Parental load theory

Blogging is the preserve of the time-rich, and so excludes those of us currently running (in parallel) a household, a home-school for small people, and a job. However, on a conference call whilst simultaneously recording daily weather station measurements with my six year old, I realised we need a new educational theory to describe whether resources are optimised for use by parents at home.

My inspiration comes from how cognitive load theory (CLT) gives teachers a language to help them optimise resource and instructional design. CLT’s starting point is the insight that students have limited working memory capacity and so the cognitive load produced by learning tasks can impede students’ ability to process new information and to create long-term memories. In designing materials and teaching approaches, the goal is to reduce the load that is extraneous to the task and carefully manage the load that is intrinsic to the task to ensure that students’ working memories are not overwhelmed.

Cognitive Load Theory is relevant to learning, whether it takes place at school or at home. But as important to instructional design, at least for home-educating primary-aged children, is my newly invented theory: Parental Load Theory (PLT).

Parental Load Theory starts with the insight that nearly all parents have limited time capacity and so the parental load produced by learning tasks can impede (younger) students’ ability to process new information and create long-term memories. In designing resources and instructions, the goal should be to reduce the parental load that is extraneous to the task and carefully craft the load that is intrinsic to the task to ensure that parents are not overwhelmed. This theory is equally relevant to time-poor parents and to time-rich parents who do not feel confident in supporting their children’s learning.

I posit that the intrinsic parental load of a task are the adult-child interactions required for learning to take place. These include conversational roles, questioning, prompting, support for enquiry, and so on, all of which support students in developing understanding and fluency in concepts and ideas.

However, far more significant are the extraneous parental loads that are essential to task completion:

  1. The parental role in enforcing engagement, through encouraging the student to start the activity and then persist at it. This is, of course, inextricably linked to the attributes of both the activity and the child.
  2. The parental administrative role in interpreting instructions, correcting resource errors, printing worksheets, re-typing in complex log-in details, finding essential resources, and so on.

My perception, talking to friends who have children in many different state primary schools across the country, is that most of the weekly/daily lists of tasks that teachers are currently posting/emailing for home completion are as follows:

  1. Tasks score OK on enforcing engagement load. Teachers are trying to choose reasonably interesting activities that children are inclined to attempt. This is great.
  2. Tasks score pretty poorly on administrative load. Instructions are often unclear to parents who help each other translate them in WhatsApp groups across the country; worksheets designed for the classroom don’t tell parent and child what to do; websites frequently require passwords that are not sign-posted clearly or child friendly; tasks require something other than a pen and paper.
  3. Tasks are very burdensome in terms of parental load that is intrinsic to learning. Whilst interesting and educationally valuable, most primary children can’t complete extended writing, explore complex ideas, take an enquiry approach, pursue creative ideas, investigate something without an adult helping them move forward throughout the task.

And this is the dilemma, low parental load sounds great but it does not necessarily equate to effective learning because resources with low intrinsic parental load tend to avoid active learning approaches that facilitate the student elaboration and sense-making needed to learn new material.

One example of an extremely low parental load resource is watching the lovely BBC Bitesize daily shows. My children like them and, by watching the shows for ages 5-7 and 7-9 back-to-back, it buys me 40 minutes work time. However, after the show that included geography last week I opened an OS map and asked my children what a landmark (6yo) and a contour (9yo) was. They had absolutely no idea what they were, despite happily watching the show. They needed to go through the active process of re-enforcing these new ideas in a manner that the TV show does not facilitate. (By contrast, Numberblocks does seem to successfully develop deep conceptual understanding of mathematical ideas through very extended, repetitive and involved stories. We need more episodes!)

Though we’ve only done a few lessons so far, I am finding the format of the Oak National Academy lessons to be quite low parental load for the 9yo, provided you ignore the quizzes that consistently tell children they are wrong when they are right. My 9yo will put up with being asked to complete the lessons and can get to the end of the written work embedded in the video without needing help. I think being able to see the same teachers on a video regularly is an essential part of the engagement with this, given that state school children (by-and-large) are not able to see the faces of their own teachers anymore. (By contrast, Oak National is extremely high parental load for my 6yo who hasn’t yet agreed to watch to the end of any video and certainly isn’t prepared to take part in the call and answer parts or write anything down. But obviously my 6yo is unique and I’m sure some lucky parent has a 6yo who will do the lessons.)

It’ll be no surprise to those of you that are teachers that my personal top 3 super-low parental load activities that I perceive to be educationally valuable are more closely tied to retrieval of past learning rather than the teaching of new materials. This is fine by me – just imagine how great it would be if primary students were able to return to school really fluent in material learnt in earlier years?

  1. The CGP (and similar) workbooks are excellent because each short question can be straightforwardly read and understood by the student. And because they are long established and refined, we aren’t finding errors (and older children can look up the answers themselves). Having a workbook rather than a computer activity removes the temptation to drift into non-work games and allows a parent to ‘glance’ over at what is being completed. My wish is that CGP could print ‘flashback’ books that are labelled, e.g. Year 4 but actually contain Years 2 and 3 content. No parent will buy a Year 2 book for a Year 4 student; no student in Year 4 wants to complete a Year 2 book. However, it would be educationally valuable for the majority of Year 4 students to do so. The key to reducing parental load when using these books is the active avoidance of new material.
  2. Continuing on the theme of giving students the chance to work on material that might be below their formal Year Group curriculum, I also really like Doodle Maths (which individual parents or schools must purchase a subscription to). It is National Curriculum aligned, but it delivers material at whatever stage the student appears to be working at. The algorithm ensures that my children can experience considerable success every day, which is why it is the number one learning activity that my kids won’t complain about doing. (There are many competitors to Doodle Maths, but I’ve found the US competitor apps frequently deliver unfamiliar content or language to my children.)
  3. Finally, for fluency practice my children will independently and willingly use Times Tables Rock Stars, Hit the Button and Spelling Shed. (I cannot yet include Numbots or Prodigy Math Game in this list since they both ask for login details each time and my 6yo cannot enter them. Logging in once a day is a high parental load activity where an app requires you to identify your child’s school name from a list with a hundred schools called St. XXXXX or Holy XXXXXX.)

It now seems very likely some (or most) parents will be asked to combine work and schooling of young children for many hours a week for a large part of the next academic year. It is an almost impossible ask and all the parents I know who are trying to do this are at the point of complete collapse. Our best hope of keeping these parents from breaking down completely is drop our commitment to having each school create and deliver their own school curriculum of home-learning tasks that were originally designed for the classroom. Instead, much as primary teachers may hate it, we must deliver to parents new resources that are crafted with parental load in mind, limiting the parental role to meaningful interactions for learning in a limited number of tasks rather than burdening us with activities that have high extraneous parental load.

It is hard to create these resources – and nobody has achieved perfection yet – but this is why we cannot have 17,000 sets of primary resources. If we start now, by September we will be able to create one decent resource set from multiple organisations that every parent can use if their children are at home with them.

And yes, given that children will drift in and out of schools in unforecastable ways, we need a fully-centralised week-by-week National Primary Curriculum for the 2020/21 academic year. This will be tough on teachers, on Nick Gibb and on the large resource providers who will have to pause their individualised schemes they have invested so much in but, compared to the thousands of impossible choices and compromises we are currently having to make as a country, this feels like an acceptable ask to make home learning manageable for the greatest possible number of parents.

11 thoughts on “Parental load theory

  1. Michael Pye

    Think you have managed to get a pretty good idea about online tools in a short time. Took me years of fiddling for similar insight. Two points for thought.

    1/ What meaningful difference is there between parent and student load? There is obviously some but does making instructions or removing obstacles for one normally help the other. I think for all your examples improving it benefits both. (The magnitude of effect might be different though. Logging in is irritating and distracting for you but insurmountable for your 6 year old). The main issue is a general lack of clarity and explicitness.

    2/ Your optimistic about September. I used Khan academy for years. (you are right about the Americanism’s). It spent millions and made noticeable improvements but I nevertheless abandoned it when I moved to whole class explicit teaching. It’s opportunity cost was too high. Every problem seemed fixable, and some where being fixed, but it never really worked. They had lots of time and money ans still struggled. My guess is that Oak/Bitesize will expend content over trying to restructure how it is presented or significantly reduce the error rate. I’m not sure they are wrong to do so as it isn’t really clear how to improve it dramatically. The more complexity you add the worse the load becomes. Like a cocktail of drugs attempting to balance out side effects. More likely long term users adapt to the programs idiosyncrasies.

    I teach 16-19 SEN so I am very sensitive to how instructions are given to students. Much of my time has become screening online resources (I agree with your assessment of Bitesize and Oak National) and helping students log on/find resources (often hour long conversations).

    I swear if I leave education I need a job writing instructions as it appears to be my main role now. Thing is I think the world might need this across the board as this isn’t just an educational issue. Look at government advice in the crisis or pretty much any IT product ever, hell look anywhere carefully. Without a responsive, and competent, person calibrating their responses following instructions in domains you lack knowledge/context/schema is incredibly difficult. (Ugly sentence but to tired to fix). How many times have you felt like a bumbling idiot when you know you are supposed to be one of those educated and intelligent people that are supposed to just get it?

  2. LoveLearning Online is launching online lessons from Monday 4th of May; We have actually tried to address some of the points you mentioned most notably being the parental involvement in the education of the child. Follow our blog for more details and to register.

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  7. Amanda Smith

    Thank you, Becky.
    An interesting read with some great links.
    I think your point about various resources needing review for errors…especially where children are being given false negative outcomes…is pertinent. I completely respect and understand why this is an issue for the Oak National materials. Hats off to them for producing so much in such a short space of time…and committing to continue with this until schools reopen. I do think they could do with a team of designated proof readers/quiz checkers as the current issue in false negatives…and false positives will clearly have a poor impact on reducing cognitive and parental load!

  8. Professor Allen,

    On the morning of September 6, 2020, while at my workstation near Atlanta, Georgia, I discovered your September 10, 2018, posts on the attainment gap while laterally critically reading English thought about it. And I was intrigued and read four more blog posts, culminating with this one.

    Have you ever seen someone excitedly bouncing up and down in their chair? I was there by the completion of the second paragraph.

    In October of 2008, I pitched a concept to the local School Board called Academic Parenting. And your post, the “Parental load theory,” would have provided the correct words to explain why Academic Parenting would help. At first, they laughed. Here was a non-educator parent talking about engaging 25,000 parents in a school system serving 41,000 plus students. But when they started to understand the concept, though poorly explained, they stopped being amused. Within the week, I received a request to attend a meeting about Academic Parenting. I sat in a room for about two hours fielding questions while they discussed the concept. And they played with the idea for several more weeks before abounding it.

    Even before pitching the Academic Parenting concept in 2008, I was translating standardized tests, which is why I was reading about the achievement gap in England.

    I found your work; interesting.

    Peace. Be well. And do good.

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