Rich Knowledge and Cognitive Load

If your finger is anywhere near the pulse of education, you will no doubt have heard the term ‘knowledge-rich’ bandied about rather frequently of late. You will also have heard mention of cognitive load theory or Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. These three ideas often seem to go hand in hand, as part of an increasingly prevalent core of educational thinking, yet at first glance one may think they contradict one another.

Let’s start out with the term ‘knowledge rich’, which is in itself generic enough to be defined differently by different people. I’ve heard many a grumble from some corners of edu-twitter, claiming that they have always taught knowledge and that ‘knowledge-rich’ is just a cipher for a type of rote-like, fact memorisation model of instruction. This faction seizes on the usage of knowledge organisers as its prime exhibit to claim that the ‘knowlege-rich’ approach is really just the regurgitation of facts. I think this type of characterisation can sometimes verge on the willfully obtuse.

For me, ‘knowledge-rich’ education is the antithesis of ‘knowledge-light’, and a reaction to the skills-based genericism that crept into education over the last decade or so (nowhere more obvious to see than in the ‘usefulness of a source’ type questions on GCSE papers). While it does include some element of fact memorisation, the ‘knowledge-rich’ approach is founded on the principle that skills or knowledge (those two terms can sometimes be interchangeable) are domain specific and not as transferable as has been claimed in the past. To be good at something, you need to know a lot about it. That knowledge will not automatically mean you will be good at another, distantly related skill. So when we talk about a knowledge-rich history curriculum, we mean that it will have breadth and depth. Children being taught the Middle Ages in a knowledge-rich way will come out knowing an awful lot about the Middle Ages.

I’ll give one example of the level of depth that may differentiate a knowledge-rich from a knowledge-light approach. In booklet 8 of ‘Learning For Memory: The Middle Ages’, I discuss the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket, which culminated in Becket’s brutal murder. A knowledge-light approach to teaching this topic would give students the main bullet points of the story and have some engaging activity for them to do, for example getting them to write a catchy newspaper headline and article about the event. We’ve all seen those big headlines such as ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, followed by a tabloid type retelling of the gruesome story. I’m not so keen on these type of activities, not least because they encourage an anachronistic way of thinking about the past.

In contrast, the knowlege-rich approach taken in my booklet is careful to set the scene with a rich level of detail, allowing students to build a picture of the relationship between Henry II and Becket, to get a feel for their character and to gain some insight into the causes of the dispute between them. I include source material as vignettes, which of themselves don’t advance the story but which go towards exploring the two characters in greater depth. Thus for instance, I include the infamous cloak incident:

So much can be inferred from this one incident and go towards a better understanding of the dynamics between Henry and Becket. Henry treated Becket as his servant who always did his bidding. Becket submitted to this treatment because he had no choice in the matter, but internally he may have chafed at it. Contrast this incident with another, after Becket has been made Archbishop of Canterbury – again, an incident which doesn’t of itself advance the story but which gives that level of insight into what is really going on.

It is fascinating to juxtapose these two incidents and see the development of the relationship between the two protagonists. One can’t help but think there’s a little payback for that lost cloak in Becket’s manner towards his king. So much can be learned by delving into this level of detail, something that doesn’t necessarily happen in the ‘knowledge-light’, skills driven approach. I might add that this knowlege-rich type of story telling is far more memorable for students.

So, perhaps we are now a little clearer on what is meant by ‘knowledge-rich’. Then we come to cognitive load and Rosenshine. I don’t have enough space here to discuss these fully (follow the links for more information) but the main takeaway from these two theories is that students should practise what they already know, and only small levels of new knowledge should be added at any one time, to avoid cognitive overload. How does this square with the knowledge-rich approach? How can we teach our students lots of stuff in great depth if we can only add small bits of new knowledge at a time?

Here I think, in the context of history as a subject, is where the focus on teaching second-order concepts as the holy grail can sometimes derail our students. Yes, professional historians are often engaged in thinking about these second-order concepts (e.g. cause & consequence, change & continuity, significance etc), but while our students are still novices (and at KS3 they certainly are, a little less so at KS4 and so on), we need to be mindful that focussing on getting them to the top of Bloom’s pyramid is probably not the way to go. Can students really analyse in depth the significance of an event if they only have surface knowledge of it? Probably not. I’m not advocating here that we don’t teach second-order concepts, but that we do it with a light touch.

A lot of that second order thinking can be drawn out in the sentence writing exercises (inspired by Hochman and Wexler’s “The Writing Revolution“). In these exercises, students practise writing by focussing on completing a sentence stem with the conjunctions because, but and so (they can also be given sentence stems starting with words such as although, while, unless, whenever, before, after etc.). For example, one could present them with the sentence stem “King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury,” and possible answers could be:

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury, because Becket had been his loyal chancellor for many years.

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury, but Becket ended up doing the opposite.

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury, so he was infuriated when Becket went against his will.

If we think about it, there’s a wealth of cause and consequence embedded into these sentences. The conjunction because will inevitably look at a cause, while so will discuss a consequence. Ostensibly students are practising their writing skills, but in the background to all this, they are also developing their historical thinking. So in regards to cognitive load, and only teaching students small amounts of new knowledge at a time, my thinking goes like this. Using the metaphor of a science experiment, where there are different variables put in place, a lesson should consist of:

  • an independent variable (the one that changes), which would be the new knowledge being added, for example two or three pages of reading that advances the story or topic we are following.
  • a dependent variable (the thing that a scientist focuses his or her observation on), which would be the sentence writing (or paragraph writing), related to what has just been read.
  • a controlled variable (the thing that stays constant), which would be the retrieval practice, such as multiple choice quizzes to test prior knowledge.

In this way, I hope we can achieve the objective of a knowledge-rich curriculum while at the same time respecting the limits of working memory and not overloading our students with more information than they can process.


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