Language Arts with Lyn Stone (St Monica's Wodonga)

Cognitive Load Theory

“One key reason that I and many others have found Cognitive Load Theory so helpful is that, unlike much other research in the field of education, Cognitive Load Theory has had a singular focus for the duration of its development. That singular focus has been on improving instruction:

‘…the ultimate aim of cognitive load theory is to provide instructional effects leading to instructional recommendations’”

Ollie Lovell (2020), from a sneak preview of his forthcoming book: Cognitive Load Theory in Action

Definition: Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is a set of principles and effects which explain ways to increase learning by reducing pressure on working memory and optimizing information stored in long term memory.

Working memory: the seat of conscious thought, only capable of holding 4-8 bits of information at any given time.

Long-term memory: the limitless storage facility of the human brain.

CLT was first coined by Emeritus professor John Sweller of the University of New South Wales. It is one of the most highly cited educational psychology theories of all time. Cognitive Load Theory helps educators become better at delivering high quality lessons across all subjects.

At the basis of it is the idea that explicit instruction and worked examples help reduce the amount of pressure on working memory, so that students can understand and remember content better.

Dylan William describes CLT as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’.

Let’s look at how explicit instruction and worked examples operate.

‘…the ultimate aim of cognitive load theory is to provide instructional effects leading to instructional recommendations’”

Ollie Lovell (2020), from a sneak preview of his forthcoming book: Cognitive Load Theory in Action

Explicit instruction:

 Let’s say I want to get this principle across:

A complex sentence contains an independent clause and a subordinate clause or clauses.

First of all, I would tell the students that this is what I want them to learn. I would not ask students what they know where don’t know about clauses. I want to develop their knowledge, not discover it . This is one of the core principles of Explicit Direct Instruction: Teach first, ask questions later. [1]

Worked examples:

Secondly, I would show them a worked example (I do):

Then we would do some together (we do):

My dog drinks water before he eats his crunchy biscuits.

Subject: my dog

Verb: drinks

Subordinating conjunction: before

Dependent clause: he eats his crunchy biscuits.

After checking for understanding, I set some for independent practice (you do). This could consist of a range of fading techniques

The kittens ran to the door when they heard footsteps.

Subject: the kittens

Verb: _____________

Subordinating conjunction: when

Dependent clause: _____________________

The principles of explicit instruction and worked examples can have positive effects on learning of almost any subject at any level. It is the opposite of discovery learning, which is all well and good if the things being discovered are biologically primary. And herein lies another important principle in CLT:

There is a distinction, proposed by psychologist David Geary, between two types of skill: biologically primary and biologically secondary.

In this model, there are some things that humans are instinctively predisposed to acquire. Those things include, walking, talking, facial recognition, adapting to our environment and getting along with others. This is called biologically primary knowledge.

There are other skills that have to be learned from scratch in order to function in a modern society, such as reading, writing, cooking and driving. This is called biologically secondary knowledge.

Biologically secondary knowledge is best learned by the largest population through explicit instruction.

As children mature, their ability to maintain attention, work with a higher cognitive load and inhibit distractions increases. Children also have increasing background knowledge and schema (mental models), to help them master new concepts.

Teaching writing to novices is a very different task from teaching writing to children whose phonemic awareness and phonics and sight word vocabulary are at the automatic stage.

This is why findings from research consistently show that systematic approaches to teaching reading, IE those with a scope and sequence, outperform non systematic approaches. The cognitive load inherent in a non systematic approach risks leaving many children behind.

As Ollie said, Cognitive Load Theory is a deep subject. He wrote a whole book about it! I agree with him and others though: out of all the wonderful and fascinating avenues you can explore as an educator, CLT is the one that will broaden and deepen your knowledge of how we learn and continue to improve your practice over time.

[1] Since this module is concerned with how we learn, and not necessarily how we teach, I will recommend looking into Explicit Direct Instruction independently of this course. Dataworks is the go-to company.

Ollie Lovell introducing Cognitive Load Theory

Worked examples

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Lyn Stone

Think of a principle you’d like your students to learn. Share how you would explain it, showing a worked example.