Two Weeks of Thinking – 1 Feb 16

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of articles on education (especially math ed) and I keep coming back to Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). I had heard of it many times through my PLN; Dan Meyer seems to mention it especially frequently. But I hadn’t understood it until recently.*

Here’s an entirely unsatisfactory description of CLT that I wrote for a non-education friend (who happens to sail):

We have working memory and long term memory. Our working memory is only so big – it can’t hold very much at once. So  our brains evolved to take several basic facts and combine them into one idea. That idea is called a schema. Here’s an example: if, when sailing,  you want to pass bow through the wind, as the skipper, you have to stand, duck, switch the tiller, switch hands, straighten, etc. So many things! So we learn them, and combine them all into one schema (we call it a tack). Then, your working memory can draw up the idea of a tack, and still have room to think about other things (like tactics, or roll tacks, or double tacks, or not dropping your crew overboard). So that’s how brains work. Cognitive Load Theory looks specifically at how knowing this should change instructional methods.

As I said, not satisfactory. If you want a quick summary, go read this article:

Fred Paas, Alexander Renkl & John Sweller (2003) Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design: Recent Developments, Educational Psychologist, 38:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.1207/S15326985EP3801_1

Available from the UR library, for those with access. I find the writing extremely concise and efficient. A pleasure of an article actually.


Other Readings (on CLT):

Germane Load: The Right Kind of Mental Effort?

I read this article before the one I mention above. It also summarizes CLT, and does a fair job. Reading it placed me in a position where I felt able to do some real research and find peer reviewed articles. A confidence builder of sorts (Also, pretty good for those who want a summary but don’t have access to online journals. By the way: have you tried the public library near you?)

Reflections from Teaching: When are Learners Novices No More?

This article extended my thinking on CLT. Novice learners and expert learners need to be taught it different ways. Many traditional math instructors (who favour direct instruction, worked examples, etc.) believe their students to be novices. According to CLT, their pedagogical approaches are appropriate and more open ended approaches (inquiry, opened ended tasks, self-discovery) are inappropriate for novice learners, because of the extraneous load it puts on working memory. This blog posts very carefully critiques our concepts of our students – what makes them novice, and when are they novice no more?

Novices and Experts Cannot Think in the Same Ways

More thoughts on the novice vs expert debate in CLT, with extra focus on differentiated instruction. Makes compelling points about scaffolding learning so that students progress towards expert status.


Further Readings (Not on CLT):

On Praise: Carol Dweck and Beyond

This carries on my uncomfortable learnings from two weeks ago, when I posted about the flaws in Growth Mindset pedagogy. It questions whether praise is always a positive force on learning.

It reminds me of cycling laws (bicycle, not motorcycle). First, I think every person on a bicycle should wear a helmet. Second, I am completely against laws that make wearing a helmet mandatory. This doesn’t come out of any kind of libertarian drive; rather, studies have shown that mandatory helmet laws make it more dangerous to cycle in places that have adopted them. There are many potential causes, but the most likely is the sharp decrease in biking population as a result of mandatory helmet laws. With fewer cyclists on the roads, drivers lose awareness, get less exposure; cities put in less infrastructure, do a worse job of maintaining it. The unintentional consequences of bicycle legislation are mirrored in this article – the unintentional outcomes of giving praise.

How ‘Progressive’ Education Patronizes the Poor

Speaking of unintentional outcomes…

This article is controversial, no doubt about it. It makes the argument that treating children holistically (with too much giving of responsibility and control in the classroom, and not enough focus on drilling educational knowledge) is ruining them, and the world. Not to put it too lightly. Another step in my attempt to read and understand other perspectives in education that seem anathema to my beliefs.

Stop Talking About Teachers As If They’re Missionaries

This article is also about the importance of teachers as educators, rather than as a balm to all societal needs. However, it’s not quite so drenched in vehemence as the last one. I pull this quote, because it stood out to me:

But the biggest transformation will be cultural. As more people see teaching as prestigious, other magical changes follow: Parents begin to trust teachers a little more. Taxpayers start to believe their money is well spent. Politicians step aside so teachers can shape what’s taught and how. Most important, kids notice, too. When they hear stories about how hard it is to become a teacher and see the respect with which teachers are treated, students start to infer that school isn’t a joke after all—that when adults say education is important, they might actually mean it.

My biggest fear reading this article is confirmation bias. I’m worried that I like the article, and it seems great, only because I already believe what it’s saying. When I read things like this, and then feel this way, it only motivates me more to try to gain additional perspectives, especially those I don’t like.


*I don’t understand it yet. It’s complex! But I now know the terms, some of the perspectives, and I have the ability to understand and engage in discussions on it. Meta-question! Am I still a novice with respect to CLT?


One thought on “Two Weeks of Thinking – 1 Feb 16

  1. Pingback: A Reading Week Smorgasbord | Zachary Sellers' Blog

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