What does Cognitive Overload look like in the humanities?

When I deliver training on Cognitive Load Theory to non-maths teachers, a frustration for me is my limitation in being able to provide concrete examples of cognitive overload.  I know exactly what it looks like in the maths classroom, I obviously don’t have the same kind of experience in the history classroom, for example.

But I’m currently getting a real feel for it, that’s for sure.

CLT suggests we should manage cognitive load, to avoid overloading working memory

If you haven’t read it before, give this a go:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated.
Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

Bransford, J.D., & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717-726.

Reading those paragraphs above is a bit like learning Chinese history.

When I sat down to listen to 90 hours of lectures on Roman History, I loved pretty much every minute of it.  I knew something of the Romans – we learnt of their existence in primary school, we hear them mentioned in everyday life (they are a part of the popular consciousness),  I’d seen HBO’s Rome, Starz’ Spartacus, and several plays by Shakespeare set in Rome.  But I didn’t really know much at all, and so here the lectures were an absolute revelation.  Not only were many of the details of the Roman world being filled in, but along the way I learnt something about government, law, rule, and leadership – such that I can appreciate why Classics was once considered ‘what you study if you want to go on to run the country’ – as well as the roots of many things that prevail in Western culture, some physical such as Hadrian’s Wall (I now know who Hadrian is) and some ideological, such as the diocese and vicars, or even the idea of Divine Right of Kings.

As I try to listen to a similarly long series of lectures that deal with Chinese history in an equally chronological manner… I’m struggling, to the point where I might eventually even need to give up – I’m not learning enough to justify the time.  Every story is completely new to me, with no tie to any previous knowledge at all.  The Geography is entirely unknown to me.  Every name is alien to my ears; they all blend together such that I can’t distinguish one character from another. It’s not a complete waste; I am learning something about the early Chinese period: for example, that like Western history, there is a period of almost complete mythology at the beginning, that there were god-emperors in this telling, that there was a great flood and some interesting stories around attempts to deal with it, and so on.  But what I’m taking away from this is not nearly as rich as what I could take from the lectures on Rome.  Just like reading that paragraph from Bransford & Johnson before you know that it’s about laundry, without context, you hit overload pretty quickly, and just don’t retain as much.


Two questions emerge: how can I then successfully go about learning Chinese history?  How closely does this resemble the history classroom for a child of any age?

Sticking with question 2, how can we best shape the experience of learning history, in an almost total void of knowledge and experience?

It occurs to me that by listening to a series of lectures, I’m not really ‘studying,’ that is, I’m not testing myself on names and events – with Rome I didn’t need to so much, here I can see it would be of benefit, but would also increase the time and inconvenience.  But was the author right to shoot for a chronology of something so obsidian, or would opting for something that linked points in Chinese history to prior knowledge be more successful, as is done here?  I’ve always thought a shallow study of great breadth would be best to begin, since it provides some form of contextual framework, similar to reading Gombrich’s Little History of the World.  Is that right, or do we need to spend more time on each story, dropping the pieces in only a little at a time, and sticking to one topic at length so it can be ‘mastered,’ similar to the Depth Before Breadth approach taken in mastery mathematics curricula.  Or, is it by spending so much time in one place, heaping on detail after detail, each novel, none linking to existing knowledge, that we induce overload?  Would a quick, short, shallow story work better, before moving on the to the next, and seeing how the new story follows on from the older one?  Later, coming back to flesh out the detail of a select few

Interesting dates help, not hinder!  A much shorter series I ran through on Byzantine rulers opted to mention dates as little as possible; the lecturer seemed to believe they were off putting.  On the contrary, they left me struggling desperately to anchor events correctly in time!  On the contrary, the lectures on China uses dates, and they’re one of the few things I feel I can comfortably latch on to (which isn’t to say I remember them, of course.)

Are broad, simple narratives the place to start, to avoid cognitive overload?

Cognitive overload in the humanities seems to be consequent of a flood of detail that has no attachment to pre-existing knowledge.  It would be great to hear from history teachers how they deal with this.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What does Cognitive Overload look like in the humanities?

  1. Carl says:

    I think you’re absolutely right and is why I spend quite a bit of time drilling the chronology. As you say it gives them something to latch onto and leads to deeper analysis when you study the details as they make more connections

  2. David says:

    Have you seen this video with a Chinese Dynasty song based on Frere Jacques? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJis9TSw1rE
    I use this song and then attach an important aspect of each dynasty e.g. Shang= Oracle Bones, Zhou= Bronze, Qin= Terrecotta Warriors etc.
    I’m going to try and add a important person to each section next as well.
    The following list of maps is useful for getting to know Chinese geography:
    Again accompany each province with something memorable about it: Sichuan=Pandas, Qinghai: Biggest Lake, Hunan= Chairman Mao etc
    Hope that’s useful

  3. Tom Evans says:

    Yes. I think this is the key question for Humanities teachers, or at least for history. I think that a strong narrative understanding does have merit – as you suggest. But I think that this is more important for other reasons rather than in addressing cognitive overload. They key for Humanities teachers is to have a strong understanding of how working memory works particularly with respect to ‘chunking’ – which is to say that working memory limitations are based on discrete chunks of information not the amount of information therein. So, on a basic level FBI can be one piece of information (if I understand it) as F – B -I can be three if I do not. The skill for a history teacher is to be able to ‘chunk up’ information to allow large amounts of detail to be accessed into working memory and then used effectively.

Leave a Reply to Tom Evans Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s