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.

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Big Maths

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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Differentiation is Dead Image

Differentiation is Dead!

Differentiation is Dead!

Differentiation is dead, controversial? Read on…

I was an NQT in 1993. I can still recall the mixture of emotion in the last week of the summer holidays, preparing to launch into my teaching career proper. The usual format was to spend the day excitedly cutting out giant letters for display and writing names on books/pegs/trays etc. only to be followed by a night of waking up in a cold sweat, having dreamt – yet again – that I’d lost control of the class. Except, one night I slept really well; I was so happy because I’d had the brilliant idea to call my higher ability group ‘Smarties’! Of course, this meant calling my middle ability group ‘Skittles’ and my low ability group ‘M&Ms’. By definition, I had already told two of my groups that I didn’t consider them ‘smart’. I shudder to think of the long term damage being a member of ‘The M&Ms Group’ had on those poor children (now aged 34), but that was the way of it at that time. Every primary teacher had fixed ability groups, notwithstanding the occasional battle for individual promotion/relegation from group to group.

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CLT blog image

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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CLT blog image

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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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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Ofsted Blog

Ofsted Research: Outstanding but Requires Improvement

Ofsted Research: Outstanding but Requires Improvement

Ofsted have recently issued their overview of educational research that underpins the draft inspection framework.

It is wonderful to see teaching and learning led by education research. As a young teacher studying school/teacher effectiveness under Professor David Reynolds at the University of Newcastle in the late 1990s that was not the case. Practice and research were separate worlds… never mind conjoined…never mind research leading practice! So, it is really a watershed moment; Ofsted taking the best educational research on the entire planet and using it to underpin their inspection framework. And they have done it incredibly well! Common sense always rises to the top and this approach just makes sense! I particularly like the way the research leads straight into the specific criteria used by inspectors to make judgements. As a former inspector for Ofsted I know how it feels to be making judgements using criteria that have come from ‘nowhere’.

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Driving Instructors blog image

Driving Instructors have Cognitive Load Theory nailed

Driving Instructors have Cognitive Load Theory nailed

Imagine the driving instructor that starts the very first driving lesson with; “Ok, I’d like you to overtake the car in front using mirror – signal – manoeuvre. And that, my friend, is how you overtake!”

Having no understanding of the cognitive load they are placing on the learner’s brain, a disaster awaits. It is a similar situation in any classroom where the learner has been asked to think through more than their brain can cope with at any one time. When this happens, learning fails. When it happens consistently, expect an educational disaster. 

Driving instructors are teachers

Driving instructors are teachers whose learners’ lives depend on their teaching; some would say that school teachers are the same! The responsibility of school leaders in this regard is greater still.

Driving instructors know full well that their students need to master all three skills (mirror, signal, and manoeuvre) in isolation first, before they can be combined into one process. Then, later on, through varied and frequent practice, one smooth process. Later still, one smooth process that can be combined with other skills. So, this 5 stage sequence is worth considering as a front door into CLT.

  1. Identifying pre-requisite part-skills,
  2. Securing them fluently in isolation first,
  3. Combining them into one process with explicit teaching,
  4. Repeatedly revisiting the ‘one process’ in gradually more challenging contexts until it is ‘one smooth process’, and finally
  5. The learner choosing to use and apply this new skill in an appropriate, and perhaps unfamiliar, context. In other words, this combined skill has now itself become an automated ‘part-skill’ ready to combine with other part-skills that have their own backstory.

The Cognitive Load Theory Learning Sequence

This simple CLT learning sequence is at the heart of  teaching children to become numerate (see my blogs ‘Using Cognitive Load Theory to Crack Addition 1, 2 &3’). In this way learning is always built upon learning. Fluency leads to more fluency. CLT is much more than this; but when CLT is applied to a child acquiring the basic skills for maths then this fundamental CLT principle of ‘keeping the cognitive load right for continued progress’ is everything! Everything!!

The smooth process of teaching with CLT

Getting the load right

Imagine the driver that has already learnt to overtake expertly (whilst on ‘autopilot’) but… suddenly, one dark night the rain comes down hard on an unlit and unfamiliar road; wipers are going crazy, visibility is low and the driver hunches forward as they go to overtake. What would you do? You would concentrate! In doing so you naturally close down any conversations and give your full cognitive attention to the skill of driving (as the complexity of the driving challenge increases). This experience maximises your learning; you are a better driver because of it. However, a cognitive curriculum exists between the first driving lesson and the expert driver. Hence, it’s not just a case of making it easy if the content is new, and making it difficult once it’s easy (although that can be a good starting point). To optimise learning we need to find the delicate balance between the two.

Find the delicate balance of memory load to optimise learning

As a learner, having just the right cognitive demand is everything. As a teacher, providing just the right cognitive demand is everything!

Underload and progress stalls.

Overload and progress stalls.

We teachers need to know the learner’s abilities, yes. We need to know the specific curriculum content detail, yes. But we teachers also need to be experientially rich in the practice of employing the principles of CLT if we are to be able to respond to the learner’s academic needs by providing the most suitable cognitive load for teaching their next learning step, whatever that may be. Getting the load right is everything!

The very first sentence of the book ‘Cognitive Load Theory’ says;

Without knowledge of cognitive processes, instructional design is blind.

‘Cognitive Load Theory’ by Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga

I guess if they weren’t polite academics they might have written, ‘If you haven’t studied how the brain works then don’t teach!’

The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (part of New South Wales Government Department of Education) produced a detailed guide to Classroom Practice, which I recommend.

Cognitive Load Theory in Practice – NSW Government Department of Education Read the report here.

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