Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory

In September 2018, Newquay Junior Academy introduced the Big Maths approach to the teaching of fluency in mathematics. To this day, we continue to use the Big Maths approach because it has significantly improved standards.

Big Maths sequences, and simplifies, the maths curriculum. It aligns broader curriculum statements to a detailed framework of progression.

Ben Harding, the creator of Big Maths, embraced the challenge of creating a framework of progression for the primary maths curriculum. Ben’s research in Cognitive Load Theory and brain development (how children learn) informed the production of a carefully sequenced maths learning journey.

Teaching staff at Newquay Junior Academy all recognise the natural logic of maths, and the need to guide children through a natural chronology of learning (every curriculum advises of the same). Big Maths documents all of these natural steps, in their natural sequence, embracing the natural simplicity.

Due to the success of Big Maths, our Newquay Junior Academy curriculum has been designed in a similar way. Our medium term plans demonstrate how children are guided through a natural chronology of learning. For more information, please see the planning section on our website.

Cognitive Load Theory has several interweaving dimensions and has arisen from many years of robust educational research. John Sweller has been described as the ‘Godfather of CLT’, and it was he and his colleagues that started carrying out the research and developing the ideas around CLT. Although this started in the 1980s, to this day CLT continues to find and use evidence about how the brain learns to inform principles for teaching.

The human brain’s Working Memory (WM) is the part that processes information in the present moment. It is very limited. It can only process a small amount of new information at one time. However, it can work much better if it is able to retrieve relevant knowledge (facts/skills/concepts) stored in the brain’s Long Term Memory (LTM). If the brain is working to process information then it is not yet a part of a fluent ‘schema’ in the LTM. This adds high demand on the working memory, which can become overloaded and fail to process the new information. In order to avoid this cognitive overload we have to build on top of existing fluency. Fluency is always built on top of fluency.

‘Cognitive Load Theory is about not overloading the working memory, and about not underloading the working memory. CLT is about getting the load right.’

How do we make new knowledge and skills ‘stick’ at Newquay Junior Academy?

Once the learner can carry out the process independently, it is the teacher’s job to re-locate

the learning into the learner’s LTM. If the LTM is not affected then nothing has been learnt. We have to make the learning stick! The outcome of this is that the knowledge is now available for future retrieval and transfer.

Making It Stick! 5 Key Ideas

  1. Keep doing it: Practice makes permanent!
  2. Come back to it: Use gradually increasing time gaps to train the brain to retrieve the new knowledge (spaced practice). Include regular ‘upkeep’ checks and low-stakes testing, especially for key learning.
  3. Mix it Up: Play around with this journey from WM to LTM, particularly by weaving in other learning in the gaps between practice sessions (interleaving).
  4. Connect: As this ‘new knowledge’ becomes ‘old knowledge’ it is then used as an ‘already fluent part’ for more new knowledge. We also connect this new knowledge to a bigger curriculum picture.
  5. Increase Challenge/Transference: Guide learners to use the new knowledge with greater independence and in increasingly challenging and unfamiliar problems (expertise reversal).

For more information about Cognitive Load Theory please click on the link on the right-hand menu of this page.