• Gene Tavernetti, Ed.D.

Focusing on Less Makes Room for More

If there is one thing in which there is near unanimous agreement among educators regarding our new standards, it is that the application of knowledge and skills is more rigorous. It follows that units of study, and individual lessons must also be more rigorous. The dilemma, as stated by teachers, is how to teach lessons that are more rigorous to kids who were not doing that great before? I agree the lessons must be more rigorous, but I disagree that it is not possible.

In order to teach lessons that are more rigorous a teacher must understand two concepts that govern how much a student can handle in a single lesson. The first, there is a limit to the cognitive load a student can handle. Second, a lesson should contain one objective. Therefore, lessons can be rigorous by limiting the cognitive load by focusing on one objective at a time.

An example of a rigorous Middle School English Language Arts Lesson comes from the classroom of Samantha Payne, in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

Ms. Payne’s students had been reading Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. In order to reinforce the concept that authors deal in themes that are timeless and universal, Ms. Payne developed a lesson in which students will (Learning Objective) Identify and explain how current events in the news mirrored events in Les Miserables through a character trait exhibited in both the current event and Les Miserables.

Rigorous? Yes. A lot? Yes. Was the lesson successful? Yes. Why? Ms. Payne kept the rigor high, but reduced the cognitive load by providing the students with a language frame for the students’ explanations.

Analysis Language Frame

The character trait I have chosen to analyze is _________________________ and it is demonstrated in the article I found through research, titled “_______________________.”

This is similar to (describe the scene in the novel) _______________________________________ in Les Miserables because (explain your reasoning, comparing the two) ___________________.

Even though providing the students a language frame is extremely helpful in guiding the students through a coherent explanation, it is not sufficient support for all students. In addition to the language frame, Ms. Payne also provided an example of a completed language frame.


The character trait I have chosen to analyze is honesty and it is demonstrated in the article I found through research, titled Billy “Ray Harris: Homeless Man Who Returned Diamond Ring. . .”

This is similar to (describe) when Jean Veljean confessed his true identity, dismissing all charges against the innocent Champmatheiu in Les Miserables because (explain) like Billy Ray Harris, Jean Valjean could have had a better life if he didn’t say or do anything. Instead, and at the risk of losing something of great value, they were honest. Ultimately this led to a future far brighter than either of these men could have envisioned. Billy Ray Harris was awarded close to $200,000 and Jean Valjean was awarded the love of Cosette.

Providing the example would have been sufficient for many of the students in her class. But, to further reduce the cognitive load associated with the writing of the answer using the framework, Ms. Payne also modeled her thinking process that allowed her to complete the example analysis.

Magnifying Glass

By using the structure provided in the language frame the answers the students wrote were coherent and articulate. By reducing the degree of difficulty of the writing, the cognitive load was shifted to analysis.

The structure allowed all students to be successful. Students who would not have been as successful were greatly assisted. Students who would have been successful without the structure were not harmed.

Increased rigor. Single focus. Student success.

#criticalthinking #focusedinstruction #analysis #languageframe #cognitiveload #lessismore #rigor

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