It’s common for teachers, fresh out of teacher school, to express similar frustrations about their pre-service training:

“It was interesting, but there was too much theory and very little of practical value. When I finally started my student teaching, I felt like I had to unlearn everything and start from scratch.”

There’s a bit of truth to this sentiment. Without any kids on hand to teach, a lot of the research and theory that is presented in university lecture halls can feel overly abstract and hypothetical. Still, it’s clear that teacher training programs could do a better job of focusing on concrete, practical applications of these theories; While we were all taught enough about Pavlov and his dog to pass the teacher exam, I suspect fewer were guided through the process of setting up a group contingency, or advised how to support a distressed parent who is considering using rewards at home. What is even more troubling is the fact that much of the theoretical background that we were taught is now known to be false. Do you recall being asked to accommodate various learning styles, or to tailor instruction to left- and right-brained learners? These were also theories, albeit theories that are no longer accepted by the scientific community.

If many theories of teaching and learning do not have an obvious link to the classroom, and others are simply outdated, it’s tempting to conclude that theory has little to offer the busy teacher. Such a reaction would be, in my opinion, a mistake. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, I suggest we engage with theories, but only those that have practical implications for the classroom and have been rigorously tested through the scientific method. One such theory is cognitive load theory.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory is a set of instructional procedures based on the well-established limitations of working memory – the structure that handles thinking and information processing. Students can only hold a small number of items in working memory at a time before becoming overloaded, and for only about twenty seconds before that information starts to slip away. Think of a time when you tried to remember all of your friends’ food orders just long enough to complete an order with UBER EATS. Most of us find ourselves perfectly capable of handling two or three simple orders, but incapable of remembering any more unless we write them down. If we’re interrupted, or asked whether or not Stephanie wants pickles on that, the chances of completing the order successfully decreases further. Given the well-known limitations of working memory, cognitive load theory compels teachers to carefully monitor how we regulate the flow of information during instruction so as not to overload students.

The other structure that is important to cognitive load theory is long-term memory – the space where knowledge is stored for future use. While working memory is extremely limited when dealing with new information, we can use knowledge stored in long-term memory to “cheat” these limitations. Going back to the UBER EATS example, if there were five complex orders to remember, but you had already memorized two of them (because Stephanie and June always order the same thing), there would be less novel information to hold in working memory, making it possible to allocate all of your working memory resources towards placing the orders that you hadn’t memorized. Given how dealing with unfamiliar information is very taxing on working memory, but dealing with familiar information has minimal impact on working memory, cognitive load theory compels teachers to provide ample guidance during the initial phases of learning, and to gradually remove scaffolds as students acquire knowledge and skills.

Now, I’ve just given you a run-down of the basic premise of cognitive load theory, but what about the more specific strategies, techniques, and applications of the theory for the classroom? The great thing about cognitive load theory is that there is a burgeoning community of educators who are developing materials, books, and presentations for how to optimize teaching based on its findings. In this recent post, I went into several of the ways cognitive load theory has impacted my teaching, and I’m presenting a webinar in March 2022 with Bradley Busch and InnerDrive called “Cognitive Load Theory: What it is, and how to apply it to your teaching”. I encourage all teachers and instructional leaders to register here, or below, and begin your journey of integrating the science of learning into your instruction.

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