How to Combat the Cognitive Load and Plan for Success in the Secondary Years

Article by Mr Bill Hooper | Head of Curriculum

“Step into the future with confidence, creativity and courage. Your journey to innovation starts today!” 

This invitation (and challenge) was delivered to our Secondary School students at Matthew Flinders Anglican College when we officially opened our new multi-storey master-planned Infinity Centre, a world-class learning facility, in May. 

Of course, it is going to take more than some verbal goading to transform our students at Flinders into the entrepreneurs and innovators we envisioned during the four-year planning and construction of the Infinity Centre.

Indeed, our staff at Flinders have engaged with current research and thought long and hard about what will be required to have our students working successfully and independently towards finding complex solutions to the complex problems we intend to provoke them with in this facility.

The Value in Foundational Knowledge and Diverse Skills

The critical first step towards effective Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is to develop in each student a strong foundation in disciplinary and factual knowledge, and a broad base of skills. A Year 9 Engineering student needs to understand compressive and tensile forces, and be skilled in CAD before they can design that long-awaited new bridge to span the Mooloolah River. And a successful Year 10 Art student will need to master a whole array of technical, analytical and conceptual skills before they put paint to canvas. As students gain expertise, they can also increase their time spent on independent problem-solving. 

As the Australian Education Research Organisation recently suggested, “Over time, students become more independent learners, who can generate new learning beyond what they’ve been taught and build new, meaningful connections to ensure success now and in the future.” Without that foundation of specialist expertise and knowledge, there is a risk that projects will be superficial.  

How to Combat the ‘Cognitive Load’ and Plan for Success with Problem-Based Learning

The other risk with Problem-Based Learning, particularly with Secondary School students, is that project work that is multi-faceted and can take a few weeks to complete has the potential to be overwhelming. This is what Emeritus Professor Dr John Sweller coined the ‘cognitive load’ in the 1980s; in simple terms, the working memory of the brain can only handle so much!

Our Secondary staff team at Flinders has overcome this issue by ensuring that projects are broken down into manageable chunks and with guide posts in place along the way. This is the approach for subjects in the Infinity Centre as well as the project phase in our award-winning signature curriculum for our Year 9s, the Flinders Year to RISE. For example, the Design Technology Department has introduced a project management process for students to outline and track the steps in a project. Along with a range of other structures, scaffolds and protocols, this ensures that the products are finished and to a high standard. 

Conversations with Lachie Smart, General Manager, Smartline Medical 

I recently accompanied Lachie Smart on a tour through the Infinity Centre. Lachie (who also happens to hold the record for being the youngest person, aged 18, to have flown solo around the world in a single-engine plane) has previously been a guest speaker at our Flinders Powered by Design events. I shared with him these thoughts on how we develop innovators and entrepreneurs, and how the spaces in the Infinity Centre reflect those ‘chunks’ in the PBL process. We also discussed the ‘gradual release of responsibility’ to students implied by the design of the building. It was reassuring to get his endorsement for our approach at Flinders. 

So yes, the ‘journey to innovation’ has started – it’s just not as simple as it sounds! And therein lies the invitation and the challenge. 

Mr Bill Hooper | Head of Curriculum

Request our College


Request our Prospectus

Book a Personalised

College Tour

Book Your Tour