Cognitive Load theory: 10 Things You Need to Know

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory:
10 Things You Need to Know.

In 2017 Dylan Wiliam tweeted to the education world that he had ‘come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is the single most important thing for teachers to know’. Back came a tweet, ‘shouldn’t they know their students?’. I’m not sure if that was a wisecrack or a serious challenge to CLT. Either way, it shows how easy it is to misunderstand the offering that CLT provides to teachers. The great thing about CLT is that it is a lens through which to view learning before teaching. CLT provides the door into a new age of teaching that allows us to leave behind any teaching strategies that weren’t in alignment with the research into how the human brain learns. For too long teachers have been blind to the architecture of the human brain…the only place where learning actually happens! According to CLT, when it comes to providing a productive and yet manageable cognitive challenge to students, then we need to know students’ brains. Indeed, it is CLT that invites us to really know our students. CLT invites us all to consider the brain first, learning second and teaching third. Further to this, the CLT door isn’t just the end of the ‘teaching-blind journey’, it’s also the beginning of a new journey. If you’re just stepping through this door and you wish to know what CLT is, then you might find it useful to read what I consider to be the 10 things you need to know about CLT. I ’ve written a short ‘start-up’ booklet that unpacks these 10 things. It can be found here. My aim is that on reading this document you will quickly grasp the key principles of CLT. There is more to be said for each aspect of CLT, and there is a wealth of research to read, so, enjoy! It’s a wonderful journey and, by traveling with intellectual humility, we can all travel it together!

The 10 things you need to know are:

  1. The working memory of the brain is very limited.
  2. Use explicit instruction for new content.
  3. New knowledge needs to then be stored in the long term memory, ready for retrieval and transfer.
  4. Learning happens through schema extension and connection.
  5. Break the curriculum down into very small chronological parts.
  6. Know the learners’ background knowledge.
  7. Focus the attention of learners on the new content…only!
  8. Teaching becomes redefined as ‘focussing, guiding and responding’
  9. Identify the key schemas operating across the bigger learning journey.
  10. Systemise CLT across the school to maintain CLT principles and reduce workload.

Cognitive Load Theory Download

Download your FREE Cognitive Load Theory booklet here

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Big Maths Beat That!

Yes, Zero Marking!

Yes, Zero Marking!

Big Maths Beat That isn’t like any other assessment and tracking system. It is at the very centre of the school’s entire maths curriculum. It is the engine room of the pedagogy, as opposed to ‘bolt on tracking’. If you were told to throw out all your tracking systems, unless you desperately wanted to keep them for your own purpose, then BMBT would remain. When the curriculum, pedagogy and tracking are one, then you have an easy and natural response to the question, ‘What impact is our curriculum having on our children’s learning?’

The progression and the content of the BMBT challenges are at one with the curriculum design and the age-related expectations from the national curriculum, this means that at any moment in time we can see if a child is on track, off track or ahead of track. This all happens through a simple scoring system. If we take the 19 progressive ‘CLIC Challenges’, we can see that if a child is currently on CLIC Challenge 12 (i.e. CLIC Challenge 11 is too easy and CLIC Challenge 13 is, as yet, too difficult) and has attained 6 out of 10, they would score 12.6. If they carry out the same challenge next week (with only slightly different numbers involved in the questions) and score 7 out of 10 their score goes up to 12.7.

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The CLT-Driven Curriculum

The CLT-Driven Curriculum

The implications of Cognitive Load Theory for teachers are becoming well established. However, the end result for busy teachers can end up looking like a list of ‘tips for teachers’ (‘remember not to have unnecessary animations in your powerpoint slides’, ‘remember to wait in silence while learners are processing new information before talking again’ etc.). This would be a serious watering down of the extensive research that has gone into CLT and the profound implications for teachers that has come out of that research. So, can CLT actually transform teaching in the way that it promises, and, if so, how?

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Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition (Part 3/3)

Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition (Part 3/3)

This blog follows on immediately from; Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition! Part 1 & Part 2.

We are picking up on children learning to add two 2-digit numbers together for the very first time in their life, and in the previous blog (Part 2) we looked at using Cognitive Load Theory to ensure that the child’s Working Memory (WM) is prepared for this moment. Here is a step by step guide to what this episode of explicit teaching looks like:

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Using Cognitive Load theory to Crack Addition (Part 2/3)

Using Cognitive Load theory to Crack Addition (Part 2/3)

There is a day in a child’s life when they first learn to solve ‘2-digit add 2-digit’ addition questions. Every child has this day! The child’s teacher wakes with great excitement. This is what it’s all about. Within this day there is an actual moment when the teacher starts their explicit instruction. This will be a beautiful moment since the child’s life is about to change…well, mathematically anyway! There are a lot of steps to teach in a child’s mathematical learning journey. They don’t all have equal weighting; some are more important than others and some are just crucial. This one is one of those crucial ones; tying shoelaces, riding a bike and ‘2-digit add 2-digit’.

Cognitive Load Theory is a ginormous beast of a pedagogical concept. At times it’s mightily complex and far from being visible in a moment, yet at other times it couldn’t be more simple, more clear and more beautiful. It is CLT that gets us to this beautiful moment!

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Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition (Part 1/3)

Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition (Part 1/3)

Rocking up to teach 30 seven/eight year old children in an area of high social deprivation, the teacher walks straight in and presents a ‘3 digit add 3 digit’ question on screen:

Five seconds later, every single student holds up a little whiteboard displaying the correct answer; having processed the calculation entirely mentally.

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The 5 Megatruths of Great Teaching

The 5 Megatruths of Great Teaching

How fantastically big is this question, ‘What makes great teaching?’.

It’s quite a scary question for an actual teacher… because it challenges you to answer it! At first it sounds rhetorical, and perhaps we would all feel safer if it was. The question seems to be asking you to explain your professional worth and even your professional qualification. If you are given a few moments to jot down some bullet point answers, then you may struggle. Why? Well, if we listen to John Sweller (the TES referred to him as the ‘Godfather of Cognitive Load Theory’), then we can’t even begin to know about great teaching until we know about how the brain learns. Sweller says, ‘Without knowledge of cognitive processes, instructional design is blind’. In other words, we need to know about the brain in order to teach. No wonder ‘great teaching’, then, is so elusive. The brain is, after all, the most complex structure known to humankind.

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