SHAKESPEARE and school age = cognitive overload

I love Shakespeare, and I have taught it lots. But my God it’s hard. On the whole, the language is so complex, the reality is that probably upwards of 95% of the people in the classroom have little idea of what’s actually going on – and often this includes the teacher. Of course, I would never own up to this to the students, but there certainly have been times in a lesson where I was caught out with interpreting a section of a text that wasn’t familiar to me.

This familiarity with content is paramount to reducing cognitive overload. But to achieve familiarity with Shakespeare is no easy feat. Often, to master a Shakespearean text, one must read it and analyse it a multitude of times. The reason it’s so hard to understand is that Shakespeare, being so skilful with language, manipulated and toyed with it for fun and took it to extremes, probably to amuse himself more than anything else, but also to be seen as highly intelligent and be included legitimately in the higher circles of London’s intelligentsia. There is no dumbing down of language to satisfy a 15 year old student having to read (not view) the incredibly dense poetic text.

With such a context, it seems like it would be practically impossible for the average student to avoid cognitive overload when presented with a Shakespearean text. To prove this point, present a section of a play that you haven’t studied to a class – see how many students successfully negotiate the text in a reasonable amount of time.

I understand that there are other reasons why it’s worth studying Shakespeare, but I also know that the studying of his plays in lower secondary years (and lots would say in secondary at all) pretty much contradicts most of the insights we have about cognitive load theory. As an analogy, would we for example present students with an incredibly complex maths problem miles above their ability level and slowly try to unpick it? I wouldn’t imagine so! Why would we do this for Shakespeare?

I’m Paul Moss. I was an English teacher, now a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. I’m on Twitter too

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