Q&A with Dr. Charles Ahern,
Founder of Watershed Learning Institute
Question: My son is a very bright teenager but he is struggling with his schoolwork. Tests show that
he doesn't have a learning disability.
What could be going on with him?
Answer: Of course, it is not possible to diagnose your son without meeting with him in person and reviewing the test results. Nonetheless, I might wonder if he is struggling with Cognitive Overload.
You are probably well aware that academic demands in high school have increased in the past 25 years. There are more assignments, projects, tests and a lot more homework than when you and I were in school. One unintended consequence of this is that more children are struggling to learn. Despite putting out a great deal of energy and effort to meet the demand, they can't learn efficiently because they are under too much cognitive load.
Cognitive Load is the cumulative demand of intellectual processing -- how hard the mind has to work to think and learn. Too much load can make learning inefficient because the mind requires adequate space and time to take in new material. The mind also needs time to consolidate information or “learn what we’ve learned” so it stays with us. Research shows that when we exceed the limits of our cognitive system, our thinking and learning processes bog down. Once we are overloaded, the harder we try to think, the less we can learn – and the more we are apt to confuse what we have recently learned.
Students who are being asked to do work that is developmentally inappropriate for them are prime candidates for Cognitive Overload. These are students who have the intelligence and learning potential of their peers but struggle because they are asked to do too much too soon. Keep in mind, the brain develops at different rates in each child, and different cognitive functions develop at different times.
I often see the phenomenon of Cognitive Overload among high school students in college preparatory tracks who have yet to fully develop the mature cognitive functions which govern planning and organizing. Known as executive functioning, this aspect of cognition continues to develop well into the twenties and takes longer to develop in young men. This is one reason why so many of the children who struggle in highly academic high schools are boys. Often it’s the tracking and completing numerous assignments, organizing large batches of material, planning and executing projects, and preparing for frequent tests that creates undue load. It is not that any of these organizational tasks in isolation would be too difficult. Nor is the load created by the challenging intellectual content too great. But taken together, the load can push these kids into inefficient learning.
In cases like this, teachers and parents often sense that the student is not fulfilling his or her potential. Their problems are often attributed to lack of motivation or effort. The students themselves can often sense that they are not learning to their potential but don’t know why. Unfortunately, a typical response is to urge the child to work even harder. They can feel frustrated and confused, and may begin to avoid learning.
If this sounds like your son, you may first want to speak with his school counselor or learning specialist. Taking steps to reduce Cognitive Load – within learning sessions and throughout the school year --- results in immense progress for these students.
© 2006 C. Ahern