Reducing Cognitive Load in the Workshop
March 28, 2017
One of my students is having difficulty learning to spell high frequency words. She reads them with ease, but when it comes to spelling, she still struggles. After thinking and talking and trying lots of things, it was so simple. I took the word solving strategies that we had applied to reading to our spelling with a few twists: see the word in your head, give it a go, does it look right? It’s not rocket science, but it is brain research.
Our working memory can only keep 6-7 things at a time. As David Souza points out in How the Brain Learns, this might not be a bad thing. Having a small amount of items in your brain may allow things to be more easily associated with other things. So if I am teaching steps in a process in writing, reading, spelling, or even math, I had better keep the steps down to 5 or less. Our visual memory is stronger than any other memory and current research show that visual memory is getting stronger. So those simple strategies help our young speller use a technique but where else in literacy learning is brain research facilitating.
Our working memory is also temporary. Most reports say less than 20 minutes. If I am trying to maximize brain use, I am switching activities every 15-20 minutes. Think of a 15 minute mini-lesson, 15 minute small group, 15 minutes increments of independent practice. When we write focus phrases, as outlined by Terry Thompson in The Construction Zone, I am creating short kid-friendly mantras with students that they can repeat to themselves during the scaffolding process. Check over my spelling. Circle words that don’t look right. Then go back and correct the spelling.
If I know students have enhanced visual memory, I may start a lesson with a short video of the subject or review with BrainPop, Kahoot, a drawing or picture. I also am thinking about reducing the visual load in my classroom. I read once that after a very short time (one week) anchor charts become visual wallpaper to students. Using them through the I do and We do phases and then moving them to a student size chart or a photo on an iPad for students who still need the scaffold during independent work, is an effective strategy.
Other things to keep in mind. Routines reduce cognitive clutter. If the structure of our routines stays relatively constant that frees up cognitive space for critical thinking and deeper learning. Practice matters. Moving from listen, watch, to perform helps move concepts from working memory to long term storage. How do we get thinking from working memory to long term storage? Two questions seem critical. Does this make sense? Does this have meaning?
My final thought is to think about the depth of the stairs. If those stairs are steep, carrying the groceries is really difficult. Making the moves from concepts easier by bridging ideas. Take care in moving through the gradual release, lingering in shared practice. This is not just for primary students. Finally, give wait, think, processing, and practice time.
To think is to practice brain chemistry– Deepak Chopra
Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. This is day 28 of 31. Read more slices here.