Underestimating cognitive fatigue
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 128 No 2, 31 March 2023, page no. 24
Schools are complex organisations with multiple and competing demands vying for available resources – including time to collaborate.
Collaboration is important work in schools and can involve many collaborative interactions with different groups across a week.
Although the overarching goal might be the same – to support or improve learning outcomes for our students – the mental effort required for different components of this work is being underestimated. Collaboration in schools has been found to be more socially and cognitively complex than first thought (Casey, 2022).
One reason for this is the way we quantify these relationships. We usually describe them as a collective – class, teaching team, year level – which can ignore an accurate account of the relationships being maintained on a weekly basis. For example, a teacher in a secondary context can be maintaining upwards of 150 relationships if you consider their students, parents/carers of students, teaching team, and others.
Mental fatigue occurs when people perceive that energetic cost outweighs predicted reward from performing a task or activity. Cognitive fatigue is a type of mental fatigue and is caused by overloading the brain with information and tasks. Shortening the available time to process the types of information occurring during collaborative interactions places higher cognitive loads on individuals and teams.
Understanding of the social brain and the cost of maintaining relationships allows us to acknowledge that these different types of relationships cognitively require time investments for energy, attention, and effort to keep them going.
In addition, we need to be aware of the fact that individuals will distribute their energy, attention, and effort unequally when it comes to relationships. Individuals will prioritise relationships based on frequency of contact and recognition of a mutual and reciprocal relationship that has trust at its centre. If we are not careful, this unequal distribution of energy, attention and effort can lead to silo mentality, where individuals or teams become isolated from one another. This can hinder collaboration and prevent us from achieving our goals.
In order to ensure successful collaboration for improved learning outcomes, we must recognise the cost of maintaining relationships in school contexts and make sure we are distributing our energy, attention and effort in a way that encourages collaboration and avoids silo mentality. With the social brain in mind, we can create environments where collaboration leads to success.
So, what can you do? Recognise this issue and address consequences arising from the cognitive and social complexity of collaboration in schools.
Context is important: list topics (yes all of them) individuals and teams are collaborating on (within and across your school). Compare lists with others.
Time allocation: time pressures are mostly responsible for triggering cognitive fatigue. Identify when, and for how long teams collaborate and evaluate the reasonableness of expected outcomes in the time available. Time is a limited resource – topics and time allocations can be adjusted.
Use the information collected to map the number of topics teams are collaborating on with real time allocations.
Dr Joanne Casey
Dr Casey is an educational practitioner working in a range of contexts to support the implementation of school improvement initiatives. Her doctoral research focused on associations among cognitive limitations for interactions, collaboration as an improvement strategy, and school silo mentality.