Cognitive Load & The Struggle Zone

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is a concept that all teachers are well aware of. ZPD is that sweet spot that pushes learning beyond the comfort zone of what students can do on their own and provides them guidance from an expert to move them forward into new learning. The concept just makes sense. It inspired Jerome Bruner to develop the theory of scaffolding, another familiar teaching tool that forms one of the foundations of good teaching. Both ideas have proven to stand the test of time and are a cornerstone of teacher training. The significance of both is undeniable. However, there is another key theory that is unknown to many teachers. It is not usually taught in education programs, despite being just as (if not more) essential as ZPD and scaffolding.


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Cognitive load theory suggests that learning happens best when it matches the abilities of our working memory. It refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory, where new information is processed. Unfortunately, it is limited. We can only process between 4-6 items at a time, and the information in working memory lasts only around ten seconds. If you think of solving a math problem, where you are asked to remember multiple steps at a time, you can see how the limits of working memory can be a problem. It can quickly become overloaded. As a result, lots of information given to students can often be missed, as it is not processed by a working memory that is overwhelmed.

The good news is that we have a huge storage capacity in our long-term memory which is like the hard drive of a computer. Once something is stored as schema in long-term memory, it is easy to retrieve and use. The construction of schemas in long-term memory and their development into higher-levels that become automated is what helps students to increase their expertise in any given area. It frees up working memory to process other information. The tricky part is transferring new learning from working memory and getting it to stick in long-term memory. Why was I never taught this in teachers’ college!? Its implications for learning are profound.

Cognitive load is divided into three types:


  • Intrinsic load – refers to the inherent complexity of the learning material. Teachers cannot do much to reduce this load but it can be balanced. According to Sweller, it can ‘only be altered by changing the nature of what is learned or by the act of learning itself’. It is what it is.
  • Extraneous load – any difficulty that comes from how the task was presented. Teachers should avoid the use of anything that distracts students and makes the learning process harder. It is the load to be wary of. Effective lesson planning can help rein it in.
  • Germane load – this is the work that goes into creating schemas (permanent knowledge) and it happens when lesson plans and courses are well designed. This interesting post by Nick Rose explains in it more detail with links to studies.


In order to get students to maximize germane load and get into the struggle zone of effective learning (thinking hard, high challenge and low stress), some things we can do are: teach fewer concepts per lesson, chunk the learning, limit distractions, narrow the success criteria and procedures, avoid switching focus of attention, revisit material and use models and worked examples.

The importance of cognitive load and memory is something every teacher needs to consider. Many think of memory as rote learning, a linear stuffing of the brain with facts, where understanding is irrelevant. When you teach it properly, with imagination and association, understanding becomes a part of it.

Challenge the Snake Oil

The amount of pseudoscience that exists in education is a serious concern. There is no shortage of claims that are supposedly backed by ‘research’, to the point that the word has become meaningless in education. Despite being debunked, myths like learning styles, school killing creativity or Dale’s cone of experience, continue to be accepted as truth by many teachers. Why do these myths persist?

There is no easy answer. One of the reasons seems to be networks like Twitter, where groups of like-minded teachers and administrators circulate rumours and misinformation that are strengthened through repetition. If we hear something repeated over and over, it begins to sound true and our brain tricks us into thinking the information comes from many different reliable sources. Another explanation for why the myths persist is the fact that any self-styled expert can publish anything they want. We are overwhelmed by many so-called experts in every medium, which makes knowing who to trust a tricky thing to determine. This situation is made worse by the fact that education draws from diverse disciplines, exponentially increasing the number of experts telling us what’s best for teaching and learning. Add to that a slew of cognitive biases, and we can begin to see why education myths are so hard to get rid of.

In dealing with new initiatives imposed on us, it can be difficult for teachers to find the time to separate fact from fiction. Most teachers are too busy to sift through educational blogs and research findings to decide if what they are being asked to do is worthwhile. We also lack the necessary expertise to assess the research. As a result, the majority of teachers will simply accept the methods they are being asked to implement, without really questioning the credibility of the information. This is a problem. If teachers are expected to adjust their practice based on the latest educational trend, we need to be able to assess the validity of the claims underlying the supposed research that justifies it. When people say snake oil is backed up by science, teachers need to challenge that.

It is important for educators to heed the words of Mark Twain who, despite talking about religion and politics, offers a warning that can be applied to education when examining the source of our understanding about teaching: ‘In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.’  

In medicine, doctors are not expected to spend countless hours pouring over the latest research. Instead, there are reliable summaries that are published in reputable journals that allow doctors to keep up-to-date. In education, there is no institution that publishes something similar to this. Teachers and administrators are left on their own to decide what works best. No consensus is reached in the judgement of the validity of educational research. Consequently, new practices that end up being adopted are often based not on sound research, but on the ability of the researchers to market their ideas to administrators and school boards. The most persuasive ideas get the most traction. The repackaging of old concepts into shiny new buzzwords is well know to those who have attended any professional development.

So what can we do about this?  According to de Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulshof in Urban Myths About Learning and Education, when looking at the research behind the claims, we can avoid educational myths and ineffective teaching practices by asking the following questions:

  • Is the author objective?
  • Is there talk of a correlation or a casual connection?
  • Is the author honest in describing the opinions of others?
  • Does the author give evidence, cite research and make connections?
  • Does the evidence come from a reputable scientific study?
  • Is the research published in a peer-reviewed publication?
  • Is the test group large enough?
  • Was a control group used?
  • Was a correct method of statistical analysis used?
  • Is the effect statistically significant?

Another good approach to testing whether or not we should believe the research is from Daniel Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts. Willingham’s four steps in judging the legitimacy of the research are: 1) Strip it: clear away all the wordiness and look at what outcome is being promised 2) Trace it: look at who created the idea and what others have said about it. 3) Analyze it: why are you asked to believe the claim?, what evidence is offered? and does the claim match your experience? 4) Should I do it? weigh the pros and cons of whether it is worth adopting.

If we are going to dispel myths in education, we need to dig deeper and question the science behind many of the claims. Teachers can no longer just passively accept what they are asked to do without knowing if it is really backed up by quality research. Failing to do so is a mistake, one that could make a real difference in students’ learning.

The False Wars

‘In war, truth is the first casualty.’ – Aeschylus

The phrase ‘premature ultimates’ coined by the British literary theorist I.A. Richards describes those conversation stoppers that, ‘bring investigation to a dead end too suddenly.’ In education, this often takes the form of polarities, where there is a seemingly automatic taking of sides on educational issues based on whether one considers themselves to be progressive or traditional. Each side takes an ideological stand and the investigation grinds to a halt. No one wants to concede anything, dialogue breaks down and any thoughtful discussion is lost.

This false progressive vs. traditional dichotomy often strangely associated with politics (progressive = liberal, traditional = conservative) has played out in several educational ‘wars’, most notably in reading and math. In the reading wars, phonics was viewed as a right-wing suppression that deprives reading of its naturalness and destroys a love of literature in children, while whole language was attacked as a left-wing abandonment of the responsibility of teachers and parents to teach kids to read properly. The math wars, which started in the late 1980s, are still being fought, with the latest contention being over the standardized testing of times tables in the UK. Some wonder if these wars exist at all. Maybe it’s all just a front to sell textbooks, employ professors of education and provide a speaking tour for educational experts. The old Hegelian dialectic of problem-reaction-solution. To assume otherwise would be naive.

The wars of education, dividing issues into two camps, leaves little room for progress. Educators and policymakers are so busy getting dug in, they don’t stop to listen to the other side. This results in an echo chamber of ideologies which are self-perpetuating. It’s the same old, same old. Assumptions are not challenged and common sense is often ignored. Perhaps the solution to much of what ails education can be found in this: pragmatic changes in the structure of the ruling ideas.

Those involved often fail to find common ground and much like real wars, the fighting just continues on. Both are related to power, control and exploitation. Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for only 268 of them, or just 8 percent. Of the past 150 years of modern education, educators have been at peace for very few of them.

It is time to end the education wars.

A Quality Education

Curriculum is vast. It can be overwhelming, and structuring it effectively is demanding. Within each subject area, there is a range of topics and concepts, making it difficult to narrow the focus and determine what exactly is worth teaching. How broad should our scope be? How in depth should we go? How long should we spend? Determining what we want students to learn is a decision that will inevitably lead to valuing some knowledge and skills over others. Some things have to be left out.

Is there essential knowledge that all students should be taught? The work of E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation offers a specific and coherent curriculum that has achieved success in the United States. Perhaps it is worth implementing here. How else can we reach a consensus on what the curriculum should include? Maybe using the test of time is a suitable approach. The older the knowledge, the more worthy it is of being learned. Ignore newer insights because they’re not as old. Nothing dates quicker than the cutting edge. Despite what the ed-tech pundits would have us believe, learning has not changed significantly in the new century. We still learn the same way.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of several books on language, cognition and human nature, offers a convincing definition of a quality education:

‘It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.’

If we want to provide a quality education, we need to ask ourselves what is truly worth knowing. What knowledge has enduring value? Twenty years down the road, what do we want students to remember?

Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?

Cartoon_CTCritical thinking is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in education. Every teacher has heard it mentioned countless times at staff meetings and PD, being reminded of its revered status as one of the pinnacles of higher order thinking. It is associated with all subject areas and its practice is widespread in schools. It is something that teachers always try to help students develop, incorporating it whenever possible. A common good that will elevate the learning of all.

Most would agree that one of the primary goals of schooling is to enable students to think critically. No one really questions its value. Teachers understand the importance of students learning how to reason, make judgments and decisions, and problem solve. The ability to see both sides of issues, deduce and infer conclusions from available facts, and be open to new evidence that disconfirms ideas, are all worthwhile goals of education. They are important skills in preparing students for the future, ones that companies and professions demand. In the brave new world of free lancing and short-term contracts, critical thinking is highly regarded.

But can critical thinking be taught?

According to Daniel Willingham, decades of cognitive research suggest that it can’t really be taught. The problem is that people who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that is a skill, like riding a bike. Similar to other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation. Unfortunately, thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (domain knowledge). This helps to explain why students are able to think critically in one subject area, but not in another. The more domain knowledge they have, the more critically they will be able to think about that particular topic or idea. Critical thinking is dependent and contextual. It is not as transferable as we have been led to believe.

As Willingham says, ‘Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in – and even trained scientists can fail in.’

It makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking in an abstract way. To remind students to just think critically in general is pointless. Asking them to look at an issue from multiple viewpoints is all fine and well, but if they don’t have a lot of background knowledge on the issue, they can’t really think about it from multiple viewpoints. All you will get is surface level thinking. No insights or depth. The solution to this is more knowledge. A knowledge rich curriculum will improve the quality of critical thinking. It will allow students to engage with topics in a more meaningful way.

Critical thinking will rarely happen without factual content. Teachers need to stop assuming it is something that can occur in a void, removed from knowledge. Like much of education, critical thinking needs to move away from the generic to the specific.

Feedback Works Both Ways

The fundamental importance of formative feedback is very clear, something that all teachers, administrators and politicians would agree upon. A rare thing in education!

John Hattie, in his review of approximately 800 meta-analyses encompassing over 50,000 studies, found that, ‘the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement is feedback.’ Hattie goes on to say that feedback must be focused, specific and clear in order to be beneficial to the student. He stresses the well-known teaching truth that effective feedback comes in a variety of forms, with verbal feedback often being the most powerful. Why? Because it allows teachers to adapt their lessons accordingly in real time.

Despite all the evidence, giving good written feedback is still problematic. Too much of teachers’ time is taken up by marking, which often doesn’t do anything to move the students’ learning forward. Teachers are also sometimes guilty of providing generic comments that are meaningless. Phrases like, ‘develop these ideas further’, ‘you must try harder’, ‘more detail needed’ or the classic, ‘good work, keep it up’. The reality is that many students don’t even bother to read the comments they are given, fixating more on the grade. And even if they do happen to read the feedback, it is often not understood or acted upon.

We should mark less often, but much more effectively. Every new teacher has stories of staying late after school to finish marking. It can consume your life. But as you gain experience in teaching, you strive for quality over quantity. We should try to only give feedback that we know has the power to really impact our students’ learning.

One great way to evaluate the effectiveness of feedback given to students is to ask them to ‘mark your marking’. Simple but profound. Feedback should work both ways.

Hattie explains:

‘The mistake I was making was seeing feedback as something teachers provided to students – they typically did not, although they made claims that they did it all the time, and most of the feedback they did provide was social and behavioural. It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better. When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged – then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful. Feedback to teachers helps make learning visible.’ 

The Einstellung Effect: Thinking Inside the Box


Thinking outside the box.

A phrase that has been so overused, it’s become the poster child for creative cliches. Most people don’t want to stretch their thinking, they like to stick to what they know. When it comes to problem-solving, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but instead creates a comfortable realm that we are hesitant to move out of.

As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as free thinkers, human thought, when confronted with a new problem, has a tendency to be rigid. We invest heavily in certain methods and are sometimes inflexible to new ways of thinking. We get stuck in a particular approach, set in our ways. Maybe trying new solutions is implicitly admitting our old solutions were wrong. Who knows, the mind works in strange ways.

Which brings us to the einstellung effect.

The einstellung effect (the word means ‘attitude’ in German) occurs when a person is presented with a problem and to solve it they call on an ‘attitude” or solution that is similar to something that worked on a comparable problem in the past. Think of it as the negative effect of experience when solving new problems. We repeat a known solution, even if it is no longer the best solution. The effect blinds us to exploring new possibilities, as we believe we already know the best solution and don’t bother evaluating new avenues to solve the problem.

The harm of this mindset occurs when the individual overlooks other possible solutions. Often these other solutions are more efficient, with less time and resources having to be spent on solving the problem. While using tried and true problem-solving techniques can be beneficial to future problems, it can sometimes cause us to limit the range of our contemplation. It can place us in a repetitive pattern. Creativity may be sacrificed.

The effect was examined in chess players in an experiment with a situation in which the board was set up for players to see a popular 5-step check mate soluton. The majority of players chose this solution, even though a lesser know 3-step solution was also an option. The players, based on their cognitive bias of previous experiences, failed to see this more effective play. The academic study of the effect is worth reading:  Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones.

For students, the einstellung effect is a natural response to learning something new. While it can be a bit counter-intuitive – as prior knowledge is supposed to help us solve a problem – it’s important to make students aware of the cognitive bias of einstellung. Our teaching has to take it into account.

Three simple ways to help students deal with the einstellung effect are:

1) Take a break when confronted with a problem

2) Redefine the problem to help break a mental jam

3) Get different perspectives from others

Metaphors for Class Discussions

Class discussions are one of the best strategies for encouraging students to take a more active role in their learning. They allow students to find their voice. They create a space for the sharing of ideas and an opportunity to engage in debate. They also provide valuable feedback for teachers.

The problem is that the standard ‘review type’ questions that ask students to recall and give back information follow a familiar pattern. The teacher questions, a student responds and the teacher evaluates. It is sometimes known as IRE (initiate, respond, evaluate). There is a time and place for this type of questioning, especially when teachers want to activate prior knowledge, unfortunately though, it is the default style of discourse in many classrooms. Unless teachers make a deliberate attempt not to always use this style, it will prevail and limit the richness of discussions.

The IRE pattern of interaction is best described as resembling a ping pong match, with a back and forth between the teacher and a single student. Doug Lemov refers to it as playing catch, or static questioning. Much of the class is left out of the interaction, and as a result, they usually tune out. The teacher is the one getting most of the practice, with students not having to carry much of the load. It also focuses primarily on memory as the main cognitive function, offering a limited effect on the development of thinking and reinforcing the idea that learning is memorizing.

Instead of the ping pong style, a more useful metaphor for effective discussions is basketball. The ball, representing the question, is passed around and ideas are bounced off one another. There is a greater involvement from the whole class as each student has an opportunity to contribute to the discussion. This approach forces students to prove, justify, or defend their answers and those of their classmates. Students are held more accountable for contributing to the discussion, leading to a more engaging environment and livelier discussions.

The ice-cream cone is another metaphor for class discussions, with each scoop resting on the foundation of the one preceding it. By building on the comment that comes before it, the discussion becomes deeper, with ideas being connected together. There is a sense of cohesion. It also requires students to really listen to their peers and contribute only that which moves the discussion forward. It brings a focus to the discourse and a sense of purpose, as there is no place for random thoughts or tangents.

To get the most out of class discussions, it’s important to move away from the traditional game of ping pong and play more basketball, build more ice-cream cones.

The Problems with Self-Directed Learning


Hendrix could play the guitar like no one else. Da Vinci was arguably the greatest inventor the world has ever seen. Lovecraft wrote some of the most haunting stories in English literature. All were autodidacts, self-taught individuals who followed their curiosity and passions, educating themselves to become pioneers within their fields. Like most autodidacts, they failed to finish school or didn’t attend it at all.

The thing is though, most people are not autodidacts. We are not disciplined. We don’t like to read. We lack motivation. For the majority of us, in order to learn effectively, we need guidance from teachers, the support of our peers and the structure provided by institutions. Learning is rarely productive without them.

Yet self-directed learning has become fashionable in education, mostly due to the advancements in learning technologies and the explosion of ed-tech, an industry full of autodidacts who have schooled themselves. In the process, the learner has been increasingly placed at the center. They know best. Allow them to direct their learning as they see fit, they say. Give them the freedom to learn what they want, when they want and how they want. Sounds nice, but does it work?

There are three problems with this premise. The first is that novice learners, by definition, don’t know much about the subject they’re learning, so they are ill equipped to make effective choices about what to learn next. There is no map, no compass. The second issue is that it’s human nature to often choose what we prefer, rather than what’s best for us. Learners have the tendency to practice tasks or skills they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would stretch their thinking and improve their expertise. Given the choice, most of us take the easy way out. The third problem is that although learners like to have some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating. It taxes us mentally, constraining the learning that such freedom was supposed to bring.

No one learns in isolation, as education is inherently social. Or is it?

Isaac Asimov once said, “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” I tend to agree.

Here Comes the Monkey!

John Oliver’s segment on standardized testing is a brilliant critique of all that is wrong with the system. It has struck a chord with many, articulating the absurd aspects of standardized testing and voicing concerns that have steadily gained momentum. A lot of people are fed up. Oliver articulates this frustration and exposes the insanity of a system that defies all common sense, one that has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with corporate profits. Testing is big business.

As Oliver says, ‘At this point you have to ask yourself, if standardized tests are bad for teachers and they’re bad for kids, who exactly are they good for?’ Indeed. But of course, they’re good for the companies who run the tests. With annual revenue from the tests totaling $258 million, Pearson leads the way. Their influence on education is shocking.

Many critics – including teachers – agree that the tests don’t improve students’ learning. The majority of the tests are impossibly challenging, fail to reflect ability in a practical sense, include error-laden questions and are graded with shady scoring tactics.

These articles delve deeper into the world of Pearson. Definitely worth a read.

Pearson ‘Education’ — Who Are These People? – An article that focuses on their finances and the three key executives who set the agenda.

No Profit Left Behind – A thorough expose by Politico that explains how the testing giant is negatively impacting education.

The Authoritarian Genius Behind Common Core and Pearson – A look at Michael Barber, the Chief Academic Officer and his ideology of ‘deliverology’.