Reducing Cognitive Load

Recently I’ve become quite interested in the significance of cognitive load for learners and teachers.


So what is cognitive load?

In simple terms, ‘cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.’ (Wikipedia) All new learning requires use of our working memory, but unlike our long term memory, it can only hold up to 4-5 pieces of new information at one time. This is essential knowledge for educators and parents to be aware of as it has significant implications on the way we design, engineer and deliver new learning opportunities.


What’s the big deal?

Designing new learning opportunities necessitates an appreciation of cognitive load as getting the balance right can determine both the success rate and how much the learner will actually absorb. Too much new information could result in overload, eventually distorting the content and leading to lack of overall understanding. Imagine spending considerable time creating resources, slides and detailed questions only for your learners to be completely baffled and overwhelmed by the sheer overload of information. Useless right? Striking the right balance becomes a task that Goldilocks would relish; not too hard, not too easy, but just right.

To be an effective educator, I’m continually trying to find ways to make my material stick. I want my students to remember what I have taught them and be able to draw upon this knowledge or skills when called for. Part of this goal towards stickablity led me to cognitive load. I asked myself the question, ‘How can I ensure that my material is fully absorbed by learners?’. The universe conspired to help me arrive at an answer and led me to the idea of a reduction in cognitive load. Knowing when to reduce the cognitive load is important if leaners are to make adequate progress and grasp ideas of increasing complexity. Below are five ways to reduce cognitive load in the classroom.


5 ways to reduce cognitive load in the classroom


1. Ensure students have enough surface knowledge before moving onto any deep learning. For example, there’s little point teaching students Aristotelian conventions of Greek tragedy before they have a good understanding of the order in which events occur. Remember, first things first!


2. Get the level of challenge right! In well intentioned efforts to challenge our students, much of our content often results in cognitive overload for students! This is damaging and the effects can undo days, if not weeks of hard graft in building the self-esteem and confidence of learners. Remember the Goldilocks principle; not too hard, not too easy, just right.


3. Practice mindfulness in your classroom. No, this is not a gimmick. Please believe me. Before important writing tasks, I ask students to close their eyes or lay their heads on the desk. In a calming voice, I ask them to visualise writing successfully. After the visualisation exercise, students write down success criteria for the task. The atmosphere literally changes. You can feel a powerful sense of purpose and intent. Their mind is completely focused on the task. Such practice can be used for most subjects.

4. Teach literary interpretations as fact. I first came across this idea via the inspirational Andy Tharby and his insightful blog. If students already have something to hang on to, the teacher is in a position to introduce more challenging processes such as the wider significance of the interpretations or getting them to demonstrate the new knowledge by practising a particular skill such as analytical or discursive writing. For most of us it’s hard to learn practical skills and knowledge at the same time. Imagine trying to learn how to drive a car whilst the instructor simultaneously tries to teach you the Highway Code. A car crash is likely to ensue pretty soon.


5. This final technique is usable for teachers across different subjects. Be sensitive to how your learners feel. Cognition is not just happening as a result of direct response to the stimuli in your classroom. Students could be thinking of any number of things: what they will have for dinner, last night’s game or the traumatic fight their parents had that morning. As teachers, we must try to be empathic and intuitive to our students’ moods. Although we can’t know exactly what is going on in their lives, we know that a scowl often means unhappiness and a head hung low a sign of dejection. Read body language. Sometimes, just a smile or a kind word can ease the mental load for some students. I know for me that if I’ve had an argument with my wife or snapped at my kids in the morning, I can barely focus on the mindless task of driving let alone become a master of metaphor.

Novice to Expert

Have you ever wondered how some people make things look so easy?


Recently, I was teaching a group of Year 10 students and whilst modelling the process of annotating an extract from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, one of the students remarked ‘Sir, you make it look so easy.’ I’ll assume that part of what he was saying was ‘Whenever I try this, it’s really hard and I struggle to get good ideas down in a relatively short space of time.’


Indeed, I’m sure it did look easy to him, but, what he couldn’t see was the long process/journey filled with countless failures, some triumphs and inevitable setbacks. What he was seeing was, one can argue, the finished article; the polished perfection (I’d like to think anyway!). This lead to me thinking about the journey from novice to expert and the role of the educator in this journey.


Inarguably, our job as educators is to move students from one phase to another: from novice to expert (obviously not forgetting all the messy bits in between!). Our aim is to get them to a point where they can make things look easy.


Learning is not always fun


Learning is not always fun; in fact, it’s downright hard at times. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers suggests that to reach the level of expert it takes 10,000 hours. This is not 10,000 hours or leisurely, laid-back practice. This is what we might call deliberate practice; conscientious, thoughtful application.


I’ve come up with 5 ways to help you in supporting students to engage in deliberate practice so as to begin to move from novice to expert:


1-be a process rather than outcomes based educator. By focusing on the process, learners become more engaged and cognisant of the incremental steps required in order to become an expert. They are more likely to see the bigger picture of learning.


2-Value failure. By creating a culture where failure is valued, students are more likely to take greater risks. This is critical because becoming an expert will require one to push the boundaries of possibility and mostly work just outside of that comfort zone.


3-consistently repeat core practices so they become innate and instinctual. What makes Messi such a ruthless player in front of goal? What made Beckham able to calculate distance, space and velocity to a degree where he could place a ball on the head of a running teammate from 60 yards away? Only with consistent repetition will expert like qualities become automated. The legend Bruce Lee said ‘I don’t fear the man who practises 1000 kicks. I fear the man who practises one kick a 1000 times’. The fruit of repetition is skill.


4-Explitcly tell students that learning is hard and often a struggle. Cultivate a culture that values or at least appreciates the struggle. Remind every one of them that they were given birth to. This birthing was likely a painful, stressful and arduous process; now look at the smiling cherubs produced as a result of this struggle! Very little of value is created without some sacrifice of comfort and ease.


5-Set goals and celebrate milestones. As a kid, I was always intrigued when F1 drivers would pop a bottle of champagne whenever they were on the podium. The open celebration was a reminder that when you reach a goal, this should be marked with some symbolic ritual or practice. It’s a reminder of the journey and hard work put in to reach success.


I hope these five tips have been useful. If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to comment

Man Talk

Yesterday I went to see the play, Barbershop Chronicles by Inua Ellams. The play’s central theme was how the barbershop acts as a social hub for black men all over the globe. The blurb uses this apt description to define this space:


‘Newsroom, political platform, local hot spot, confession box, preacher-pulpit and football stadium. For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops to discuss the world.’


As the action played out on the stage, I began to think how important physical spaces are for human beings, men especially, in fostering communication and allowing for meaningful dialogue to take place. I pay particular attention to men here as typically, they often struggle to express vulnerability and sensitivity. This piece of drama did the very thing which I think all art should do; provoke a response, start a conversation.


After the show my friend and I leisurely strolled along the Southbank. With the both of us being teachers, we discussed how crucial we felt it was for schools to create spaces where young men feel safe enough to express themselves without fear of ridicule or attacks against their ‘manhood’. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone to know that men talk far less about their fears and insecurities. As the issue of mental health gets more focus in the media, I hope that we can begin to have open and honest dialogue in our communities and be vulnerable with one another so that our young men do not feel they have to carry their burdens alone.


The play’s closing scene ended with a young man in the barber’s chair asking what it means to be a strong black man. He was eagerly searching for substance and direction as to his identity. He felt safe enough in this space to do so. During this tender scene I was prompted to contemplate just how important it is for us to continue to carve out these spaces: in our churches, schools, sports clubs and other places where we find groups of young men. Ellams’s play certainly provoked a response from me and sparked an internal dialogue. I am keen to be the one who starts to fashion this space within the school where I teach, however, with more demands being made on our time as teachers the one question remains: how can I sustain this and ensure my own overall sense of wellbeing? As we seek to carry one man’s burdens, our own load needs to be supported.


‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.’ The Hollies


Barbershop Chronicles is currently showing at the National Theatre, Southbank.

Polishing Rocks: A leadership lesson from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a brilliant man. I recently watched a rare extended interview during which he recounted the birth and rise of his brilliant career in the computer industry. He retold a remarkable story of an old man in his neighbourhood who once showed him an old rock crusher. He took the young Jobs round to his back garden and placed some old, common rocks into this grinder. The young Jobs was not impressed. The old man turned the grinder on and the noisy clashing of rocks knocking together sounded from the crusher. The old man told Jobs to come back tomorrow. The young computer craftsman was not impressed.

The next day Jobs returned and the old man produced the rock grinder from his pocket.  Gleefully he took out from the grinder beautifully smooth, polished rocks. Jobs was to learn a significant lesson much later in life. During the interview, he explained how working in a team is a bit like the rock grinder. Undoubtedly, there will be clashes, some noise and fights, but this is a necessary process in order to get the polished article, the refined idea, the brilliant product. We could argue that without this process we are actually placing the team in danger, in danger of blindly leading into complacency, and unchallenged uniformity. Everyone all in agreement with one another all the time is dangerous. This leads to group think; a bland, unchallenged oneness of opinion. Maybe this is what happened in the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade and other atrocities which required mass complicity.
I’d like us all to remember that conflict within a team is sometimes necessary. Better to challenge an idea than follow blindly into a potential bad one.

Thinking Time

Picture my classroom. 25 adolescent boys. Me, standing at the front having just given clear instructions for the students to begin their task. All engaged, scribbling away at their workbooks with an earnestness to complete the task. All except one, Jamar, listlessly rocking back on his chair gazing at the ceiling. I begin to formulate what I’ll say to him to get him back on task. I consider how I can convey  to him my concern over his seeming lack of work.
All I muster is ‘Jamar, what are you doing?’ His reply enlightens me.
‘Thinking, sir.’ he gracefully responds.
Aaahh, I think to myself. Of course. His response begins to get me thinking. Thinking about thinking. We often see the the act in itself, although not exclusively, as a silent one. It often makes no public declaration or a shout from the rooftops. The best thinking is meditative, ponderous and deep. This rumination lead me to consider two questions:
  1. How do you capture the thinking process when it has occurred?
  2. What types of thinking should we encourage students to do in our classrooms?
In response to the first question, I have sought to capture the thinking process through the following: the use of simple charts so students can note down ideas. Secondly, giving more time for students to think about ideas and then discuss them. In the past, as a novice teacher, I often asked students to execute a task without allowing ample thinking time. In fact, the ‘dreaded’ silence often made me feel as awkward as being on a bad date devoid of stimulating conversation! I now know how important it is to allow students this invaluable time to generate ideas, evaluate the quality of each one and then commit to following a thought through.
In response to the second question, as educators I feel we need to encourage students to do more deep thinking. As Hattie suggests, lessons will have tasks which facilitate deep and surface learning; expert teachers spend more time on deep learning which is why their students make greater progress. Daniel Kahneman’s book, ‘Thinking: fast and Slow’ taught me how we generally have two types of thinking: instinctual (fast) and meditative (slow).
My vision is to foster a classroom where my students learn how to think critically, creatively and to evalutive. A vision where they will use these thinking skills to navigate an increasingly complex, dangerous and enticing world fervently vying for their attention.