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.


Deliberate Practice

The Learning For Memory project has been influenced by the idea of deliberate practice, as explained in Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning‘, as well as by the application of deliberate practice expounded in ‘The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades‘ by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler.

Deliberate practice vs generic skills

According to Christodoulou, there are broadly two approaches to teaching skills: teaching them directly (the generic-skill method) and teaching them indirectly (the deliberate-practice method). The generic-skill approach involves teaching the desired skill directly, with the activities mirroring the desired end product. So for example, if we wanted to teach students how to write a history GCSE essay, then the activity would be to write such an essay.

The deliberate-practice approach, on the other hand, does not involve practising a skill in its final form. Instead, the skill is broken down into different component parts and these are practised until mastery is reached. Only then, does the student attempt the actual intended skill to be learned, such as the GCSE essay mentioned above.

The main problem with the generic-skills approach is that skills are not generic, they are specific. Thus it is nigh on impossible to teach discrete skills such as problem-solving or critical thinking. You cannot get better at problem-solving simply by practising solving problems. Christodoulou suggests that experts in all fields

‘depend on rich and detailed structures of knowledge stored in their long term memory. These structures – often called schema or mental models – are what allow the expert to encounter new problems and solve them with such ease.’

In other words, when experts are problem solving, they are not exercising some generic problem solving muscles. What they are actually doing is using a store of specific mental models in their long term memory to help solve the new problem. Thus, if we want our students to get better at something, we need them to acquire these mental models in their long-term memory, and the best way to do this is through deliberate practice.

Applying the deliberate-practice method to teaching history

I have thought long and hard about how we would go about breaking up the skills needed to write a good history essay. Where would we start? Of course, to write a good essay, you need to be able to make strong arguments and to show both your knowledge of the period and understanding of the question. So one of the starting points is the actual knowledge of the period we are discussing. My main approach in building up this knowledge has been the use of narrative. In this, I am not alone. The most recent issue of Teaching History (June 2018) has an article by Alex Ford and Richard Kennett which also suggests using narrative to make knowledge more memorable.

‘One way teachers can make knowledge memorable is by giving greater emphasis to narratives in our classrooms… Stories are easier for our brains to process and to remember and they allow us to attach additional information to them. In short, the story can act as a skeleton schema to help with memorisation.’

Through the medium of telling a story, we can immerse our students in the past and help them build a picture of the characters and events we are describing. One other aspect of making the knowledge memorable is to use approaches suggested by cognitive psychology for effective learning. The three approaches that I have found most useful in the context of history are:

  • retrieval practice
  • interleaving, and
  • dual coding.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice involves regular low stakes quizzing, as the more often we try to retrieve knowledge from our memory, the more memorable it becomes. At the end of each lesson sequence in the Learning For Memory booklets, I include a set of 3 recap questions. The first question usually recaps on a topic discussed in the previous lesson, and the other two questions delve further back. Knowledge organisers and multiple choice questions can also be used for quizzing, for example as a starter ‘do now’ type activity. I will be adding these as free downloadable resources in due course.


Interleaving was initially problematic, for history is very reliant on chronology. However, after much deliberation, I was able to find opportunities for harnessing this approach. In booklet 3 of ‘The Middle Ages’, I interleaved the three overlapping stories of Harold Hardrada, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy. The battle of Stamford Bridge gets covered twice: once during Hardrada’s story and then during Harold Godwinson’s narrative. The same applies for the battle of Hastings, which gets covered twice, from each protagonist’s perspective; each time a new level of detail is added.

I was also able to weave in particular concepts on numerous occasions, for example the concept of chivalry. We first encounter chivalry in booklet 5, when discussing the effects of the Norman Conquest on English society. Subsequently, we encounter chivalry again, this time in booklet 7, which tells the story of the ‘Anarchy’. When King Stephen is captured by Matilda’s forces at the battle of Lincoln, he is imprisoned because the code of chivalry prohibits the murder of opponents who have been captured, causing a bit of a conundrum for Matilda. Having seen chivalry in this context, students are then better placed to understand the haemorrhage of support for John after he captured Arthur and had him murdered (discussed in booklet 10).

Dual coding

Dual coding is basically a way to overcome constraints of working memory by displaying the information as a mixture of graphics and text. The Learning For Memory booklets contain a wealth of diagrams to summarise the information in a more digestible way. For example, there is frequent use of simple flow charts, summarising the main events just studied. This is one that was used to summarise the events following the sinking of the White Ship and Henry I’s naming of Matilda as his heir.

Here is another type of diagram used, this time to summarise how King William I profitted from the feudal system when a tenant-in-chief died.

Deliberate practice for writing

Of course, knowledge of the historical period is not enough. Students need to be able to formulate arguments and write effectively. Here, I was much inspired by The Writing Revolution, which argues that students need to be taught explicitly how to write, starting at the sentence level. Hochman and Wexler explain the main problem:

“To be effective, writing instruction should start in elementary [primary] school. But when students do get a chance to write in elementary school, they’re often encouraged to write at length too soon, sometimes at a furious pace. They don’t learn how to construct interesting and grammatically correct sentences first, and they aren’t encouraged to plan or outline before they write… When students get to middle school or high school, it’s assumed that they’ve already learned the basics of writing. As many secondary teachers know, that assumption has little to do with reality. But rather than beginning with teaching the fundamental skills their students lack – by, say, guiding students through the process of writing well-crafted sentences – teachers feel pressured to have their students meet grade-level expectations and produce multi-paragraph essays.”

I have been as guilty of doing this as anyone. In fact, when re-reading my first draft of ‘The Middle Ages’, I had to prune back several essay questions. Instead, I put more focus on completing sentence stems using the conjunctions because, but and so, as recommended by Hochman and Wexler. For example, in booklet 5, students are asked to complete the sentence stem ‘William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England,‘. This task is more difficult than it looks, and might need careful scaffolding and modelling by the class teacher. Possible sentences could be as follows:

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, because lots of people refused to accept him as their ruler.

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, but he was able to put them down easily with his military machine.

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, so he had to march his army from one part of the country to another in order to stamp his authority.

Then, every couple of sequence of lessons, I up the challenge by getting the students to write a paragraph, scaffolding the process by giving them a sentence starter. For example, in booklet 6, which discusses the consequences of the First Crusade, I start off with a sentence completion exercise, followed by a paragraph writing activity.

One other approach, which was nabbed from Robert Peal’s blog ‘The Art of the Paragraph‘, is to present students with a list of key terms and words (including Tier 2 words) to be included in the paragraph. For example, in booklet 8, students are asked to write two paragraphs, discussing the personal and principled aspects of the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket.

Only after having practised sentences and individual paragraphs, do we then go on to writing essays, the hope being that by then, students will have developed the requisite skills to practise that end-skill.