An Educators’ Guide to the Cognitive Capacity Theory

Have you ever wondered why Hollywood is obsessed with sequels and remakes? The obvious answer is that they are proven money-makers; of the top 10 grossing movies in 2014, only one of them was wholly original. The rest were connected in some way to a story audiences had already been told. Why are audiences drawn toward this familiarity? The answer is one that speaks to the very core of something called cognitive capacity theory. And a teacher that can use this theory to his or her advantage will see their classroom results skyrocket.
But let’s back up.

Child Development

Every child goes through predictable stages of development on their way to becoming an adult. These stages take place in five distinct areas: cognitive development, social and emotional development, speech and language, fine motor skills, and gross motor skills. Part of what guides a good curriculum is not just exposing children to new knowledge, but tailoring that knowledge to an appropriate stage of cognitive development.

What are Cognitive Skills?

C8 Sciences and the brain-training program at the heart of our research – ACTIVATE™ – is based upon the latest research into the eight core executive functions of the brain that form the foundation for all learning. Each one is important to a child’s ability to follow lessons, learn material, socialize with classmates, and succeed academically. Briefly, they are:

1. Sustained Attention

The ability to stay on task for a prolonged period of time.

2. Response Inhibition

The ability to shut out distractions when working on a task.

3. Speed of Information Processing

How quickly the brain can process incoming information, whether oral or written.

4. Cognitive Flexibility and Control

The ability to switch between thoughts rapidly.

5. Multiple Simultaneous Attention

The ability to multitask.

6. Working Memory

The ability to keep instructions or information in mind long enough to carry out tasks depending on that information.

7. Category Formation

The ability to compartmentalize information into separate mental categories.

8. Pattern Recognition

The ability to find patterns and decide logically what will happen next.

Executive Functioning & Cognitive Capacity in Children

The better a child develops these eight executive functions, the better they’ll be able to do in school. But while all eight capacities are vital, let’s focus on working memory for the purposes of this discussion. Working memory is sometimes called the “scratch pad” of the mind. People use this cognitive capacity to learn, accomplish tasks, and follow directions. Problems arise, however, when a child has deficiencies in their working memory.
Let’s say you’re teaching a word problem meant to explain a mathematical concept. The characters in the story, the plot, and the mathematical concept are all novel to the students. They must use their working memory to not just learn the math, but also to follow the plot and get oriented to the characters. This takes attention away from the meat of the lesson, which is the mathematical concept you’re trying to get across.

Cognitive Capacity Theory

This brings us to an exciting new area of study that aims to explore cognitive capacity and executive function. We know that even the brightest children can only retain so much information at any one time. But many educators fail to recognize how much information is being thrown at their students.
According to the capacity model, there are three distinct components to narrative content that aims to convey an educational lesson. There is the narrative content, the educational content, and the distance between the two. These three components play an enormous role in determining how much a student gets out of any specific lesson.
For instance, let’s say you’re teaching a lesson on the life cycle of the butterfly. To teach the stages of life, you’re using a story about a boy who found a caterpillar on a nature walk. The story includes all the components of that caterpillar’s eventual growth into a butterfly, but it also includes information about the boy’s friends, his family, and his quest to get a good grade on an upcoming science test. The breezy narrative may help children stay interested in what would otherwise be a dry science lesson, but that interest comes at a price. Students may use too much of their working memory to keep track of the irrelevant narrative, leaving them with too little to expend on the life cycle of the butterfly.

Closing the Gap

Teachers aware of cognitive capacity theory and the executive functions can tailor lessons to the limitations of working memory. By closing the distance between narrative content and educational content, they can focus their students on the relevant aspects of the story. By using situations and characters repeatedly, they can introduce new material without risking overload.
Remember Hollywood and the obsession with sequels? That’s where it comes from. Even adults struggle with this distance between narrative and educational content. Moviegoers look at films as ways to escape from the stresses of real life. They choose Spider-Man 3 over an original story because they know intuitively that there will be fewer hurdles to overcome. They know the characters, they know the setting, and they have a pretty good idea of how the story will be structured. They can therefore sit back, relax, and enjoy the plot without worrying about “catching up” to the world of the story.
This same concept can be applied in the classroom. By using simple lessons and narratives that use characters, situations, and story structures already familiar to the students, you can easily introduce new material without overwhelming them. By using narratives that keep a tight focus on the educational content, students won’t be left trying to expand their working memory beyond its breaking point.

Decreasing Cognitive Load

If you want to have your own set of Hollywood blockbusters in the classroom, you’ll need to decrease the cognitive load. Routine, planning, and a low-stress environment play key roles in decreasing a student’s cognitive load. By decreasing the amount of information they must process at any one time, teachers can overcome cognitive hurdles and make sure their students are using working memory to learn the intended lesson.