June 29, 2008

(Not) coping with cognitive overload

Chris_craft In Greenville last week Chris Craft led one of the best presentations I've ever been in on (it was about how to present effectively, so had an interest in being top of the game). His work on cognitive load theory is, this week at NECC, striking a chord with me. There's. Too. Much. Noise.

I mean noise in the physical sense and in this metaphorical one. At EduBloggerCon conversations were cut down in their prime as people moved on to other, in my case, less engaging ones. In the Bloggers' Café conversations are fantastic but interrupted with urgent meetings or "you gotta see this"s or just someone having loud fun two feet away.

My cognitive load is constantly tipping over into extraneous. Let Chris's talk explain:

Intrinsic load is the natural load required to complete a task. It can be easy sometimes (driving from home to school) or heavy on others (being an air traffic controller), but we can be trained to cope with it.

The Germane level of load is the optimum level we can cope with, where we maximise the load we are under. In lessons and projects we can feel that Germane load as 'flow', where everything's going in our favour, and then...

Extraneous load comes along, where we all go wrong, especially when we are communicating information in, say, a presentation. It's when, mid flow, the grass starts getting cut outside. Or when someone has to leave a meeting early.

Overload occurs here. The person who missed the earlier part of the meeting, or left early, or the sensation that someone is talking at you when you're in deep conversation with another person opposite, or the kid who doesn't understand where you're at, who isn't with you because they didn't understand the initial point of the project...

When they reach that breaking point they default, they default to the only reaction that's available. They default to an old familiar way, an automatic behaviour, a kind of behaviour where we immediately kick ourselves and ask: "Why on earth did I say that? Where on earth did that come from?"

This is what has been happening to me for the past two days. I've become someone I hate: snarky, off-task, unproductive, unthinking. I've started caring about whether people are streaming video around me where I never did before (I can't have a chat in confidence without 40 people in cyberspace listening in - just happened). Worst of all, I'm finding that without my usual 'white space' or 'beta time' to think, I have nothing to say to people. I have no ideas for the article on the state of social media in education that was due on Friday, that I want to get finished for tomorrow.

I feel like the glass that's got water gushing into it from the tap - despite all that water this particular glass  is always going to be half empty when the tap eventually turns off. Most of the input will have fallen off down the drain.


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Maybe you should just say 'rhubarb' and go for a walk....and chill.

If something is important it will be written about in umpteen blogs so you'll get it eventually. All the rest is just people making noise to show how important they think they are. Ask them if they'll be remembered at the next conference if they fall under a taxi outside 8-)

Life is too short to get stressed about these things. I'm surprised I'm saying this with a week to go to the end of term in Elgin! Roll on Friday! Enjoy the rest of your US trip - Mrs Mc is out soon is she not? A honeymoon every year in a different place - wow! Lucky girl!

snarky, off-task, unproductive, unthinking I know how that feels, teaching sometime seems to be a job with overload built in. In Scotland McCrone attempts to build in beta time with NCCT, but we need some sort of culture shift, maybe connected to your 'permission to fail' ideas, some 'blue sky time' when you are not allowed to mark jotters. So, perhaps, allow your self to fail to be fully engaged with the noise;-) At least is is warmer than the Scottish summer!

Are any of those presentations recorded? I would like to hear more about what was said.

Chris's presentation on presentations was pretty awesome. Sometimes at conferences I get information overload and have to give myself time to process it. That is why my blog post about the UTC conference won't come out until tomorrow. I have to let the information go round and round in my brain and cook for a little while. Hope you find some white space time.

Thanks for sharing how you feel Ewan - I already had some sense of this from the tweets you were sending out. I can understand your frustration, but as someone who is intensely interested but unable to attend NECC, I'm finding the streaming and connections online invaluable. Hope you can fins some space without feeling like you're being stalked by a ustream!

Jenny Luca.

I know so well how this feels - what I'm going through at present - offtask, unproductive, unthinking until you feel like something's about to break. I was talking wiht a friend about this very thing the other day, and building up to my own blog post (displacement activity if ever there was). We decided it's partly to do with being in transition. Special needs children who hate the last week of term - they're going from one structure to another. Or going back to work after a holiday. Baby No 1 arriving. There are lots of examples once you start thinking about it.

I'm in transition from illness to health; my body may be sorted but my brain, which seemed to be coping so well, has suddenly been left standing. And I'm a little afraid that the sympathy card I've been playing with work may suddenly run out!

Perhaps identifying a transition can help us deal with the change and sort our priorities out. The priority isn't usually work - I bet yours is your family at the moment. Time for a holiday?

Go for that swim! Then fall asleep somewhere and turn up when you feel like it - with a vague expression on your face if you can manage it. No-one is indispensable and nothing is unmissable if you aren't able to profit from it.

The word inevitable comes to mind, Ewen. It's your body telling you enough is ENOUGH. You are a man not a machine and the human brain does not have a limitless ability to process. Be warned! The next step is self implosion!! Get out into nature and give the digital world a break before it breaks you!

Thing is, Eva, it's not the digital world that's causing the impending implosion - it's the physical one. It's having to be in a place at a certain time with certain people, instead of being able to go with the flow that's the problem. It's having an experience over which I should have control being too organised by other events and environments.

Needless to say, I'm getting out of that feeling now that the conference proper has started. Looking forward to some good old doing one thing at a time for a while.

Good on ya! Enjoy!

Hi Ewan!

Thanks so much for posting this. I thoroughly enjoyed our time chatting at UTC and I am glad that Cognitive Load Theory is giving you some verbiage to how you feel. Please let me know if I can ever be of service!


Chris Craft

I'm glad to know I'm not alone. As a first-timer present in the blogger's cafe, I was a bit overwhelmed. I'm not one of the BIG VOICES in the blogosphere. I've never met any of them face-to-face. My flight didn't get here until late afternoon Saturday. So--walking into the blogger's cafe was daunting. I had trouble entering any conversations (I'm a bit shy) but felt overwhelmed by all the chatter. It was strange that, while presentations were ongoing, it sometimes appeared few were listening: many were talking so loudly I couldn't hear the presentor. It felt a bit like a classroom where the teacher has completely lost control, where the unruliness of the environment detracts from learning. I'm all for messy, organic learning environments, but the blogger's cafe was a bit too messy for me. I wonder how newbies can enter face-to-face conversations with those BIG VOICES--to learn from them. Could we perhaps, have some small group pairings of newbies and old wise ones?

Ewan, it was a pleasure meeting you. I felt horribly distracted as well, like a compass needle spinning in circles. That said, I enjoyed the experience as well.

Thank you for taking a moment to say hello and chat!

Warm regards,
Miguel Guhlin

Kia ora Ewan!

The symptoms you describe are familiar, but difficult to give an explanation for without getting off-side with the sufferer. :-)

But the glass you describe is better at coping with the flood than the sufferer, for it chucks what it obviously can't hold. In doing so it always provides a not-too-empty, not-too-full amount to the drinker.

It's when the bottom is pushed out of the glass by the torrent that it all becomes quite useless.

Teachers and other users of technology, data and advice have to learn to be like the glass. And if that means chucking what is impossible to hold in order to cope, so be it. Better that, than the bottom falling out altogether.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

my first response to a blog. I prefer hand writing a letter.

Cognitive overload is different from information overload (and both, I think, are different from what you experienced). Chris appears simply to talk about 'load', without distinguishing.

Cognitive overload is a case where too much *thinking* is required (when you look at cognitive load studies, you'll find they all focus on some sort of processing task, like (say) theory retrieval).

Information overload is a case where there is too much sensory perception happening in too short a time, and so your ability to select and filter incoming information is impaired.

In your case, I think you were irritated by so many people doing (what appear to be) irritating things.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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