the reference that they meant to use.

But I don’t know what that was. So, we can't test the claim. We reach it, we reach a dead end. And when you think about it, like why do this then? Well, it's important that when you make strong causal claim, like particularly causal claims, not associated claims, and I know that the wording, the one third. I'm going to try and find the actual wording of that, cuz I keep saying it wrong.

For one third of students, the onset of timed testing is the beginning of maths anxiety is the claim that's got the references next to it. It's a little bit, bit ambiguous as to whether we really are making a causal claim or a correlational claim there.

[00:17:00] I'm not sure, but as I said, the same author has, has said elsewhere that research, research has shown that timed tests are the direct cause of the early onset of maths anxiety. So, it is a causal claim that's at the root of that. And causal claims are important because you can only usually establish them through experiments. You, you can, if you've got enough correlational evidence and you can do various tricks with statistics, you can get pretty close to close enough to convince most people that a causal claim has been proven, but technically you can only really do it with an experiment. So that's what I, I was looking for.

And it just doesn't seem like one exists. And when you sit back and think about it, I'm not sure how you would demonstrate that. I mean, timed tests, timed testing covers such a wide range of possibilities. It could be the mad minutes that kids do in, you know, for like a minute where they're just filling in as many facts as they can.

It could be a 70-minute exam. It could just be something that you [00:18:00] do fairly quickly with kids on a mini whiteboard. It, it could be all sorts of things. And then these, this timed testing could be presented in lots of different ways. You could have a teacher really winding the students up about it and say, “that's really important, guys. This is gonna affect your grade for the year.”

Or you could have a teacher saying, “ah, no, it's just, it's just a check for me to see, you know, how effective my teaching has been in this area. I just wanna see what we've learned now, no big dramas” and of, of course, like, it, it makes, it's just common sense that those two ways of, of presenting it, in fact would make a difference to how the students received it.

So, the idea that there's this monolith called timed testing, that is one thing that you could then demonstrate causes maths anxiety. I just don't think that's, that's a goer. But I do think it's important to, to trace these claims back because it seems that similar claims have also been found to not have the basis that was originally implied when you trace those back.

And if we're telling, you know, the idea, [00:19:00] there's a lot of teachers in North America, in, in Australia, who are avoiding timed tests because they, they really think that the research shows that they have this really negative effect.

Anna Stokke: I think the same is true here in Canada. In fact, just recently in my city, a few of the school divisions decided that they didn't want to give grade 12 final exams. And this is just disastrous, right? Like the students are going to go to university and they're going to have to write exams and they may be worth 50% of their grade.

And that was the reason they, they think it causes anxiety. So, this, this seemed to get worked out because the parents were upset because the parents want their kids to write exams. They want them to be prepared for post-secondary. But yeah, that does seem to be a common misconception.

Greg Ashman: But what, what, why are exams, like, why is it, what is it about exams that are so unusually stressful? Like these, these kids who are completely freaked out that by exams and it's gonna cause them all this stress and [00:20:00] anxiety, how are they ever gonna buy a house or ask someone out on a date or, or deal with bereavement?

I mean, how, if, if an exam is that stressful? And I can understand for a small proportion of people who, who have a recognized condition, an anxiety condition I, I could see that. But if you, if you, but you're not saying that when you cancel exams for everyone, you're saying that the, at least the majority of people can't cope with that sort of situation.

Well, if they can't cope with that sort of situation, we're in trouble.

Anna Stokke: Yeah, big trouble. And, and we actually usually have accommodations for the students that do have documented anxiety conditions -for the exceptional few. But I, I think as educators, it's, it's our job to actually expose our students to things like exams because they do have to get used to these kinds of situations.

I personally also [00:21:00] think that exams do help students learn. They give them a goal. It keeps the teachers on track. We make sure that we're covering our material, et cetera. But yeah, we could go on for about that for a while. But it's not even just this one thing. There are so many things in education that you hear it and you're told that it's backed by research evidence and if you trace back, you'll often find that, that that's probably not, that may not be true. Or the research studies that you're given are not rigorous research studies. You have to be really careful about it.

Greg Ashman: Right. You, you're absolutely right. And the, the thing is, one of the, the, the ways that Hattie, John Hattie is definitely right is when he claims that everything works in education because you can make everything work and you can provide evidence for anything, which I, in a way, it makes it surprising that, that we trace some of these claims back and we don't find a reference because I'm pretty sure that if I [00:22:00] worked hard enough, I could find a reference for any sort of claim of that kind.

And the reason is standards of evidence are pretty low. Typically, if you come up with an intervention or a package of teaching measures or whatever it is you will set up a trial where you will teach some students with this new flash fancy teaching method. You will then compare their progress on a scale you've, you've written.

So, you'll make obviously the, the assessment's gonna align with your new flash fancy teaching method, and it's gonna be about those sorts of things. Then you'll compare the students with another group of students. Who have had business as usual, whatever that is often not very well described in the research.

So, you don't really know whether business as usual is inquiry learning or explicit teaching or the one that interests me uh, is I said earlier the, the sort of explicit teaching I resorted to early in my career I [00:23:00] now know was not optimal. I now know that I should have presented smaller chunks that got kids to feedback to me on mini whiteboards constantly.

Whereas what I was doing back then is I was presenting in extended little sort of mini lectures before asking the students to do something so you don't even know what, even if you say - well, the business as usual is usually is explicit teaching -  you don’t know what sort of explicit teaching. Whether it's based on research or whether it's just the kind of thing that people default to when they, they don't know about the evidence.

So, you take your shiny new thing and you compare it against business as usual, and nine times out of 10 you'll see an effect because, it's nothing to do necessarily with the package of interventions itself. It's to do with the fact that the assessment the researchers use aligns better with what their, the kids are taught in the intervention.

The kids are more excited because it's something new. The people delivering it are enthusiastic about it because it's something new. Everyone expects there to be an effect. There's a sort of [00:24:00] placebo effect, and many of these are quasi experiments. Anyway, so the kids are not randomly assigned to groups.

The instructors are not randomly assigned to groups. There's researchers working around their background trying to make it all work. So, under those conditions, you, you can make any teaching, any teaching method work. You know, just thinking about it, like really good quality constructivist teaching is probably gonna be more - I dunno, it's hard to test - but it's probably gonna be more effective than, you know, explicit teaching that's not done with any particular enthusiasm or, or with any particular, you know, if, if it's particularly in elementary.

So, in an elementary setting where you've got one teacher teaching this wide range of subjects, if you've suddenly got math specialists, for instance, delivering an intervention in maths, and then the regular teachers are just doing their regular thing, you are likely to see an effect. And so, I try to shy away from that sort of evidence because you could  [00:25:00] prove absolutely an anything with it.

 And what is more useful, I think is smaller properly randomized, properly controlled experiments of the kind that you see in the field of cognitive load theory, which is what I did my research in, and also larger correlations. And the, some of the evidence that we get from PISA are about teaching methods or some of the evidence we get from the, he goes back as far as 1960s, where researchers visited different classrooms, logged the different teacher's behaviors, and then tried to correlate different teaching behaviors to students, sort of gains in assessments.

I think that that's a little bit more valid because you're not, you haven't got one thing that you've invested in and you compare and again against this sort of business as usual model. And the other thing that I argue for, and I've argued for, for some time, but I don't think it's ever gonna happen, rather than have, you know shiny [00:26:00] intervention versus business as usual we should be having active control.

So, we should be putting as much effort into the comparison condition as we are into the intervention. And a way you could do that is you could have intervention A, which is, say for the sake of argument, constructivist,  intervention B, which for the sake of argument is explicit and, and, and tries to use the research on explicit teaching and it's much as effective as possible. And then intervention C, which is your business as usual.

There's an interesting paper from - it's Kroesbergen et al, I think, from the Netherlands, in the early 2000s. And they did exactly that. They took kids at risk of not succeeding in maths, and they ran they ran a constructivist intervention. And they ran an explicit intervention and they ran a business as usual control. And the constructivist intervention outperformed the business as usual control. Now in most experiments, that's all you'll ever see, but they also had the explicit intervention, and of course, the explicit intervention [00:27:00] outperformed the constructivist one.

And so, then you can start to do the kinds of things that Hattie's methodology tries to do, which is rank different approaches, but you can do it within the confines of one experiment. So that's what I would like to see more of in, in research. But until those sorts of studies are done, I think we need to go back more to the smaller cycle, educational psychology, cognitive science studies, and then out to the bigger correlations.

Anna Stokke: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Okay, so let's shift gears a bit, and you've mentioned cognitive load theory and you are an expert in cognitive load theory. Your, your supervisor was John Sweller who kind of came up with the theory, right? Am I right?

Greg Ashman: Yeah, that’s right.

Anna Stokke:  Yeah. So, okay. So, can you just explain for our listeners what cognitive load theory actually is?

Greg Ashman: Well, I can do, you might need to stop me cuz I could probably talk for the rest of this recording about it. You already have seen my tendency to go on a bit, so I do [00:28:00] apologize for that. So cognitive load theory, the first thing you have to, sort of the fundamental bit and, and probably Sweller would disagree with, with the way I'm gonna describe it now, because I'm gonna try and I'm gonna miss out some of the, the technical stuff that he thinks he would think is important, but just to make it a bit more accessible.

So, the first thing that's important in cognitive load theory is a distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. Uh, biologically primary knowledge is knowledge that we have evolved to acquire. So, for instance, we all learn our local language as children. No one sits us in classrooms and says, “put your tongue here to make an S” or whatever it is.

No one does that. We, we acquire it. And the reason we acquire it is because presumably we've been talking our local language for hundreds of - well, possibly millions of years, depending on how you wanna define that. And so, it's been subjected to evolution over time because individuals who had better language skills or could [00:29:00] acquire them quicker, would've had a, an advantage in natural selection and so on.

And it's not just local languages, other things that we have evolved to learn. So, you are not born knowing the, the the geography of your local area, but you figure it out fairly quickly. You've developed a mental model of it. And you can think of it as if we've got sort of little modules in our mind ready to learn certain things.

That's biologically primary knowledge. Biologically secondary knowledge is relatively recent. It's, it's, it involves cultural invention. So, we can go back to the ancient Sumerians to see the first examples of writing about 5,000 years ago um, proceeding, intervening 5,000 years most people never learnt to read or write.

It was even, you know, unusual in some circumstances for rulers of kingdoms to learn to read and write. It's only been the last hundred years or so that the majority of people have learned to read and write and then only in developed countries. So, the, even if the ability to read and write gave you a selective advantage in [00:30:00] natural selection, which I don't know whether it would or not, there's just not been enough time to evolve how to do that.

So cognitive load theory applies to that second category of knowledge, not the first. Because the first we've, we've got these sort of modules ready to learn, but the second category is we haven't, we can't have evolved. So, we have to learn that in um, in a different way. And what does that involve?

Well, new knowledge has to pass through our working memory. Our working memory is roughly, the thoughts that we know we're having, our conscious thinking mind. And it's extremely limited. According to Cowan to back, I think, his paper in 2000. We think you can process about four items in working memory at time.

So new knowledge has to pass through the working memory, be processed and then go into the long-term memory. Now, I used to think this was a bug that why would you design humans this way? You know, why has evolution produced us to have this flaw [00:31:00] where we can only process four items at a time?

Well, if you think about the alternative, if we could process lots of information very quickly and put it into our long-term memory, we would then risk rapid and potentially catastrophic changes to our long-term memory. So, this is like a sort of safety mechanism by drip feeding the new knowledge through, we can be fairly certain that by the time we've acquired it, it has some value 'cuz we've had to return to it a few times and so on.

And that's how we get knowledge into long-term memory. The other thing about working memory that's really important is that all these limits that apply to working memory only apply to new knowledge. The knowledge you already have in long-term memory is organized in these little networks called schemas.

Think of a mind map or concept map or whatever you wanna call it in relation to each other. And you can pretty much fire up an entire schema and get it to [00:32:00] work for you with very little mental effort at all. So, stuff that we've actually got in our long-term memory is our superpower. And the way I often demonstrate this to people in the maths world is if I say to you 3x=18, find x, that's, that's quite a complicated thing to do for a novice.

Cuz they need to know that 3x means 3 times x. They need to know that x represents a missing number. They need to know that the equal sign means that the left-hand side is equivalent to the right-hand side. They need to know how you can get from 3x to x by dividing by three. And they need to know that 18 divided by 3 is 6.

However, if you say "3x=18, find x" to people that have even fairly limited training in algebra, they will almost involuntarily know, just know that x is six. And why? Because this schema that they've got in long-term memory, they've just activated and it's just, it's solved all the problem for them.

[00:33:00] So when it, we're early, when a novice is in learning new things, it's incredibly effortful and often not a great deal of fun.


But once we've got the schemers in long-term memory, we can, we can draw on them almost as a superpower. And this is, this is what we're able to do. So cognitive load theory is about attending to, to this cognitive architecture, it's called, when we design instruction. So, we don't try and overload working memory cuz then we won't uh, learn much. And in maths you can very easily do that.


There are some areas like learning lists of names or something, which is intrinsically provides quite a low level of cognitive load, so you might wanna even up it a bit. But often when it's things like maths, chemistry, physics, even, you know, writing for instance, that they're, they're, they consume cognitive resources quite intensively.

So, you are looking at ways to try and work with that, and [00:34:00] so cognitive load theorists have identified loads of different effects that essentially work by paying attention to the, the, this sort of model of the mind. Now the, the final thing to say about that, and then I'll shut up on cognitive load theory, is that it is a model of the mind that it's not new to neuroscience.

No one is sticking a probe in someone's brain and saying, this is where the working memory is. That's not how it works. It's a schematic model and it's also an incomplete model. Most scientific models are one of the, one of the things I found when I first started talking about cognitive load theories is people on Twitter would say, “yeah, but where's sensory memory” and sensory memory – it exist. It definitely does. It's like a buffer for information that you're taking in through your senses. And it's not mentioned in cognitive load theory. Why? Because it's not relevant to the kinds of predictions that cognitive load theory makes.

And this is the point about scientific models. They don't have to be full and accurate [00:35:00] representations at everything. They have to be good at um, predicting the, the results of experiments. And if you had a really elaborate model that encompassed all these different things, even when they're not relevant to the predictions you're trying to make, it wouldn't be a very useful model.

It would be very difficult and it'd become unmanageable. So yeah. So cognitive load theory, it's a model of the mind has implications for how we teach.


Anna Stokke: When you talk about it, and I think about teaching, it seems almost obvious that we should be taking this into consideration. But I'll admit I didn't take a lot of these things into consideration when I was first teaching, for instance, scaffolding. It's taken me many years to get good at that. And there are some things that I only heard about just recently. So, for instance um, you talk about the split attention effect. Would you mind talking a bit about that?

Greg Ashman: Okay, so the split attention effect is it's, it's, it's quite difficult to describe. It's easier to show, but imagine  [00:36:00] a typical diagram say in a geography textbook. I don't know whether your geography textbooks in Canada are similar to ours, but you know, back in the day they'd have had like a, a diagram of a volcano and then they'd be like one on it and then a two on it, and then underneath you go one magna chamber, two lava field or whatever.

That that's what you'd have and, and what that requires you to do, to understand what that diagram is telling you, you've gotta constantly shift your attention from the diagram to the key where the numbers explain what the different bits of the diagram mean. It's much better it turns out to simply annotate the diagram itself with those things.


So rather than having one and then down beneath one is the magma chamber actually just writing on where you put, we're going to put the one just write “magma chamber.” And then you don't have that issue. So that's, that's what the split attention effects is on about. [00:37:00]

Anna Stokke: Have you seen a grade five math textbook recently? You know how they describe multiplication, and you'll see three different methods all on one page.

Greg Ashman: Yeah.  This is absurd. And, and I'm not even sure, like there's not even a name for an effect for that. It'd be a bit of split attention. It'd just be, it'd be a bit of extraneous load. Look, I used to teach, when I first used to teach maths, I'd demonstrate, you know, what two or three problems, maybe four.

And then I'd ask the students to do a problem that was slightly different to the ones I demonstrated. Well, this is often how we teach in a, in a sort of default explicit teaching style. This is often what we do. But it's not optimal. So, what I do now is on a demonstrate a problem, I immediately get the kids to do a problem that is, has got the same deep structure, but maybe slightly different surface features.

So, they've gotta do exactly the same as I've just done, not something slightly different. They've gotta do [00:38:00] exactly the same thing that I've just done, but maybe using different numbers or whatever and. Then and I'll do that a few times with every problem type. And then gradually we'll go into a bit of guided practice where they're doing a few and I'm checking in on them all the time, or I might give them a hint or a bit of a scaffold.

The first step you've gotta do is this. Everyone do that, guys, let me have a look on your mini whiteboards, right? And then gradually go to the point where they're solving the problems themselves. And the kids I teach eventually, they've gotta solve these very complex problems that, that they haven't seen before.

They haven't seen one like it before, and so I've gotta get them to that point. That's the objective of all math teachers. We want students to be able to solve complex problems they haven't seen before, but when they get to that point, they're equipped with all these skills that we've learned along the way.

And, and my students, and our students at at my school where we teach in this in this way, seem to do really well at these complex problems that they haven't seen before because we've scaffolded the route to that. What I think a lot of [00:39:00] people assume, Is that if you want students to solve complex problems that they haven't seen anything similar to before, you need to get 'em to solve complex problems that they haven't seen anything similar to foot to before because they think that there's some sort of skill of solving complex problems that you haven't seen anything like before.

And there isn't, there's no such skill. There's just mathematical ability, procedure, conceptual understanding, and so you wanna build that. There's a, a few little things like we, like, there's methods for annotating a problem maybe that can make, make sure you don't miss things. But really that's fairly minor.

The major thing is building this bank of understanding.

Anna Stokke: So, for instance here in, in Canada, we have math contests that typically only the students who really excel write these math contests. But realistically, they train for those, like they have tons of training.

It looks [00:40:00] really impressive, that they can solve these really tough problems but they have training sessions. Absolutely, you can, you can teach kids to solve math problems.

You just have to do it well, right? I mean, I don't know why we feel that we need to throw them off the deep end and make them, make them feel all stressed out about it either. I mean, you can, you can make solving those problems fairly easy if you just teach them in a scaffolded way.

Greg Ashman: The question of why we do that is an interesting one. I think there's an element of “It's what we do when we don’t know what to do.” So if you want someone to solve complex maths problems, then you, and you've got no other strategy. You just get them to solve complex maths problems, because it's what you do when you don’t know what to do.

There's also a lot of ideology if you go on Twitter and see people who are talking about, you know, this, this constructivist, or I don't even know what we call it now, “cognitively guided instruction” perhaps. I dunno, I dunno what the latest term for it is. But this idea of basically learning maths by [00:41:00] solving problems is, is essentially the, the view that people take a, a lot of the, the argument is, is ideological, you know, so it's about, it's oppressive if a teacher demonstrates how to solve a problem or, you know, even people, you know, say it's, they'll, they'll talk about it being, you know, white European approach to teaching maths or something, which is just odd.


I mean, clearly there is either, it's either more effective or less effective. And if, if it were true, and I don't, I don't believe for a minute it, that it, it's possibly true, it's possible that different methods of teaching maths would suit students from different ethnic backgrounds.

The way we could research that, and we could find that out and we could do something with that. But I don't, I don't think people's brains vary that much. I'd be extremely surprised if they did. And, so the most effective methods of teaching maths are the most effective methods of teaching maths. But you see, you and I are talking about effectiveness, whereas other [00:42:00] people are not even really interested in that.

They, they'll say, “oh, well test scores are meaningless. It's just rote procedures. I want students to be thinking.” So, it's almost like we're having to, you can't even sort of be, you can't even debate because the, the, the terms of how you'd establish whether something is desirable or not. The, the, there's no there's no agreement on what those terms are.

Anna Stokke: It's slightly surprising that more people don't know about cognitive load theory and that it's, it's not sort of the thing that you see at PD sessions and it, it's too bad actually because a lot of students would be learning more math if teachers knew about this.

I wanted to ask you about something that you wrote in your book. So, you said that schools tend to adopt the next new thing, talk about it constantly for three months, talk about it with mild embarrassment for the next three, and then forget about it after that. And I [00:43:00] have noticed that too, here in Canada.

And, you know, that means new PD, that means new resources, new textbooks if, if they use textbooks at all, manipulatives, et cetera.

But why does this happen?

Greg Ashman: Well, I, I think I've got a theory on this. I don't really know. It's, it's extraordinary. I, I think part of it is we don't have a proper - we're just spinning our wheels. We don't, we don't have a proper system for evaluating what we do, so we can't know whether something's more effective or less effective.

And so essentially we follow fashions. So, you know, like this, this year we're gonna wear flares and then next year we're gonna wear, I don't know, boot cut jeans or whatever. It's, it's that sort of, cuz there's no, you can't establish empirically where the flares are superior to bootcut jeans. So, you just cycle through all the different fashions.

I think there's an element of that. I also, I, I remember being an aspiring deputy principal in, in London and being [00:44:00] told that one of the things I needed to do if I wanted to be a deputy principal when I went to interview, I need to be able to talk about an initiative that I had introduced and how it had played out.

Now if you've got loads of ambitious people at this, the sort of assistant principal, I don’t know what you call them in Canada, but you know, senior leaders, but they're not the, not the principal. So, if you've got lots of people in those positions who are looking for the next step, then they're gonna be thinking, what is it that I can introduce? What can be my initiative?

 And of course they're doing it. They, they want it to be time limited because when they go to their interview, they wanna be able to talk about why they introduced it, how it went, and then what they, what the outcome was. So, you, that creates a kind of cycle that doesn't that, that, that doesn't, motivate people to introduce a sort of long, gradual, incremental improvement.

It, it, it motivates them to do these little short bursts of [00:45:00] something completely different. And often the way that you can do something completely different is you can buy something in, I remember at a, a school I worked at in London, one of the things we did was, it's called Building Learning Power. And the idea was we, they had these pictures of brains and they were divided up into four things called resilience, reciprocity and - I forget what - they, but they all began with an R. And these were supposed to be called learning muscles. And then each lesson we were supposed to say to the kids, well, which learning muscle we're using?


So, if they were working in groups, they say, well, we're using reciprocity. And if they were struggling because we'd set them a complex math problem that they didn't know how to solve, we'd go, “great, you're showing resilience.”

And so this was the thing, and there was a, there was book you could buy, there was a training that could come in, and that's a classic example. So, the people bring it in, of course it doesn't really help. Because how could it possibly, so they bring it in and then they get a bit tired with it and yeah. You know, the [00:46:00] flares go outta fashion. And then, and then we just, we don't mention it. We never, we never particular, we never say, we, we have now on this day, we've decided we're gonna stop doing that. We just, you know, let it fade away and we're sl just, it's a faintly embarrassing memory and then it's gone.

So, I think there's lots of reasons, but um, part of it is the, the, the lack of a, a robust system of evaluation within schools and within education.

Anna Stokke: It sounds like it's a lot about adults’ careers when it should be about children learning, about students learning. But we really, if we, if we had good measurements, maybe we would stick with things that actually worked.

Greg Ashman: Well, I think, I think part of it as well, Again, what do you do when you dunno what to do? Like if you are, if your results are not great and you don't really know what to do to improve them, you've got a number of options. You, you could go out and you could try and [00:47:00] find a way to improve your results, but then you're at the mercy of lots of snake oil salesman who will, you know, try and sell you some package or others that won't really work.

But this is education. So, most of the, the things that people are selling, you won't really work. You could get lucky. You could go out and find some really good research and start to apply that. And, and over time, over a long period of time - these things are not quick - you'd see your results turn around.

Another alternative, as you alluded to before, is to say, well, standardized results are not that important. We're, a child is more than just a number. We, we are interested in educating the whole child, you know, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, there are several options, and of course they all play out.

Anna Stokke: I wanted to ask about something else, and if you've noticed this. So I listened to Emily Hanford's podcast Sold a Story. I've mentioned this a few times on the podcast because I think something similar is going on in math [00:48:00] education.

And she talks to a district leader in the podcast and, and he says, the following about one of these prominent reading specialists, “If Beyonce came and gave a private concert in my district, it would not have been a bigger deal for many of my teachers. She was like a rockstar walking into that building.” And teachers even wrote songs about this person who has recently acknowledged that she was actually wrong about what she'd been telling, how she'd been telling teachers to teach reading.

And I've seen this in math education too, and it's a bizarre thing. It - there are just these, these figures that are just, the teachers seem to hero worship them. They're, they're like rock stars. And I must admit, I don't understand it. Have you seen, have you noticed that?

Greg Ashman: I have and I don't really understand it either. I think the, the, these individuals often have a [00:49:00] lot of personal charisma and they often have quite a revolutionary message. So, I think it's the appeal of, of that. and teachers, I don't know, like I'm, I come in contact with a lot of teachers, but of course the teachers I come in contact with often approach me because of my blog and things like that.

So, usually they're the teachers who think this is all a load of hooey. So I, I haven't really got an insight into the teachers that will whoop and holler when an education guru comes into the room. I don't really know where that's coming from. I think sometimes the messages that are given, it's a bit like cold reading in, you know, when, when fake mediums, try and sort of tell people what they want to want to hear.

And I think there's an, there's an element of that. I think these individuals are very tuned into what teachers want to hear. I think they make teachers feel special that they, they will say that teachers are, are very special and they should have this autonomy [00:50:00] and they're extremely skilled. And but I don't, I can't say I fully understand it.

I think it is a strange phenomenon. But it does exist. I mean, we have, we have devotees of those gurus in Australia, possibly a little less, possibly a little bit more, we're a slightly more ironic culture in Australia. And we, we, we've got from, from Britain I think, and so people wouldn't be quite as earnestly, they'd be a little bit more self-aware, but they'd still be big fans of these people.

Anna Stokke: We don't seem to have this among mathematicians. I mean, people get really excited about mathematicians who've solved, you know, big problems or something like that, but it's nothing like what I've seen in, in education. So, you read the book Building Thinking Classrooms in Math.

Greg Ashman: Yes.

Anna Stokke: Yeah, and, and actually that's a really popular method here in, in Canada - the non-permanent vertical learning surfaces [00:51:00] and, and the group work. And so, I'm wondering what, what did you think about the book? Do you think there's any merit to that method?

Greg Ashman: Not really, no.  I, I can see how elements of it could be useful. I, I have myself asked students to work by writing stuff on whiteboards at the side of the room. And so, I've done that myself, not cuz I read the book, but it's something I've done in the past. And I think there's some interesting ideas on how you, how you would do group work and how you'd select people to work in groups.

But I don't really, I'm not really convinced by it. And my, my response to it is anecdotal. I sort of measure what is being said in that book against my own experiences as a math teacher. And I think, well, I don't think that'd work very well, and that's perfectly valid for me to have that response because what's at issue here is the burden of proof.

It shouldn't be, for me, a skeptic to prove that that method doesn't work. I mean, it's almost impossible to do so. I don't, I don't have the tools, I don't have the access. And proving a [00:52:00] negative is not as impossible. There's lots of people often think you can do it inductively. But it's, it's very hard to do if you're not, it's, it's really hard.

But the burden of proof lies with the person making the assertion. So, if someone thinks that non-permanent vertical services and whatever, all this stuff, if they think that it is valuable, then the burden of proof lies with them to prove that. It's not up to me, the skeptic to prove it won't work.

It's up to the person who is selling the, the idea to prove that it does work. And if they say, “oh yeah, well, I'm not interested in narrow test scores,” or whatever. Okay, fine. Tell me what you are interested in and demonstrates me that your method is effective at delivering that. So, for instance often we hear the argument is about motivation.

Now I don't, I don't buy the motivation argument. I think kids get motivated by, motivated in maths by getting better at maths. So [00:53:00] um, and I think there's some research to show this. There's a Canadian study at elementary school, Garron-Carrier and  colleagues. They looked at students in elementary school and they saw that motivation for maths did not predict later achievement.

But achievement in maths did predict later motivation. I think that's pretty, pretty strong evidence. Other people would say it's more iterative. I, I'm happy to accept it might be more iterative that maybe motivation does have a role. But the, the key thing is that they're very closely correlated motivation and achievement.

So, to me that suggests that the, the, if we want to motivate kids about maths, we want to use the most effective method to teach them, cuz then they'll learn more and learning and motivation correlated. But if you reckon that non-permanent vertical surfaces is more motivating for students, fine. Show, demonstrate to me that that's the case.

Show me that six months down the line, kids who have gone through that approach to learning maths are more motivated about it. Well, the, the, here we come across the dreaded “business as usual.” Again, they might be then, [00:54:00] Doing a business as usual thing when you've got all the researchers in.

And this is an exciting new method, guys, that might be more motivating than business as usual. But again, it may be, but show us the evidence. I think a lot of this, I mean, I've seen some survey evidence, it's not at all conclusive. But I've seen some survey evidence that someone posted on my blog about these thinking classrooms where parents are saying their kids are getting confused and frustrated and, well, I can't imagine that that is very motivating.

So, but I dunno how valid that is, how representative it is. But it just, it doesn't, to me, it doesn't make sense why it would be that greater method, but that's okay. It's not up for me, up to me to prove that the burden of proof lies with the person who is evangelizing that idea.

Anna Stokke: Yeah, that that's true. And it's not about, it's not even just about being motivated. Okay, great, we're motivated. But at the end of the day, you actually have to learn the material. You have to learn the math.

Greg Ashman: Well, there's a, there's a good quote. I, I can't remember. It's, it's someone I [00:55:00] disagree with on almost everything, but I like his quote. He, he said I think it's “so you have an idiot and you motivate him. Now you have a motivated idiot.”

Anna Stokke: Exactly. There you go.

Greg Ashman: Now. Yeah. So, it, motivation itself is not is not enough.

Anna Stokke: Yeah. And I, I completely have seen that myself, that if, if you can get students actually doing well in math, they wanna do more math. And, and here's the thing: Nobody wants to do stuff that they are not good at, that they don't feel good at.

Greg Ashman: No, no.

Anna Stokke: So, help them to get good at math and then they will do more math.

Greg Ashman: Do you call it a bucks party? When someone's getting married? Is that what you call it? A bucks party?

Anna Stokke: Oh, a, stag?  A stag?

Greg Ashman: Yeah. You call it a stag. So was in London and my, my friend was getting married and we went to New Castle. And we, and I dunno, I don't like these sort of rituals very much.

It's, I'm not, I'm not that sort. And we had to get up very early on a Saturday morning and we had to go [00:56:00] clay pigeon shooting, for reasons that are beyond me. And we all had to put five pounds into a kitty and whoever did the best at this clay pigeon shooting got the kitty. And so, I'm standing there and I've got a, and I dunno, I've never fired a gun before or since.

Guns are not a big thing in British or Australian culture. And so, this guy showed me how to fire this shotgun and these clay frisbees come across and I hit a couple of them. And um, then everyone has a go. Then we have another go. And I miss every single one of these five things and, cuz it's like a, a stag, everyone's like, like making a bit of fun of the fact that I'd missed them and the instructor's making a bit of fun of me.

I didn't wanna play anymore. I, I said I don't want another go. And I went and sat at the side and I said, “you can keep the five pounds. I'm not, I'm not playing this game anymore.” And just sat there for the rest of it while the, while the other people shot these [00:57:00] things at these clay frisbees now. So that, that's how kids feel a lot in class.

That they, they, that's how they feel when they don't want to take part because they're being just sort of, they're just having their failure thrown back at them because they've been given these ineffective teaching methods. And that feeling I felt when I didn't shoot this gun at these clay frisbees is the feeling that lots of kids have in class a lot of the time.

And you're right. The only way that you, you can get them out of that is to make is, is to teach them well. So they can do the things and they can feel a sense of accomplishment. They can feel that they're getting better, and then you can get them back in and you can get them one into play again. So, it's all the idea that we would want, we would purposely cause students to struggle that, that, that, that is somehow desirable in a math lesson.

It just doesn't make any sense to me.

Anna Stokke: It doesn't make any sense at all. And, and it feels [00:58:00] somewhat unethical actually. So, and I know you have to go soon because you have to, you have to teach. So, I would like to ask you one last question. What advice would you give to new teachers?

Greg Ashman: Oh yeah. Well I could be glib and say, “read my book for new teachers,” but I won't do that. I think it's difficult. I, I can't think of anything that isn't glib. Ignore everything they taught you when they, when on your training. Maybe get alongside experienced teachers. Everything they tell you, some of it will be really bad because teachers get into bad habits, but it'll probably be more useful to you than a lot of the stuff you learn in your teacher prep course and really start to think skeptically.  Take a skeptical stance when anyone comes and presents an idea to you. Take a skeptical stance, know where the burden of proof lies.

It doesn't lie with you to disprove whatever it is this person is saying. [00:59:00] It lies with them to provide evidence in support of what they're saying. And I think, you know, that that's the best we can do, really. But I do worry for new teachers because, you know, the still, the, the ones I see, the ones I meet, the ones that I talk to, they are, I mean, there's no, no better word for it really.

They're being indoctrinated in the idea that telling kids things is bad and that really kids should learn stuff through discovering things in groups and, and we don't seem to have shifted the dial on that at all. So yeah. So, a skeptical stance.

Anna Stokke: Yeah. And, and don't feel guilty for using methods that you can see work.

Greg Ashman: Yes. Yes. Oh, no, I agree with that. Yes.

Anna Stokke: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for making the time to talk to me today. I really enjoyed speaking with you and, and thanks for everything you do to get the, the knowledge out there and, and [01:00:00] to help teachers and, and parents and, and everyone else.

I really appreciate it.

Greg Ashman: Well, well, thank you. I'm sorry if I went on a bit in some of my answers, but this is the sort of stuff I'm passionate about. So, you, you sort of, you get me going and I'll just keep going. So, I do apologize if, if that's the case.

Anna Stokke: No, it was absolutely perfect. Thank you so much.

Greg Ashman: Cheers.

Anna Stokke: I hope you enjoyed today's episode of Chalk and Talk. Please go ahead and follow on your favorite podcast app so you can get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on Twitter for notifications or check out my website for more information. Technical support and social media support was provided by Rohit Shrinath.


This podcast received funding through University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact Grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund. [01:01:00]

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