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Biological primary vs secondary knowledge: Informing Cognitive Load Theory

Biological primary vs secondary knowledge: Informing Cognitive Load Theory

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory is the basis for many recent advancements in teaching strategies, focusing on how students process and store information. Recent research suggests that a crucial nuance exists, that completely shifts our understanding of the theory; Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge.

Better understanding these concepts can help inform teaching strategies and subsequently improve student outcomes. So, what do you need to know? Read on for:

  • A 30-second recap of what Cognitive Load Theory is
  • How evolutionary psychology informs Cognitive Load Theory
  • What the research says about biological primary and secondary knowledge

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory provides insights into how our brain processes and stores information, based on the idea that our working memory, where we actively process information, has limited capacity. Long-term memory is huge (so big in fact, we haven’t really be able to quantify it). Therefore, Cognitive Load Theory explores how do we best help facilitate the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory.

An evolutionary perspective of Cognitive Load Theory

A recent literature review discussed an evolutionary perspective to human cognitive architecture, which has been an emerging approach over the past 20 years. The researchers aimed to highlight the characteristics of human architecture relevant to Cognitive Load Theory and the difference between two types of knowledge – biological primary knowledge and biological secondary knowledge.

1. Biological primary knowledge

Biological primary knowledge and abilities are intuitive types of knowledge that we acquire by interacting with our environment. The researchers argue that we evolved these to process and respond to specific information that is important for survival.

We don’t learn this in formal education, where we develop practical, scientific, writing and reading skills. Biological primary knowledge is intuitive, derived from personal experiences and interactions. It’s context-specific and crucial for survival; for example, learning to walk or speak our native language.

While this might seem less relevant in a structured educational setting, acknowledging the existence of this type of knowledge can provide insights into students’ learning patterns and preferences.

2. Biological secondary knowledge

In contrast, biological secondary knowledge refers to information we acquire externally, such as from textbooks or lectures. It’s not inherently part of our survival instincts and requires conscious effort to learn and apply; for instance, learning a new language or a mathematical formula.

To help acquire this type of knowledge, we typically create systems and structures (i.e. schools and curriculums) to explicitly teach them, as the vast majority of the time they can’t be learnt from osmosis.

The review explains that biologically secondary knowledge is slower to acquire and relies heavily on working memory. The cognitive processes involved in processing primary and secondary knowledge are distinct, with the latter requiring conscious, effortful processing – making it harder to acquire.

This is the type of knowledge that we focus most on teaching in schools. But as it isn’t innate, your students may require more time and effort to learn it. Cognitive Load Theory can help inform and guide teaching strategies that help with this challenge.

Maximise your students’ learning efficiency with Cognitive Load Theory training for your school staff.

How do biological primary and secondary knowledges apply to your classroom?

Research suggests that instructional design principles and specific recommendations in Cognitive Load Theory are related to learning biological secondary knowledge. This helps explain why we can’t expect students to learn complex quadratic equations the same way they learn to walk or talk.

Appealing as it may be, and it makes for a very nifty soundbite, to say that we should just let students explore and learn things for themselves like they do when they were younger, this is unlikely to be effective or efficient for biologically secondary knowledge.

For biologically secondary knowledge, areas such as scaffoldingthe Redundancy Effectthe Split-Attention Effect and the Expertise Reversal Effect are likely to be more beneficial.

Final thoughts

Understanding the distinction between biological primary and secondary knowledge and acknowledging the role of cognitive architecture in learning can help you design lessons that can help maximise learning.

Cognitive Load Theory is a relatively straightforward theory on the surface (i.e., working memory is really small, so let’s avoid overloading it). But scratch a little deeper, and we see a research body that is full of distinction and nuance. Just as all good learning theories should be.

To develop your school or college’s use of Cognitive Load Theory-informed strategies and improve your students’ learning, enquire about our Cognitive Load Theory Teacher CPD workshop today.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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