Candles upping the cognitive load

Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory resources that are required and utilised in order to complete a task.

As teachers, we must always be checking that what we present to our students requires the right amount of this load.

Too much and students may feel overwhelmed and give up; too little and they’ll likely get bored and misbehave.

My school works within the pedagogical model of The Gradual Release of Responsibility. This means that we follow the steps “I do” (modelling), then “we do” (guided examples), “you do together” (group work) then “you do alone” (individual activities).

If teachers skip to the last stage without working through any of the previous 3, chances are the strain of the cognitive load needed for students to succeed with that task will be too much.

Keeping cognitive load in mind, teachers are encouraged to make links between learning and to explicitly state why students are doing what they’re doing.

I remember learning way back in my early university days that the first step in every lesson was to activate student prior knowledge. But with so much to do and so little time, teachers can easily forego this step in the hopes of “getting straight to the important stuff” and “covering all that needs to be covered”.

Many, many articles can be accessed by googling Cognitive overload. But what about the other end of the scale?

If teachers provide work for children with very little “rigour” kids will look for other ways to be creative. And chances are, teachers will not appreciate the manifestations of this excess energy and brain power.

Busy work like colouring in that’s not in an art lesson, cutting and pasting that requires no sorting or classifying, and illustrating writing just to fill in time, insults children’s intelligence and is a waste of precious time and paper.

Generic “fast finisher” activities that give students no voice of choice, that do not take into account of cater for individual student needs, are another example of a very low cognitive load.

Peer mentoring/tutoring where bright kids merely supervise the completion of work by their less able peers, with no guidance or intervention by the mentor, is yet another time when our expectations for our students are less than ideal.

Doing things for kids instead of with kids is another example of when cognitive load is especially low.

Educators must ask themselves “are we taking into account student zone of proximal development?” to ensure that we’re not simply catering for student comfort zones instead.

We should strive to be warm demanders. Scaffolding students but not enabling or anchoring students with a dependence on these scaffolds. Differentiating tasks but maintaining high expectations for every student we work with.

Let’s respect our students by providing them with learning opportunities that are meaningful, relevant, and with just the right amount of challenge.

And let’s banish busy work for good.

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