Getting To Grips With Cognitive Load Theory

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Overwhelmed And Stressed

Phil Naylor

Phil is a Deputy Headteacher , a Science SLE and a Local Authority Primary School Governor. Phil is the host of the podcast Naylor's Natter.
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Are we getting in a muddle with cognitive load theory?

A welcome development in teaching in recent years has been the adoption of research and evidence based practices. A notable favourite here has been cognitive load theory described by Dylan William as “the single most important thing for teachers to know” and I am inclined to agree with him.

1. Dig into the research …

The problem is that the theory appears to have been potentially misapplied by professionals including myself suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is the illusory superiority of those with a little bit of knowledge – beware of the experts!

As busy teachers, we do not have time to wade through pages of research papers to extract nuggets of information. We are naturally keen to take away usable strategies that can be deployed the following Monday with our students. We are therefore reliant on others to distil the information for us. This can lead to popular and populist misconceptions. So, what have been the issues?

2. Classroom Displays

Remove displays from classrooms as they add to extraneous cognitive load. Would you ever advise your colleagues this? In clever classrooms, less is more. Critics of displays cite the redundancy effect as Craig Barton does in his excellent blog saying, “Classroom displays actually hamper learning – so much so that they should be banned.”

I would argue that this is a potential misapplication. Classroom displays can brighten up the environment and celebrate a pupil’s success. I doubt any pupil is distracted by the external displays after a few weeks of school. The problem with the argument for removing classroom displays citing extraneous cognitive load or redundancy effect is that we would also need to remove windows, glass and any noise from the school to ensure the sole focus is the teacher’s instructions or the task.

Removing classroom displays is not necessary. I agree that displays should be considered carefully and kept to a minimum to prevent overt distractions (such as preventing sight lines) but this is an easy misinterpretation.

3. PowerPoint

There have been calls to ban PowerPoint in the name of cognitive load theory, especially for CPD. If not an outright ban at least don’t talk and use PowerPoint at the same time.  The redundancy effect forms a large part of Ross McGill’s teacher training; writing about CLT four years ago as a strategy that learners use in order to learn more successfully, but if we provide additional and unnecessary information for students, learning is lost.

The PowerPoint isn’t creating the extraneous cognitive load by itself. As Sweller et al detail “many conventional instructional procedures impose extraneous cognitive load because most instructional procedures were developed without any knowledge of cognitive architecture”.

Arguably, PowerPoint is still an effective way to give instruction, particularly to large classes and arguably better than simply reading out complex instructions. Used effectively PowerPoint can reduce cognitive load and enhance dual coding. Paivio (1986) states “Human cognition is unique in that it has become specialized for dealing simultaneously with language and with nonverbal objects and events.”

Clear instruction …

So diagrams, flow charts, pictures and instructions can all be effectively built into PowerPoint. When accompanied by a clear explanation they can actually reduce extraneous cognitive load. We do need to be mindful of split attention and redundancy effect and our over-reliance on presentations.

The message here is be careful about easy misinterpretations. Dig deeper into the blogs and articles written on cognitive load and fish out the sources. After all, if it is the single most important thing for teachers to know, you’d want to read it right?

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