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Lightening the load: Integrating cognitive load, schema theory and progression mapping in the primary classroom

8 min read
ALEX REYNOLDS, DIRECTOR OF PRIMARY LEARNING & CURRICULUM, NORTHERN EDUCATION TRUST, UK
HANAH HERON, DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION, CLIC TRUST, UK
KIRSTIN MULHOLLAND, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR IN EDUCATION, NORTHUMBRIA UNIVERSITY, UK
LOUISE JACKSON, INDEPENDENT EDUCATION CONSULTANT, WYE EARLY YEARS, UK
NICOLA CHERRY, EARLY YEARS DELIVERY MANAGER AND INDEPENDENT EARLY YEARS CONSULTANT, UK 

Effective teaching is complex and nuanced. It requires a deep understanding of the principles that underpin it. Teachers face the challenge of teaching complex concepts in a way that is accessible to all learners. In this article, we explore this challenge through the lens of cognitive load theory, schema theory and progression mapping, as we unpick a primary curriculum example.

Take this exposition from a Year 6 geography lesson. A teacher is explaining how to use maps:

Okay, we’re going to be using maps today to plan a route. Here’s my example, you can see how I’ve colour-coded it and I can see all the different places I can go to. We need to use the right kind of map called an Ordnance Survey map. Look for the symbols that show hills and rivers and also human features. And make sure you use a compass like I have, so you know which way is north. In real life, that’s important so you don’t get lost! Then, you can draw your route really neatly and using different colours. Don’t forget to use a scale and grid references so you know precise locations and distances. Mark any landmarks you see, like I’ve done.

We know what we want the children to learn. We’ve designed a model. We’ve thought about the content that we want students to practise. Yet, even with a solid understanding of the intended learning, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of creating confusing explanations that overload learners with too much information.

Streamlining content

Working memory is the space where we process information, holding it in mind while we mentally manipulate it. Its capacity is limited and can be influenced by multiple factors, including distraction, demanding tasks or attempting to process too much information (CESE, 2018; Evidence Based Education, 2022). It is important to note that other external factors, such as socioeconomic disadvantage, are also associated with the reduced capacity of working memory, including those measures relating to storage and the processing of information (Mooney et al., 2021). 

In our Year 6 lesson, our teacher’s exposition risks imposing a high cognitive load on the students. The teacher introduces multiple concepts, some of which may be novel: Ordnance Survey maps, symbols, a compass, scales, grid references, landmarks and routes. For students who are unfamiliar with these concepts, the information overload can be overwhelming, leading to confusion, frustration and cognitive fatigue.

Our teacher’s first task is to deploy approaches to effectively manage cognitive load. To reduce the mental effort required to process information, we can:

  • Avoid unnecessary information that is not essential to the learning (Paas and Sweller, 2012): Is the colour-coding and use of different colours distracting? Is it necessary to say that there are places on the map? Is the detail about getting lost in real life vital to understanding? 
  • Provide clear and concise explanations that break down complex concepts into smaller, manageable parts (Mayer, 2008): There are too many concepts here. What do the students need to know first? How could we break that down? Do they need grid references at this point in the lesson? 
  • Use visual aids to supplement verbal explanations and enhance students’ understanding (Mayer and Moreno, 2003): The teacher might include compass points and a key of the symbols on their map as they verbally describe their route.

 

In lesson planning, streamlining information is the first step towards reducing cognitive overload and enhancing students’ learning.

Activating prior knowledge

In contrast to working memory, the capacity of long-term memory is potentially limitless. For teachers, this means adopting pedagogic approaches that help to promote retrieval, retention and transfer of learning. In doing so, we can build secure, durable mental models that can lighten the load on working memory.

One way in which to achieve this is through developing cognitive schemas. Schemas are the mental structures within which knowledge is organised (EEF, 2021). Through habitually including opportunities to activate prior knowledge, we can encourage students to make connections between new and existing learning. This helps to reduce cognitive load by ensuring that new learning is connected and integrated with pre-existing knowledge, skills and concepts (CESE, 2018; EEF, 2021; Evidence Based Education, 2022). More than this, by activating what our students already know about a concept or learning context, we learn about the shape and state of their existing mental models, and find ways in which we might develop their conceptual understanding further by ‘fitting’ the new learning into these structures.

We need to examine the assumptions that our Year 6 teacher might have made – that students have sufficient prior knowledge and experience to recall, understand and apply the knowledge that we are using in this context. Do they know what grid references are? Can they remember some Ordnance Survey symbols? What are physical and human features? There is an assumption that all the students have had the same previous experience and that they already know how to activate this prior knowledge to help with this new task.

By teasing out students’ prior knowledge, our teacher can focus on how well developed students’ mental models are and adapt their teaching accordingly. Teachers could make productive use of the following pedagogies:

  • Build in opportunities for retrieval practice (Agarwal et al., 2019; Roediger and Butler, 2011): The teacher might start their lesson with a quick, low-stakes activity, matching the Ordnance Survey symbols with the features that they represent. Such tasks activate prior knowledge and, used regularly over time, can improve retention and transfer of learning.
  • Intentionally interleave concepts within and across lessons (Rohrer and Taylor, 2007; Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2018): The teacher might alternate between different concepts or skills during and across a sequence of lessons to improve retention and promote the development of flexible cognitive schemas. For example, practise finding grid references repeatedly at key points in this and subsequent lessons.
  • Make knowledge ‘sticky’ (Brown et al., 2014; Dunlosky et al., 2013): The teacher can use strategies such as examples and analogies to promote the development of ‘sticky knowledge’ – that is, knowledge that is more easily retrievable and transferable to new contexts. For example, here they could compare using a map to plan a route to navigating a video game or finding your way through a maze.

 

The point of such pedagogies is twofold. First, these tools help to consolidate our students’ knowledge in long-term memory. We make our classroom exposition as clear and memorable as possible for students, and then employ strategies to make this knowledge secure and durable in our students’ schemas. Second, as we consolidate our students’ schemas, we might then deliberately draw upon this knowledge in future lessons, as we elaborate and connect new learning to existing mental models. Here, drawing on information that is ‘sticky’ in students’ long-term memories further consolidates prior knowledge, supports cognitive load and allows for more interconnected conceptual understanding. 

Building schemas strategically

To maximise schema development, school leaders must carefully design their curricula to reflect schema theory, by intentionally sequencing the introduction (and revision) of information and ideas. It is equally important that the teachers responsible for delivering these learning opportunities in the classroom understand the rationale and principles behind this sequence, so that they can effectively communicate it to their students. 

The importance of intentional sequencing can be seen in our geography lesson. In addition to the substantive knowledge included in our curriculum, geography is about our own sense of place in our diverse, interconnected world. To build this conceptual understanding over time, it is crucial to ensure that a progression pathway is in place and has been followed, allowing for a continuum of learning and knowledge from early childhood, through primary and secondary education (OECD, 2020).

Leaders can take a systematic approach to curriculum sequencing to allow for consolidation, elaboration and interconnection of learning experiences across all age phases. For our Year 6 students, we can’t teach all the concepts required for our map skills lesson in a single activity. Careful progression mapping offers an efficient way in which to gradually and strategically build upon concepts logically and coherently over time, avoiding overwhelming students with too much information at once (see Table 1).

Table 1: Progression pathway for map skills in geography
Phase Knowledge
Early Years Students develop knowledge of the landscape and features of their local area
Key Stage 1 Students use directional vocabulary and compass directions to describe landmarks on a simple map
Lower Key Stage 2 Students draw sketch maps, including physical and human features, using Ordnance Survey symbols to label and locate these features
Upper Key Stage 2 Students use six-figure grid references to locate features on a map

When armed with this progression pathway, our teacher can improve their exposition to account for students’ prior knowledge and skills, giving more careful thought to previously learned concepts and novel information. Across curriculum areas, our lessons and learning sequences can be more intentional, systematic and streamlined, to account for the risks of ‘forgotten’ content and cognitive overload.

This process is also of particular importance to the building of disciplinary knowledge across the wider primary curriculum. In subjects such as geography, the ‘big ideas’ that sit at the heart of this subject’s unique structure (we might think here of the key concepts of location, human geography or economic activity) are revisited in different contexts as students progress through the school. It is therefore essential that effective sequencing is used to unify and embellish knowledge within interdisciplinary contexts (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Concluding thoughts

In the world of education, the language of cognition has captured the attention of many teachers and rightly so: this field offers a wealth of recommendations that can help us to better plan our lessons and improve student learning. However, effective teaching needs more than just a laundry list of tips and tricks. It requires a deep understanding of the underlying principles that make these strategies work.

Fortunately, cognitive load theory, schema theory and progression mapping provide a robust framework that can help us to streamline content, activate prior knowledge and manage cognitive load in the classroom. By cutting out unnecessary information, activating prior knowledge through retrieval practice and interleaving concepts, teachers can help students to learn more effectively. Furthermore, progression mapping helps us to sequence content, focusing on core concepts, knowledge and skills for effective schema development.

As we deploy these principles, teachers can continue to develop the complex and nuanced act of teaching. We can use these approaches to lighten the load on students’ working memory and achieve our fundamental aim: enhancing long-lasting learning.

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