Cognitive load theory may be the single most important thing for teachers to know. At least, that’s the opinion of Teacher, Researcher, and Writer Dylan Wiliam.
For teachers, knowing what cognitive load theory addresses and how it impacts your pupils makes a considerable difference to their future success and reaching critical learning outcomes.
But what does cognitive load theory mean in practice?
Have you ever delivered a lesson on a new topic and think you’ve done a great job? You got through all the points you wanted to and covered the subject thoroughly only to be bombarded with questions you thought you’d covered already?
The reason for this isn’t because you missed anything out. It’s likely to do with how your pupils’ working memory processes information and their capacity (cognitive load) for retaining new information.
This article discusses cognitive load theory, how it impacts your classroom and provides solutions for reducing cognitive load without hindering your learning outcomes.
What is Cognitive Load Theory?
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is essentially how a brain learns and how memory works. Cognitive load is the information present in the working memory at one time. More specifically, it is the amount of information a human mind can hold in the working memory at one time before it is transferred to the long-term memory.
Knowing human memory capabilities helps practitioners understand how the children they are teaching learn most efficiently. Ideally, teachers want everything they teach to move to the long term memory and become automated (easy to recall) and be there to build on when we introduce something new. For that to happen, it means teaching using this method.
Before thinking about how we can use CLT to become more efficient teachers, it is a good idea to understand the areas of human memory. There are three parts to human memory- sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory;
The sensory memory is where information arrives first. Every day, a person’s sensory memory will receive communication from the surrounding environment, such as auditory- things they hear and visual- things they see. Certain information won’t register, such as the click of a door closing or a car passing by a window.
Information that is deemed necessary will pass to the working memory.
According to the cognitive psychologist George Miller, a person’s working memory can store somewhere between 3 and 7 chunks of information at one time. He called this ‘The Magic Number 7, Plus or Minus 2’. When teaching with Chatta we suggest between 3 and 6 pieces of information can successfully be stored at one time.
The critical thing to remember is that the working memory is a short term solution and has a limited capacity.
It is important to note that information entering the working memory can be viewed as either high interactivity or low interactivity.
For children in the early years, low activity information would be the ‘hometime routine’; pick up your coat, book, and bag, and then sit on the carpet.
Information that is high activity, for example, would be learning to subtract. The children need to access their prior understanding of the value of a number whilst listening to the teacher explain and understand what a number line is, then follow the method of counting backwards.
Information that is low activity is more likely to be memorable.
Once processed successfully, information from the working memory will pass to the long term memory.
With the capacity for infinite knowledge, long-term memory stores information securely as ‘schemas’. Schemas are organised hoards of information.
Let’s take animals as an example. Babies will begin to recognise animals as a whole category. As the child learns more, they will understand groups within animals, such as farm animals and safari animals. Within each subgroup, this information can then divide into carnivores and herbivores or mammals, and reptiles.
The more knowledge secure within the long-term memory, the better, as this helps a learner to feel more competent with new tasks.
The diagram below demonstrates the information processing system. You can see the beginning where incoming information enters the sensory memory and the process of transferring to the working memory. If the information is rehearsed and practised, it will continue to the long-term memory, but if not, it will quickly be forgotten.
For teachers, the dream scenario is that you teach a new concept, let’s say counting in twos, and the children are nodding in agreement as you talk and understand the relationships and patterns you had hoped, but in reality, it doesn’t work that way. Teachers are often naturally enthusiastic people who want the children in the class to understand, but throwing too much information at them in one go is likely to confuse them.
If too much information is introduced at once, such as new vocabulary and methods with lots of teacher talk, it’s unlikely to stick. Confusion and sometimes panic can then step in, which will reduce cognitive load further.
What cognitive load can look like in the classroom
When thinking about cognitive load in your classroom, it is worth considering three subsections introduced in the early 1990s by Chandler and Sweller: intrinsic cognitive load, extraneous cognitive load, and germane cognitive load.
Intrinsic cognitive load thinks about the self, how difficult the task is to an individual, and how much prior learning is stored in their long-term memory. What is difficult for one child may not be for another.
Extrinsic cognitive load focuses on the learning environment. How new learning is presented is critical here. Suppose a teacher demonstrates new concepts with excessive talk, images, diagrams and writing. In that case, the learner will simultaneously try to listen to the teacher, read the words and identify the link to the chart whilst learning the new concept. Hard work!
Germane cognitive load is the knowledge transferring from the working memory to the long term. If a teacher approaches a lesson effectively and considers intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load, more information will become automated.
The key thing to remember is that if children’s cognitive load has exceeded its capacity, the children won’t be able to recall what you have taught, which is disheartening to all.
Teaching methods to avoid cognitive overload
Cognitive overload is a barrier to learning and will subsequently stop a child from achieving their potential. In the EYFS, this is even more fundamental because if children cannot retain the building blocks for future learning, they may struggle throughout their schooling.
Avoiding cognitive overload
The Chatta method is designed to reduce cognitive overload in the classroom.
At Chatta, we strive to make education accessible for all, and these simple approaches help to avoid cognitive overload;
Learning must be broken down into manageable steps. This means children process just a few ‘chunks’ and then build on this in the next lesson. The Chatta method breaks down the lesson into sections, so that language is modelled, and then the learning is passed through to the long term memory through the use of focused conversation and Chatta boards.
Recapping and reviewing
Reviewing, revisiting and reactivating prior learning is a powerful tool to build fluency. The method of frequent reviews allows children to build on what they know, especially when new concepts are introduced. Here, Chatta boards help the class revisit the lesson’s activities, which again helps the information pass into the long-term memory with greater ease.
A teacher who provides simple but very clear models of the skills and content they are teaching will see better outcomes. Using the power of talk to show simple thought processes and things that could go wrong will support their speech. Scaffolding for more complex tasks will also help children enormously.
Common feedback from our training is just how easy the Chatta method makes it to model language and give the lesson a focus that revisits key words and phrases throughout the session.
As a teacher, being a careful questioner is key to progression. Practitioners can use questioning in many clever ways. They can clarify a child’s understanding or understanding of the child’s learning process, rather than just seeking an answer. Questioning also acts as a tool to quell misconceptions before they become part of a schema.
Questioning is also an excellent tool to identify a successful lesson- if too many children are confused, it may be time to backtrack or break learning down into more manageable chunks.
Independent practice is essential to give learners time to process and practice tasks using the new concept and make sure children are not making too many mistakes. Learners need this time to rehearse. Rehearsal enables knowledge to become automated and a part of long term memory.
The Chatta method makes rehearsal easy. Chatta boards can even be passed onto parents at the end of the day – to enable great conversations at home about the day’s activities and further commit the learning to the child’s long term memory.
Although cognitive load theory is a tried and tested model of effective practice, it is often overlooked or forgotten because, at times, there is so much content to fit into a lesson. However, breaking down and presenting it in clear chunks and with clear instructions makes a difference.
At Chatta, these methods are used and implemented in schools with positive results for all teachers and learners, and their progress is evident.
To learn more about the Chatta approach and see the difference for yourself, book a free meeting with one of our team.