2. Considering how to introduce new knowledge to pupils

This session will take approximately 60 minutes to complete.

Session overview

For knowledge to be processed into the long-term memory, it is important not to overload the working memory when introducing new learning to pupils. In this session you will explore two methods of introducing new knowledge:

  • Breaking complex material into smaller steps
  • Combining verbal and graphical representation

Considering how to introduce new knowledge to pupils

Once you have considered what pupils need to know in order to access the topic, you can start to consider how to introduce new information to your pupils. The most effective way to introduce new ideas is to break complex material into smaller steps and teach these steps one-by-one. This can be considered at a topic level, whereby the teacher breaks down the different knowledge and skills required, teaches them discretely across the topic or unit, then brings them together once pupils are proficient at each. This will be explored as part of Module 6 – How To Design A Coherent Curriculum.

For the purpose of this module, we are going to consider it from the perspective of a single explanation. This refers to breaking down complex ideas or tasks into smaller steps. This supports the amount of information being handled by the working memory as it reduces the number of ‘slots’ you are filling with new information to process. It also supports you as the teacher to assess pupils’ understanding after each step. If pupils have not understood, you can reteach or modify the explanation as required.

Breaking down complex ideas into smaller steps is a difficult task, even for experienced teachers, and it takes time to consider what the steps are. It requires both subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge; you need to consider what the logical steps are for the subject matter and the amount of information that your pupils will be able to handle (based on their age and experience in the topic).

An example of how a complex idea could be broken into smaller steps can be seen below. This maths example is taken from Doug Lemov’s book ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0’ (2015). When teaching pupils to round numbers to a given place value, the following steps can be used:

Introducing new knowledge to pupils


Think carefully about the example above and make notes on the following questions:

  1. Why does breaking the explanation down into these five steps avoid overloading the working memory?
  2. What prior knowledge is the teacher assuming the pupils have?
  3. Would the explanation be different if the pupils were already proficient at a number of the steps?
  4. What else would breaking the explanation down into these steps support the teacher to do?

Watch the video below of a teacher breaking down an idea into smaller steps. As you watch, consider what prior knowledge the teacher is assuming that the pupils already have. Do you agree with the steps they have chosen? How has the teacher avoided overloading the working memory?

Introducing new knowledge to pupils – Reach Academy
If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Introducing new knowledge to pupils – Reach Academy [AD]

Mentor interaction

In you next mentor interaction, your explanations will be observed. You will then be asked to practise breaking a concept or idea down into smaller steps with your mentor for the lesson you taught, or an upcoming concept.

When creating your steps in preparation for this observation, it is helpful to consider:

  1. What knowledge am I assuming the pupils have?
  2. Why have I chosen the steps that I have? Would it be beneficial to break them down further?
  3. Even after breaking down the concept, am I introducing too much in one go and risking overloading my pupils? If so, what can I do?

Combing verbal and graphical representations

Another way to support learning is by combining verbal explanations and graphical representations. You may hear this referred to in educational research as the principle of Dual Coding.

Why is this a useful strategy when introducing new knowledge to pupils?

Combining a verbal explanation with a relevant diagram or visual representation reduces the load on the working memory as it makes use of both the visual and auditory paths in the brain. It is particularly useful when the concept is hierarchical, such as an organisational structure, or has organisations and connections that are not linear (Caviglioli, 2019).

Diagram shows the relationship between working and long-term memory, with information being recalled from long-term to working memory when needed and processed into long-term for storage. Environmental factors also input into working memory.
Willingham (2009)

This course took advantage of this principle when you were introduced to the Willingham model of the mind. As the concept is not linear and relies on the relationship between the different elements of the mind, if this model was explained using only text, the concept would have been harder to explain and understand.

Listen to teacher Jon Hutchinson talk about how he has learnt to effectively combine verbal explanations and graphical representation in order to support teaching and learning.

Combining verbal and graphical representation – John Hutchinson

Video transcript

So we know that information is processed by pupils through a few different sensory inputs. The two main ones being the auditory and the visual inputs and those different sensors have different advantages and disadvantages, so through auditory input we have a linear explanation. It can be very rich but it also means that we’re limited by that linear nature whereas if we present something visually we’re able to present that information in a non-linear way so we can show organizations and connections that we might not be able to do so easily in an auditory way. And so we want to capitalise on the way that dual coding can help us embed the information that we want pupils to learn in a more robust and sophisticated way. And so we capitalized on a few different ways, one of which is we hugely cut down on the extraneous load that we expect, that we put on pupils, so I know that I used to put lots and lots of text on the board when I was teaching a topic, especially one I wasn’t confident on, mainly because I wanted to read it off the board but we know that’s likely to really overload the pupils and they can’t process both their own internal auditory voice from reading the text and listening to me and so that will result in cognitive overload, so we now use just key images when we’re using slideshows and presentations and the explanation will come from the teacher. That might mean that what was on the board gets printed off so that the teacher can read it out over the image. So that when people see that sort of image, or imagine that sort of concrete example, they bring back to mind the rich explanation the teacher gave as well.

And the second way is presenting the information in a synchronous way so that’s especially helpful for things like hierarchies, for things like cause relations often come up in things like history, how the First World War was caused, that the acronym that we often use there is main militaries of militarism alliances, imperialism and nationalism, and how do those different sorts of causal relationships connect with the start of the First World War best present that through some sort of an image or a flow diagram so that pupils can appreciate that relationship. Within geography we’ll have lots of processes, the water cycle for example, again best presented, that relationship, through a visual, through some sort of visual stimulus in which the arrows can point out the particular nature of the relationship and so we’ll think about the best way to present that information and try and utilise both the visual and the auditory senses as they go through.

In the video, Jon shared some examples of how his school has combined verbal explanations and relevant graphics to support pupils’ understanding of new knowledge. The Early Career Framework highlights that the graphics must be ‘relevant’, and that simply combining any image with your explanation will not be effective. The graphic must serve a function and help support pupils to process information quickly.

See some phase specific examples in action:

This Early Years teacher is using graphics to support her explanation of how to do ‘good sitting’ on the carpet.

Combining verbal and graphical representation – Early Years
If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Combining verbal and graphical representation – Early Years [AD]

This KS2 teacher uses a timeline to help place the Vikings in their historical context.

Combining verbal and graphical representation – Primary
If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Combining verbal and graphical representation – Primary [AD]

See how the teacher helps organise pupil thinking and makes connections using a diagram in this KS3 science lesson.

Combining verbal and graphical representation – Secondary
If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Combining verbal and graphical representation – Secondary [AD]


Consider an upcoming explanation, or an explanation that you have recently done with a class.

  • Decide where you could effectively combine a clear verbal explanation and relevant graphical representation to support pupils’ understanding
  • How will it support your explanation and reduce the load on the working memory?

Your mentor will be observing how you combine verbal explanations and graphical representations in your teaching practice. Bring your reflections and examples to your mentor interaction for review and discussion after your observation.

You may also be asked to discuss your example at your next training session.

Related ECF strands

How pupils learn

2b. Breaking complex material into smaller steps (e.g. using partially completed examples to focus pupils on the specific steps).

Classroom practice

4g. Combining a verbal explanation with a relevant graphical representation of the same concept or process, where appropriate.