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What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Information designer Oliver Caviglioli talks about the evidence-based importance of Cognitive Load Theory in schools...

  • What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Click here to download this feature’s free poster, designed by Oliver Caviglioli.


You describe yourself as a ‘visualiser’; what do you mean by that?

When I left headship, I was often stumped when people asked me what I did for a living. ‘Illustrator’ seemed too limited, as I do more than that. And ‘designer’ suggests that I’m professionally involved with furniture or new buildings.

‘Visualiser’ involves information design. I spend around half my time reading and summarising books and articles, not drawing. And when I do that, I’m calling on the decades I’ve spent working in and reading about education.

Finding the key points, chunking information, deciding on a sequence, and then working on the most appropriate graphic format all comes under the term ‘visualiser’.

Do you think that all teachers should have an understanding of the role images can play in strong explanations?

With the rediscovery of cognitive load theory and dual coding theory, teachers have been realising how biological limits shape human learning.

Included among these revelations is that we have two separate but interconnected systems to deal with information and make sense of it — a verbal and a visual one. That’s true for us all, whether or not we associate with the inaccurate notion of visual learners.

Professor Paul Kirschner terms these two information channels double-barrelled learning.

When words are tethered with images, there are two memory traces that double the chance of them being retrieved. Which teacher would want to be ignorant of this startling fact? So, yes, teachers should, and will want to, know about the power of images in learning.

How important is it, in your opinion, for educators to keep up to date with developments in neuroscience?

I don’t think teachers need concern themselves with neuroscience. Since John Bruer’s famous A Bridge Too Far article (1999)‚ where he dismissed neuroscience’s capacity to provide a steer for education, there’s been no change in practical advice.

Speaking to Nick Rose on the subject, I learned that he sees it as an opportunity cost — what more practical knowledge could a teacher be reading about in the meantime. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t follow neuroscience’s development.

For me, the best place to go for that is Efrat Furst’s blog, Teaching With Learning in Mind, which has the explicit intention of bridging (neuro)science and education.

As a former headteacher, what – if anything! – do you miss about life at the chalkface?

I spend most of my time now reading books and articles and working on my Mac. Alone. So what I miss is working with colleagues on shared projects, all within an elevated and aspiring context.

Teaching is a profession where teachers and headteachers work towards a vision of improving the lot of their fellow humans. Of course it’s tough, but every minute contains the possibility of transforming the mundane into significant moments for children.

Seeing colleagues renewing their commitment to children, every day, triggers depths of respect for them; my contact with teachers now comes in events like researchED and collaborating with them in designing the best way to visualise their ideas.

If you could have an hour with any educational influencer, past or present, in order to produce an evidence-based poster of his or her work/theory…whom would you choose?

I’ve had the splendid opportunity of working with, and visualising, many inspiring thinkers and practitioners. And I’ve a long list of authors with whom I shall be collaborating throughout the year.

But the one whose work I would love to visualise is Dylan Wiliam. I feel I could help his ideas — especially in the context of responsive teaching — become more accurately and widely known to a greater number of teachers. Maybe I should simply contact him with a request!


Download more educational posters from Oliver Caviglioli here and follow him on Twitter at @olicav.

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