Friday, January 30, 2015

Reducing Cognitive Load

I've been reading Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao.  Beyond the obvious benefits of reading a book written by a grown man named Huggy, the book is wonderful.  I first discovered the book when the authors were interviewed by Daniel Pink for his podcast, Office Hours.

I enjoy reading business books and seeing how the principles can apply to education.  What I read in the chapter: Cut Cognitive Load set off alarms in my head! The authors say "People also have a greater capacity when they aren't worn down by work or worry." That makes sense, we all know we need to be well rest to do our best work. We tell kids this all the time, get a good night's sleep before a test.

But it's the study of Israeli judges that was really interesting.  Judges paroled prisoners at a rate of about 65% in the morning.  But right before the judge's morning break, the percentage drops to almost ZERO percent.  After break, back up to 65%.  Right before lunch, low rates.  After lunch back to 65%, at the end of the day back to nearly zero.  The paroles "required more mental resources".

The authors then say
The implication? If you want to make good decisions as the day wears on, watch for signs of fatigue.  Even seemingly trivial levels damage performance.  Build in ways for yourself and others to take breaks, whether it's getting a bite to eat or taking a few minutes to stretch your legs.  It sounds easy to implement.  Yet too many hard-charging leaders and busy teams don't do it. 

I immediately thought of the school day.  Elementary teachers don't seem to get many breaks.  Middle and high school teachers get 3 minute breaks between classes.  Are these breaks enough to clear their minds and mental rest before the next class?  Often not, sometimes it's not even enough time to use the restroom or get a drink of water.  And what about those teachers who have their break first thing in the morning or last period?  What happens in those classrooms?  It would definitely be an interesting study.

Jose Vilson's article on Edutopia, Less is More: The Value of a Teacher's Time offers up a solution to the problem.  Mr. Vilson's contention is that teachers need more time at work to do "the unseen work".  He cites a study that says that Finland's teachers log the least amount of time face to face with students.  This frees them to attend to more reflective planning, administrative tasks and problem solve with and for their students.  

This may be the answer to the cognitive load dilemma.  When teachers' days are split into blocks from planning and teaching, they may be free to take more frequent and valuable breaks.  

1 comment:

  1. I love it when folks bring together disparate points from seemingly unconnected sources, as you have here. I think your comments about cognitive load are apt, as some research says that teachers are making up to 1500 decisions in a single day ( This is a HUGE cognitive load, and one that definely does require breaks.

    However, I wonder if a lot of the cognitive load issues that we see in many classrooms is in the very role of what we think an "ideal teacher" should be. Many teachers feel as though they have to be the one expert in the room, and yet there are so many other sources of expertise and "teaching" that they can rely upon. Whether it is in creating a community of learners to help support one another or in relying upon digital resources and tools, the cognitive load is lessened each and every time the teacher does not have to be the sole source of information and knowledge in the classroom. It doesn't necessarily make the teacher's job any easier, but it can make it so that at least some of those 1500 decisions are made by the students or the adaptive tools that the teacher uses.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here:


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