On cognitive load

I’ve been thinking recently about cognitive load theory (CLT), a theory founded by John Sweller in the 1980s. Bear with me. I’m not intending to use seductive sounding terms like ‘cognitive architecture’; or to suggest that I am an expert on CLT; or to delve into discussions about intrinsic, extraneous and germane cognitive load; or to articulate the problems with self-ratings of perceived mental effort. This is more of a loose layperson’s pondering around the effects of the influence of new information on working memory.

CLT posits that human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time. A couple of weeks ago I moved house and the resulting chaos had me realising the effects of putting a heavy load of novel information onto the working memory. Despite the mundanity of the challenges of moving into a new home (whitegoods don’t fit, furniture doesn’t work spatially, boxes crowd in threateningly, kids don’t sleep well, the house makes strange noises), in the first week at our new place I left my yoga clothes at home once and left my phone at home twice. I was constantly struggling to remember where I had to look to find plates, cling film, toiletries, members of my family. I had no sense of routine or stability.

For me, the mental work of existing somewhere new, without the automaticity that comes with entrenched habit (or, as cognitive load theorists might call it, cognitive schemata in my long term memory) was immense and intense. I felt that I was living in a fog, and existing at about 40% of my usual capacity. The simplest of tasks were arduous, time consuming, and took what seemed like excessive cognitive effort. My husband asked me what was wrong with me; I knew that the relocation had taken my working memory beyond its capacity to cope. I was moving as through wet concrete. I felt displaced.

Now, learning a new house isn’t the same as learning new, complex, domain-specific skills (although I could talk long and hard about the gurgling of the fishpond interrupting sleep, the mental effort required to drive in the right direction home from work, and the impossibility of finding a sensible place for everything in a new kitchen). No doubt there were aspects of my experience that were environmental and affective as well as cognitive. Yet, the disorder and discombobulation I felt in my first week in my new house were a stark reminder of what students might feel when confronted with new content in a classroom with which they are not yet familiar, or with a skill that they might approach without the appropriate embedded prior knowledge and automation required to succeed.

As Greg Thompson has recently blogged (channeling Derrida’s student Bernard Stiegler), writing (like this blog post) can construct a mental prosthesis, a kind of corporeal residue of an experience that, left to the memory, would fade in intensity over time. Unlike Greg in his story of being concussed in Banff, I will have no physical remnants of moving house, nor any of the entertainment value of the story. No doubt soon the uneasiness will fade into that vague unnoticed feeling of being at home in instinctive motion.

In this post on the doctorate I reflect that:

Once we have learned something, we cannot always remember what it was like to not know it, making it difficult to teach or help someone. By (b)logging my writing memories as they happen, perhaps I can archive my not-so-good-at-academic-writing self. Reflecting-on-writing by writing-about-writing – in a kind of meta-writing – helps me to document my academic writing journey. … blogging helps me to have a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail back to my less capable self.

As someone becomes more expert, they often ‘black box’ their expertise, as Pamela Hinds explains in her 1999 paper ‘The Curse of Expertise’. Experts are unable to accurately predict the time and difficulty novices need to complete a task. Intermediate learners, Hinds finds, are more helpful for novices as they still remember and understand the problems of being a beginner. This is something I wonder about in terms of academia as well as teaching. Do doctoral supervisors ‘black box’ the PhD or EdD experience? Are they able to break down the steps of the doctorate for their students, or are veteran professors too far removed from the struggle and journey of the neophyte researcher? In a classroom, do teachers expert in their subjects have the capacities to break down the content and skills into accessible enough elements for struggling learners? Can an expert coach can break down the steps of coaching once they have internalised the philosophies, knowledge, and processes? Once the work of the mind is internalised and automated, much mindfulness and precision are needed if we are to teach others. Expertise may be a curse, but my house move has reminded me of the curse of the beginner. I yearn for repetitious automation.

So, as I use the daily practice of living in my new house as a way to build a long term memory schema, I am beginning to relax. Nothing yet feels automatic or fluid—and I still feel the newness and unfamiliarity of my surroundings—but I know that at some point I will forget the uneasy, cognitively prickly effort that came with moving house. I’ll happily float through the new place on auto-pilot, even in the dark of night or the first sleepy moments of the morning.

The hard cognitive work of coaching and the curse of expertise

Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath. ~ Michael Caine

This week I had a chance to reflect on the work of being a coach, work which happens in the throes of a coaching conversation. I was co-presenting part of the Cognitive Coaching course to some colleagues, and as part of the course I modelled a Cognitive Coaching planning conversation in front of the group, with one of the course participants as the coachee.

In my journey to coaching, I’ve often likened the experience of coaching to being a duck, apparently gliding effortlessly across the surface of the coaching conversation pond while the legs paddle manically beneath the surface. This analogy reflects for me my intention of providing for the coachee an experience of effortless rapport. No matter what internal coach dialogue or self-critique is going on inside my head, I want the coachee to feel that I am fully present in the conversation and that the conversation is natural and fluid.

Being fully present in a coaching conversation in which I am coach is hard cognitive work. In that moment I am focusing on maintaining eye contact and watching body language. Are my body language and facial expression open? Is my brow unfurrowed? Am I mirroring the posture and gestures of the coachee? What are their non-verbal cues telling me about their thinking? How can I paraphrase what they are saying in a way that helps their thinking? Do they need me to help boil down the essence of their thinking? Do they need me to help clarify a goal? Bring coherence to a system of ideas? Shift the level of abstraction of their thinking? Challenge them to consider their problem from a different point of view? Apply a different State of Mind (in Cognitive Coaching these are Consciousness, Craftsmanship, Interdependence, Flexibility and Efficacy)?

In a coaching conversation I am also working, in my head, on asking the best questions. Are my questions succinct? Do they reflect the language of the coachee? Do they use those things which my Cognitive Coaching training tells me are best for thinking: open-ended-ness, tentative language, plural forms and positive presuppositions? How is the coachee responding to the words I’m choosing? Have I understood the coachee’s thinking?

During this week’s model coaching conversation I was reminded of Pamela Hinds’ 1999 paper ‘The Curse of Expertise: The Effects of Expertise and Debiasing Methods on Prediction of Novice Performance’ (which I have written about before in terms of doing a PhD). Hinds found that experts may have a cognitive handicap; they are unable to accurately predict the time and difficulty novices need to complete a task. Intermediate learners were more helpful for novices as they still remembered and understood the problems of the beginner.

The curse of expertise suggests that becoming an expert can ‘black box’ the understanding of being a neophyte. Experts seem to forget what it was like not to know something or be able to do something. They have often forgotten the steps, the misconceptions and the struggle to mastery from the novice perspective. I reflected on this as I thought about my performance as the coach in my model conversation. My co-presenter, a Cognitive Coaching trainer with much more expertise than me as a coach and trainer, had taken some data for me during the model conversation. This data was a record of the questions I asked and my pattern of pausing, paraphrasing and questioning. Its purpose was to give me, as the coach, some non-inferential data on which to reflect, in order that I could refine my practice.

As I reflected on my thought processes as coach in the conversation, I found plenty to improve upon. And yet I remember that a few years ago, my post-coaching-conversation reflections were around much simpler and less layered aspects of coaching. Now I am reflecting on more than the conversation maps, the precision of my questioning and paraphrasing. While I still have to focus on those things (and pausing! I have to be very mindful about not jumping in) these aspects have become somewhat automated. I am now able to be thinking also about the Five States of Mind: which State the coachee is focusing on and which I might be able to help them access. I’m able to pay attention to eye movement to tell me about what sort of thinking is happening for the coachee. I’m able to consider how to paraphrase: whether I will clarify thinking or help to shift thinking to another level.

I don’t yet feel like an expert coach but I can see that I’ve moved from novice to intermediate, where some of the basic elements of being a coach in a coaching conversation have been internalised, allowing me to layer nuances of my practice and coach with a more craftspersonlike approach.

Sometimes now it seems my little duck legs are moving in slow motion; I have more control and less mania in my mind while I am coaching. I’m learning that as my skills develop, I stay buoyant more (but not totally!) effortlessly. It’s hard cognitive work, but work which has powerful outcomes for coachee and for the coach themselves. And the liberating thing about the work of coaching, I think, is that the hard work happens in the conversation. It’s in the conversation that the coach needs to be present, focused, and paddling like the dickens. Afterwards — when the coachee’s thinking has been sparked, pushed, pulled, surfaced and mediated through coaching conversation — the coach can reflect on their own practice, but is liberated from taking on the coachee’s thinking, solution finding or working through of problems.

My PhD found that becoming a coach can be a constant state. Just as our identities are in a constant state of becoming (we never arrive but are always being formed and reformed and transformed), coaching can become a way of being and a continual process of growth, self-development and identity work.