Why children are both experts and novices and what we might do to help.

Questions I’m thinking about here:

Why might it be both right and wrong to see the child as being ‘the expert in their own learning?’

Why do different types of human knowledge require different methods of learning?

Why is cognitive load theory not the panacea for all learners, all of the time?

How can teachers use cognitive load theory to support learners in becoming more expert in their own learning?

I came across a tweet recently reminding us to ‘respect young people as experts in their own learning.’ If I’m honest, I’m never quite sure what statements like this mean. In my experience, I usually know more about children’s learning needs than they do, but I make it my job to turn that around of course.

I assume then, that the tweet suggests that children should be allowed to lead their own learning  through a child-led curriculum because they naturally know where they are, and better than anyone else? After all, we can’t see into their heads, right?  The trouble is that there is good empirical evidence now that child centred approaches to learning new information are less effective than ones using instructional methods. Exploratory approaches also often favour more affluent children who arrive at school pre-saturated in all the cultural capital and background knowledge they need to thrive on, ‘leading their own learning’ and being ‘experts’ in it. Advocates of child-initiated learning may also have missed the differences between types of knowledge and how children learn these.

However, I have no doubt that children should be the experts in their own learning. In fact, I have never come across a teacher who did not want their pupils to become less passive and dependent. Whatever the disagreements rattling away between seemingly disparate pedagogical standpoints, aiming to get children to have more understanding about their own learning is surely a shared goal?

For me, the child-led verses direct instruction debate benefits greatly from acknowledgement of the distinction between instinctive, primary knowledge and non-instinctive secondary knowledge. Delineating these types of knowledge might go some way to lessening the tension between some practitioners (often early years teachers) who advocate ‘the child as the expert’ methodology and those of older children, who often favour more instructional approaches, though I admit this is based on purely anecdotal experience.

To begin with, human beings have evolved to learn some things naturally – this is instinctive, primary knowledge. Among the abilities we learn here are things like language, walking, interpreting facial expressions, empathising and in general the universal abilities that all human beings learn as social animals, whenever they are in the world.

Certainly, part of a child reaching a ‘good level of development’ at the end of reception is when they have had enough exposure to evolutionarily expected events like play, talk and the range of interactions with other humans and the environment that mean they have absorbed the natural human competencies that ensure as group animals we flourish. The human brain is primed to learn these things, to listen to voices and watch faces for example. We do not require direct instruction here because we are pre-programmed to ‘watch, learn and do’ these things. (TES have a great podcast on this with Dr David Geary ).

At the same time, this natural, or folk knowledge runs alongside and underpins the effective learning of many other things we need to learn in order to operate as humans in a modern, developed society. Human beings who are unable to communicate with others, share or empathise for example, will be hampered when it comes to modern adult working life.

Importantly, with primary, instinctive knowledge the child is the expert and they do lead their own learning as a developing social animal. A toddler knows exactly when they are ready to take that first step, let go of the coffee table and waddle across the room, while parents coo proudly. Granted, they might fall down here and there, but they are clearly leading their own learning. It is like this for many human activities; we measure the environment and decide where we are and what our next steps are quite naturally because we are evolutionarily primed to learn these things. Learning to speak is like this too; setting aside physiological problems, children do it when they are ready.

However, this is not the same for the non-instinctive secondary knowledge that is not tied to our evolutionary programming.  This type of knowledge has been shaped over human history and passed down outside evolutionary pathways from the expert to the novice through instruction, demonstration, lecturing, discussion, debate and all the other teaching devices we use to pass on learning through generations.

At the initial stages of learning secondary knowledge, the child (or novice) is not an expert in their own learning and cannot lead their own learning. The structure of the brain is such that secondary knowledge does not come naturally, that’s why children would rather play. We are not primed for example, to count or read symbols as sounds in the same way we are to distinguish and say sounds; we require a more knowledgeable other to teach us these things. It is the same with most of the other material we learn in schools.

Now, this is where cognitive load theory comes in. We know that when children learn new content, they learn best through instruction rather than being left to discover or find out by themselves. This is because working memory is limited and the extraneous cognitive load associated with problem-solving will often mean that children’s processing is taken up with the surplus information rather than the intended learning objective. This is why we need to take care with all the whizz, bang stuff we might use to try engage children in learning new content, especially in subjects like science.

Teachers then have a responsibility to decrease extraneous cognitive load when presenting new information. They need to think carefully about cutting out distracting content so that children can focus on processing intrinsic cognitive load involved in simply learning the new information. We cut out the cartoons and animations on presentations, the music, the excess writing and we instruct using devices like worked examples to externally minimise children’s cognitive load, there’s plenty on how to do this now on the internet. Importantly, this does not mean pupils shouldn’t have discussions and debates, or problem solve or explore using what has been learned, we just need to ensure this is at the right time and doesn’t impede with the initial laying down of content.

But there are potential problems with cognitive load theory if used as a ‘teach all’ approach. With the heavy emphasis on direct instruction, there is a potential (not a certainty) for teachers to over-manage children’s thinking which could result in quite passive learners with poor learning self-advocacy. Nobody wants this.

We must not forget that cognitive load theory is aimed at ‘the novice’. This means that once content has imprinted in long-term memory children do need to go off and apply this to problems and investigations – this is how teachers optimise the germane cognitive load so that unused working memory can then be used to build schemata and develop automatic processing, fundamental for expertise. This means that teachers need to pay close attention to assessing children’s cognitive needs and not hinder this through focusing on supporting initial mental load for too long. We have to hold children’s hands just long enough, too long and they start to drag along.

In truth, this is the about craft knowledge of teaching, good teachers know when children need to go it alone and move on. However, as a consequence, using direct instruction to teach new content does mean that assessment for learning practices may need to be even more rigorous, with an even clearer understanding of learners’ prior knowledge. Perhaps this is less significant with exploratory learning or problem solving?

Importantly however, we should support children in understanding when they need to move on themselves. With the emphasis on teacher-led learning that cognitive load theory suggests, we should also keep a watchful eye on the development of learners’ metacognitive skills.

One way to ensure that the emphasis on instructional teaching does not produce passive, dependent learners is to actively teach children to manage their own cognitive load. We cannot see into children’s minds and we cannot know the individual cognitive architecture of each child. We must  guide them towards a better understanding  of their own mental capacities while also supporting this as much as we can through our teaching methods.

As Mary Bannert notes:

‘….a reduction of cognitive load by ideal instruction format does not per se guarantee that all free mental resource will be allocated for deeper schema construction and automation’ (Bannert 2002:144).

In other words, teachers may design the most cognitive load friendly instructions known to humankind, but unless the child processes these adequately the endeavour  may be fruitless; it might all be ruined by a lack of attentional focus, such as thinking about last night’s football, a friendship worry or even a child in the next seat scratching their head too much. Ultimately, we must learn to manage our own minds.

Consequently, alongside what Bannert calls the ‘external management of cognitive load’ (the consideration of instructional design and teaching methodology) we should also develop children’s ‘internal management’ of this by making children aware of the strategies learners can adopt in order to cope with high cognitive load (2002:144).

This means developing metacognitive awareness of what mental load is and what it feels like to be overloaded. When children learn to recognise this for themselves and understand the effects on learning, they can act on this.  Such strategies might include, asking for explanations again, re-reading parts of texts, even seemingly tedious things like closing the window if there’s distracting noise outside or asking their friend to stop tapping , or scratching! As teachers, we know it is rare for pupils to police their own learning like this, but they should and it should be encouraged. We need to help children recognise their own overload moments.

In this way, we can move children towards expertise in their own learning while also providing them with the very best circumstances for learning ourselves through instructional design and management. Getting children involved in the internal management of mental load has the potential to result in more self-reliant learners who are more expert in their learning. Here’s a little diagram I made to help me organise my thoughts on this:

External and internal management

In summary here, I have tried to unravel why some people might feel so strongly that children are experts in their own learning, why they are likely to be right when it comes to instinctive kinds of knowledge and why they might be wrong in terms of non-instinctive knowledge. In addition, I have reminded myself about how this links to cognitive load theory and why new content needs to be ‘taught’ rather than simply found through exploration or problem solving. I have also thought about what we can do as educators to avoid children becoming overly dependent on teacher led methods by suggesting what they can do themselves to reduce cognitive load.

Any errors in explanations here are entirely my own rather than those quoted. More debate and discussion on these ideas – always welcome.


Bannert. M, (2002) Managing cognitive load- recent trends in cognitive load theory in Learning and Instruction 12 139-146.

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