PD Anywhere Professional Development Blog

Want Professional Development for New Teachers That Really Works? Chunk It!

January 14, 2019

Not all learning can be easy. But professional development for new teachers should be engaging, motivating, and as easy as possible. Chunking new learning into segments of instruction that are not too big and not too small is one way to ensure that learning is easier and more effective. Teachers are like their students in this regard: They can’t learn everything at once. If they get frustrated or overwhelmed, many of them will lost interest and enthusiasm and possibly disengage.

What is Chunking?

Chunking is a strategy based on Cognitive Load Theory. The premise of Cognitive Load Theory is that as we learn information, we use two different types of memory: Working memory and Long-term memory. Because working memory is used when we first access new information, it is important that it work efficiently. If we want our working memory to work efficiently, we should not overload it. Trying to remember and make sense of too much information at once leads to overload—and overload actually prevents learning.

As we learn new information, it is important to learn it in amounts and time periods that facilitate and support our learning. A common example people use when trying to explain cognitive load theory and short-term memory is a telephone number. If we try to learn all nine digits of the number at once, it is more difficult than if we break the number down and learn the first three numbers, then the next three, and finally the last three. While this example does address the issue of cognitive load when applied to memorizing a nine-digit number, it is an over-simplification of what cognitive load theory means. The bigger picture for professional development is that learning can and should be provided in manageable chunks.

Here is a video from patreon.com/sprouts (https://www.patreon.com/sprouts).

This short video explains the key principle of chunking and provides some examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hydCdGLAh00

How New Teachers Differ from Experienced Teachers (and Why They Need More Support)

Cognitive Load Theory also distinguishes between novices and experts. The key difference between the two is that novices haven’t acquired the structures the make up a knowledge base. These structures are sometimes called schema, a term that many teachers use when discussing their students’ learning. Learning for many novices is slow and novices often make mistakes. For experts, the material becomes more familiar and their cognitive structures improve, resulting in more efficient learning. (InstructionalDesign.org, 2018)

Breaking down learning into chunks of information that address a competency or standard that beginning teachers can learn easily can be tough. The next step, effectively teaching the chunked content so that new learn it easily, is also tough. It’s not just about learning; it’s about making learning easy.

More About Chunking

One principle related to Cognitive Load Theory that helps explain chunking is the Segmenting Principle. This principle means that, “People learn better when a complex continuous lesson is broken into separate segments. Examples include … presenting one graphic at a time rather than putting multiple graphics in the same figure or breaking a continuous presentation into short chunks that can be paced by the learner. The learner’s working memory is less likely to be overload with essential processing when the essential material is presented in bite-size chunks rather than as a whole continuous lesson.” (Quora, 2017)

Professional Development providers who are required to design and then implement a series of learning components should consider working backwards to design their PD. By backwards designing, they can create a logical and effective planning and presentation. The key part of this process is to clearly define and explain the end goal (the teaching standard or competency). Working backwards to align all of the information and activities with that, the final PD plan might include: (1) An Activity, that is part of a (2) Lesson or Topic, that is part of a (3) Unit, that is part of an (4) Objective, that is part of a (5) Goal, that is part of a (6) Curriculum or sequence of information, that addresses a (7) Competency or Standard. This is the same sequence that teachers use to plan high quality instruction for their students.

To Chunk the Information, First Decide on Skills that New Teachers Need

Campus and district leaders are responsible for recruiting, retaining, developing, coaching, and mentoring new teachers. As part of this important work, leaders have to decide which specific teaching skills their new teachers need to learn and then receive coaching and support to master. Sometimes this happens through evaluations or observations. In other situations, districts use surveys to ask their beginning teachers what support they need.

As districts plan and provide professional development, including resources, instructors, timing, and content, it is important to chunk the learning into manageable increments. Some common examples of specific skills new teachers typically need to master include:

  • How to build relationships with students
  • Creating a positive community in the classroom
  • Aligning goals and objectives with standards
  • Backwards designing a lesson
  • Using formative assessment results to re-group, re-teach, enrich, and extend
  • Dealing with disruptive students
  • Effective questioning strategies
  • What pre-assessments are and how to use them
  • Specific technology skills related to apps or software that support effective instruction
  • Step-by-step writing strategies
  • How to communicate effectively with parents

We have another post that provides research and discussion about the specific instructional skills that impact student learning. To read Want to Improve Student Achievement? Improve Teaching in the Classroom, Starting with These Three Skills, click here: https://pdanywhere.com/blog/want-to-improve-student-achievement-improve-teaching-in-the-classroom-starting-with-these-three-skills

To help districts with chunking their PD, we have found some practical, common sense strategies. While individual districts or campuses can always differentiate, these ideas are easy-to-use and do not require excessive time in preparation.

Strategies for Successfully Chunking PD

Here are some suggestions to make chunking instruction easy:

  1. Think about the specific steps needed to master a teaching skill. As you plan, break it down. Most beginning teachers will learn best with three to four small chunks of information. (Quora, 2017)
  2. Pre-assess. Not all beginning teachers will be at the same level of competence. Just as with planning for student instruction, it is critical to know what skills your teachers have and have not mastered before beginning professional development.
  3. After each small step, do a quick check for understanding. When working with teachers, focus on strategies for evaluating progress that are quick, easy, and effective. NO ONE in education has time to waste.
  4. Consider using checklists. While not everything can be reduced to a checklist, many skills can, and many teachers appreciate the format. They know what is expected, can reflect on their own progress, and will take responsibility for much of their own learning.
  5. As you provide PD, start with “big picture” information and then get more specific. If your teachers don’t understand why they are doing something and what the overall purpose is, it is unlikely they will do well.
  6. Try to get rid of information that is extraneous and/or confusing. Most new teachers need to master essential skills, so focus on those.
  7. Make sure that everything flows. Think about the logical progression of the learning. As we do with students, circle back once in a while, review, check for understanding, and check with the teachers to determine whether the pacing is appropriate.

Use Technology to Support Your Chunked PD

One way of supporting learning and chunking content is to use technology. While we do not endorse specific products and find many apps, software, programs, and platforms useful, we found several that work well to support chunking PD. Think about how you might support new teacher instruction with just one example. We picked Padlet™. Before beginning the new teacher PD, set up a Padlet board. Then, during professional development, teachers can produce responses and post them. Everyone in the PD session can see them and access the information. Padlet also allows for posting of photos, questions and answers, and links to other information. Start with one small segment of content and then combine them. During the PD sessions, stop frequently, ask teachers for responses, let them talk, and then move on to the next chunk of information.

Moving Forward

If new teachers working to improve their instructional skills have access to engaging instructional in manageable, easy-to-learn chunks, it will be easier for them to learn. They will likely still need support from mentors and coaches and will benefit from observations and feedback. However, making the initial learning easy and engaging instead of difficult, frustrating, or overwhelming make help districts improve the quality of instruction and retain great teachers. Chunking Works!

Resources for This Post

Brown, P., Roediger, H. & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: The Bellnap Press of Harvard University Press.

Fletcher-Wood, H. (November 19, 2017) Planning lessons using cognitive load theory. Retrieved online on December 10, 2018: https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2017/11/19/planning-lessons-using-cognitive-load-theory/

Quora Contributor. (November 8, 2017) What makes chunking such an effective way to learn? Forbes Media, LLC. Retrieved online on January 12, 2019: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/11/08/what-makes-chunking-such-an-effective-way-to-learn/#4a10eab160a9

Soloman, H. (November 30, 2018) Cognitive load theory (John Sweller). Retrieved online on January 12, 2019: https://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/cognitive-load/

Sweller, J. (1999) Instructional design in technical areas. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research.