How Do Children Learn?

In the lead up to Rosh Hashanah I cannot help but cast my mind back to the olden days of 2019 and the memories of frenetic preparation for Rosh Hashanah across the community. This involved the preparation of food for huge gatherings of our nearest and dearest (and the not so dear but you get what you get) alongside the purchasing of Rosh Hashanah gifts for our family and friends and of course outfits to ensure we emerged in our finest to honour this significant event in our Jewish calendar. Whilst much of this activity has been reduced to a more subdued intimate nuclear family gathering, the deep thinking, ritual and practice that surrounds Rosh Hashanah has continued both across Moriah Primary School and across the minds of our community members as we reflect on the year that was and our actions therein. We undertake this reflection process in preparation for the year to come as we select the actions we will bring to it.  

This year for Rosh Hashanah I would like to gift the parents of Moriah College the knowledge of “How Children Learn” as I feel certain it will come in handy at least for our next cycle of education at home. We all reflect on the year that was and we all recall the experience we have had as an influencer in the learning of our children. Parents have partnered with educators to a greater extent during online learning and will no doubt benefit from understanding how children learn. 

All Moriah College Primary School, educators are trained to understand how human brains learn and store knowledge. This concept is known as Cognitive Load Theory. Research completed by The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation has found that the brain can only process small amounts of new information at once, but can use large amounts of stored information. Information is processed in the working memory, where small amounts of information is stored for a short time. This information comes into the working memory via the 5 senses during the thinking and learning process and is constrained. We say it is constrained because the average human can only hold about 4 chunks of information in their working memory at a time. Once information has been processed in the working memory, it is able to be stored in the long-term memory semi-permanently. This information is stored in the long-term memory in schema which provide a system for organising and storing knowledge. 

If this process is so simple why do problems emerge in children’s learning?

If a student’s working memory is overloaded, there is a risk that they will not understand the content being taught and that their learning will be slow and/or ineffective. This will of course prevent the creation of additional schema in the long-term memory.

It is important to note that there are three different sorts of cognitive load which are placed on student learning in every task. Some loads are positive such as germane load and others need to be managed so that they don’t occur negatively such as the extraneous load and the intrinsic load.  

Intrinsic Load

The intrinsic load is the necessary inherent load in a learning experience. This includes the complexity of the knowledge and the prior experience of the learner. With extensive repeated practice reduces the level of difficulty and increases foundational schema of knowledge and procedure. If complex tasks are simplified and deconstructed and offered repeatedly to reinforce learning, then the intrinsic load becomes manageable, and learning is effective. During the novice phase, the brain is required to use thinking skills extensively which is more uncomfortable as opposed to participation in the expert phase when the brain uses knowledge; information can be automatically recalled from long-term memory with minimal conscious effort. This automation reduces the burden on working memory, because when information can be accessed automatically, the working memory is freed up to learn new information. 

Extraneous Load

The extraneous load needs to be reduced as a priority by the educators and facilitators who are supporting and encouraging a child’s deep learning. Poorly designed instruction, too much superfluous information which confuses learning focus, and overwhelming stimulus will confuse and compromise learning. Similarly, too much noise, a disorganised messy learning space, a second device that is distracting or negative social concern and interruption will compound the difficulty of skill and knowledge acquisition and hamper student progress. Finally, the absence of stationery or other tools, a device that is not charged or functioning well or an absence of the procedural knowledge and tools will also interfere greatly with effective learning. All of these aspects add to the intrinsic load of a learning experience and consequently learning will not occur. It is important therefore that learning is well designed and progresses through levels of complexity as schema grow in long term memory. 

Germane Load

This germane load needs to be maximised in learning. This load relates to ensuring lessons are well sequenced, all tools required for the learning are readily available. Scaffolds are in place to support the learning and students are reminded of the schema that they have and have practiced retrieving them. We see this in best practice when a teacher starts a learning experience reminding the students of what they already know and providing a quick drill, pair share or recitation of what they have in their long-term memory. It is important to turn up the volume on the teacher modelling a routine, employs the technique of thinking aloud to show the process of learning or uses guiding instruction so that the student accesses timely feedback and provocation towards discovery and skill consolidation.

Generally, when students move through their learning experiences every day it is important for facilitators on both sides of the screen to provide clear learning intentions, explicit instruction, well designed learning broken into manageable steps and opportunities for practice and feedback. 

The Ikea Analogy to Understand Cognitive Load Theory

During their 24/7 training in Cognitive Load Theory our Moriah educators are encouraged to compare learning as a trip through an Ikea Store. When we first enter, Ikea we move through whole room displays. Each room, whether it is a lounge, dining room or kitchen presents the final complete concept. Each of these room presentations are the same as the complex learning intention a teacher is required to develop in each of their curriculum learning areas such as English or Maths. An example of a Learning Intention in English is to enable a child to write a recount of an event or, to enable them to read and understand a text at a particular level of complexity. In the Ikea lounge room display there are several components that make up the room such as the coffee table, bookshelf, couch and drinks cabinet. To make up the room in the purchaser’s own home they are then required to progress through the store using a well mapped route to access the warehouse which is very well organised. In the warehouse they retrieve each of the packages to make up each of the furniture items which will ultimately make up the lounge room. 

The warehouse is an analogy for the child’s long-term memory and each package is an item or schema that is carefully catalogued ready for retrieval from long-term memory. A well mapped learning pathway ensures that schema are laid in long term memory after roughly 4 chunks of knowledge interact in working memory to enact learning and knowledge and skill acquisition. Kirscher, Sweller and Clark 2016 describe learning as “change in long-term memory”. If a concept has not been laid in long term memory as schema or if an existing schema has not been increased in complexity and sophistication over time, then learning has not occurred. 

What is important during student learning?

The most important job that we do during a child’s learning is to lay down schema and then make the schema more sophisticated by adding layers on top of the foundations of understanding we have laid. Initially a child’s schema of phonics (letters that match sounds) might be limited to a few basic sounds or phonemes but by the time they have reached mid primary the sophistication of this schema is significantly more complex. We also need to teach students to make connections or links between chunks of knowledge so that they are automatically used as one chunk of knowledge making room for other chunks of knowledge in their working memory. A perfect example is an attempt to try and memorise the letters y/e/m/o/m/r. As soon as these sounds are reorganised into the word “memory” they are automatically and effortlessly retrieved as a meaningful unit.  Similarly, as an educator layers a child’s understanding of sounds, words, sentences, paragraphs, world concepts and the recount writing form, so too the child retrieves this information as a linked whole chunk of knowledge for use in a context. The child moves from being a novice in each new area of knowledge to being an expert in that area and is then able to retrieve and apply their learning, effortlessly. 

In the same way as we would prepare to build a cabinet or coffee table from Ikea so too do we position children for success by understanding how they learn, little bit by little bit. We might ensure all the Ikea pieces are well laid out with access to all the correct tools as per a clear set of well communicated instructions. We might even ensure a friend who is handy joins us as a support person. In the learning environment we do the same with our students. We ensure they are explicitly taught the components of the learning intention we wish to achieve. We ensure a foundation of knowledge schema is laid in their long-term memory and we include appropriate additional knowledge chunks into their working memory. We structure learning with the correct cognitive load and facilitate learning that evolves into the most perfectly appointed curriculum learning area outcome which matches our learning intention, that Ikea showroom. 

Knowledge is indeed the greatest gift we can receive but the ability to grow knowledge is invaluable. Shana Tova – I wish you a sweet new year filled with blessings and opportunities for new learning and new beginnings.  


Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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