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Cognitive Load Theory: A School-Wide approach

Written by: Henry Sauntson
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7 min read

Students want to learn, but sometimes they don’t know how to; if it gets too hard or too intense too quickly then they give up, fade out or disengage – the same can be said of staff. There has been a lot of interest recently in cognitive load theory (CLT) and its application; Dylan William cited it as the ‘single most important thing for teachers to know’ (2017). Our working memory can only cope with a certain amount of information at any one time and can therefore be overloaded, and the cognitive load is the amount of effort required to complete the task at hand. The theory, initially elaborated by Sweller (1988), can be summarised as an approach to optimising the load on students’ working memories in order to maximise their learning. It is often represented as a simple equation of ‘task demand’ divided by ‘available resources’, with the resources being either internal (what students already know, for example) and external (what you can control, such as planning and delivery). Ton de Jong, in his critical study of 2009, summarised it thus: ‘The basic idea of cognitive load theory is that cognitive capacity in working memory is limited, so that if a learning task requires too much capacity, learning will be hampered.’ (Ton de Jong, 2009, p. 105) Essentially, if the cognitive load needed for the task exceeds the capacity of the working memory, then successful completion of the task is rendered difficult; working memory is short term and has a limited amount of space, while long-term memory is more ‘infinite’ (think hard drive vs cloud). If a student can successfully call on knowledge in their long-term memory, they can ease the load on the working memory; if not, there is working memory malfunction. As expertise grows, knowledge builds in long-term memory; this knowledge can be used to help the working memory process more complex information. Hence, the type and level of instruction has to match the learner, with novice learners requiring fewer concepts but greater direction. De Jong (2009) goes on to break it up for us into key concepts: present material that aligns with the prior knowledge of the learner (intrinsic load); avoid non-essential and confusing information (extraneous load); and stimulate processes that lead to conceptually rich and deep knowledge (germane load).

An understanding of CLT has been used effectively to create classroom-level instructional procedures for teaching staff. We can reduce the cognitive load in a number of ways when we teach: we can avoid reading out material already written on a slide; we can cut out unnecessary images and graphics; we can use interleaving strategies to strengthen retrieval; we can use worked examples that we slowly ‘fade out’, so that material is introduced in small steps; and so on.

Reflecting on the principles of CLT, however, made me think about how these in some way reflect the challenges we can face as a senior leadership team in running a school.

As leaders, we make decisions, we implement ideas, we manage change; if we consider first of all that every piece of change we make needs to be sharp, relevant and, more to the point, beneficial, we are reducing the load placed on staff – they are not bombarded with initiatives and ideas that may overload their capacity and therefore hinder their ability to perform. We also – as experienced teachers – are aware of the need to cater for different levels of learner; our staff in need of professional development are our learners. As evidence-informed practitioners, we consider those big three questions summarized from Coe et al (2014): If something does not directly contribute to the quality of teaching and learning interactions, is it needed? Do you have evidence that the activity you are undertaking impacts on pupil progress? Could there be equally effective approaches that take less time?; The principle behind these questions can be seen as a guide for how we make decisions as leaders, considering carefully the load we are placing on staff.

Just as it is proposed that cognitive load is determined by the demand of the task divided by the available resources, the load in our schools is determined by the tasks undertaken and the available resources; we have the power to control both aspects of the equation. The tasks are often determined by identified need – at least, they should be. If they are not, then they have no immediate value; the old ‘something must be done, and this is something, so we must do it’ mantra needs to be banished. We must consider what it is we are asking for and why. The available resources are, of course, time and policy – one is always at a premium and the other should be kept to a minimum! A successful teaching and learning policy does not need to be a detailed and prescriptive framework or checklist; it can help to create and support a culture of collective and collaborative development, shared resourcing, practical application of proven theory, and purposeful and formative marking without stringent requirements – all things that we know work when propagated successfully in the most apposite environment. We need to be aware of the prior knowledge and existing skill sets of our staff at all levels and to support their development with appropriate professional learning opportunities.

We know from Papay and Kraft (2017) that ‘working conditions in… schools [are] much stronger predictors of teachers’ career plans than… the demographic characteristics of students in these schools’ (p. 19) and that teachers tie ‘their career decisions to the professional environment in the school’ (p. 21). As leaders and decision-makers, we can control these working conditions and this professional environment. We can reduce redundant information and avoid ‘non-essential and confusing information’ by thinking before sending emails, thinking before ascribing needless demands or stringent policies, and thinking before setting short deadlines or unrealistic completion rates. We can promote streamlined working environments by minimising any requirements for elaborate display boards or PowerPoint templates; we can promote and articulate a clear and coherent vision aligned clearly to school improvement plans, and thereby reduce the redundancy effect; we can use worked examples for processes such as Performance Reviews and line management; we can support newly promoted staff using worked examples and progressive modelling – backwards-fade the support so that novices learn better from worked examples, as staff new in roles are novices in that area. When it comes to change, we can consider the genuine need and purpose and begin plans and strategies with the end in mind – a ‘pre-mortem’. Staff need to see the ‘end goal’ to help prepare for their approach and their involvement in it, as well as promoting themselves as knowledgeable dissenters and giving them agency and autonomy.

Ofsted stated in February 2019 that their new framework acknowledged CLT but did not use it as their sole guidance. They went on to state that ‘CLT is not about minimising cognitive load. It is about not exceeding the cognitive load that people can deal with. Deep learning requires cognitive load (learning is hard!), but it must be relevant to the task and help rather than hinder learning.’ This simple statement can be our guide for running professional learning in schools, too. We can show an awareness of CLT and overload issues by treating CPD like a lesson and tailoring it to teacher learning, using retrieval practice to identify what teachers already know and then introducing new ideas in small stages – not wholesale! We can use concrete examples throughout to show how theory or concepts apply themselves in classroom or pastoral practice, and summarise new ideas in simple terms to cut out that extraneous or inessential information. In their work around CLT, the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) suggest that ‘If working memory is overloaded, there is a greater risk that the content being taught will not be understood by the learner, will be misinterpreted or confused, will not be effectively encoded in long-term memory, and that learning will be slowed down’ (CESE, 2018, p. 3). Again, the focus is students but the message is transferable; we want teachers to learn to get better at teaching so that students get better at learning in their classrooms and school environment. A better appreciation of CLT can help to reduce workload for staff and make outcomes better for students, which is essentially why we do what we do.

References

Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2018) Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand. Available at: cese.nsw.gov.au//images/stories/PDF/cognitive-load-theory-VR_AA3.pdf (accessed 5 December 2019).

Coe R, Aloisi C, Higgins S et al. What Makes Great Teaching – Review of the Underpinning Research. London: Sutton Trust.

De Jong T (2009) Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: Some food for thought. Instructional Science 38: 105–134.

Ofsted (2019) Developing the education inspection framework: How we used cognitive load theory. In: Ofsted blog: Schools, early years, further education and skills. Available at: educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2019/02/13/developing-the-education-inspection-framework-how-we-used-cognitive-load-theory (accessed 5 December 2019).

Papay JP and Kraft MK (2017) Developing workplaces where teachers stay, improve, and succeed. In: Quintero E (ed) Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Sweller J (1988) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. ​Cognitive Science​ (12): 257–285.

William D (2017) Tweet, 26 January 2017. Available at: twitter.com/dylanwiliam/status/824682504602943489 (accessed 5 December 2019).

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