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Cognitive Load Theory: Just Brain Gym for Traditionalists?

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has had a very malign effect on teaching. It offers a simple story, purportedly based on incontestable cognitive science, about why students find learning difficult, and how to respond, that many in the teaching profession have found hard to resist. It seems authoritative, but it is in fact seductive and misleading. Here are some reasons why we should take it with a shovel of salt.

1. It is based on a vastly oversimplified and antiquated notion of “working memory” (WM) that was current in psychology in the 1970s. Since then, conceptions of WM have moved on in major ways - not least in the recognition that incoming information does not have to pass through a constricted processing bottleneck on its way to Long-Term Memory (LTM). Prof Alan Baddeley FRS is the godfather of WM. Read his definitive book Memory for an up-to-date review. The computer metaphor on which the original concept of WM was based is no longer widely accepted as an accurate or adequate depiction of human cognition. Brain-based theories, in which there are no separate memory “stores” - no boxes in the head - underpin much current research, and they do not lead to or justify anything like John Sweller’s image of Cognitive Load.

2. CLT implied that the main reasons why students sometimes struggle or fail at learning are cognitive and “structural”. It implicitly encourages teachers to ignore all the other reasons, such as:

  • Students are preoccupied with other worries

  • They don’t like the teacher and are reluctant to engage

  • They intuitively judge that their self-esteem will be better protected by not-trying than trying

  • They find the topic mystifying, boring or of no conceivable relevance to their lives

  • Their teacher misjudged their prior knowledge and didn’t pitch the lesson right

  • Their teacher has so oversimplified and watered down the content that there is nothing to hold their attention

3. CLT relies on a bogus distinction between the inherent difficulty or “intrinsic load” of some subject-matter and the students’ existing knowledge and ability. But there is no way of assessing the intrinsic difficulty of something independently of someone who is struggling with it. The idea of CL is circular. Why are they struggling? Because it has high intrinsic load. How do you know it has high intrinsic lead? Because some people struggle with it. (Sweller did his PhD on animal learning, a field in which BF Skinner was long preeminent. In his biography Skinner pokes fun at this kind of loose thinking. “This rope won’t break because it has ‘high tensile strength.’” someone claims. “How do you know it has high tensile strength?” “Because it won’t break.”)

4. CLT is often taken to imply that teachers should facilitate learning by making is as easy as possible (so “information” can slide effortlessly through the WM bottleneck into LTM). But things that are easy-peasy are hard to stay focused on (see 2f above). And where, then, are students to develop the intellectual skills and stamina to wrestle productively with things that are genuinely difficult – as they inevitably will have to at university and beyond? If you are going to value the learning that accrues through grappling with complex and meaty challenges, CLT will offer you no practical help in deciding how much challenge a class will be able to bear.

5. CLT presupposes that, in Sweller’s words, “the major goal of education is the accumulation of information in LTM.” Many, many intelligent people, by no means all of them holding “progressive” values, would beg to differ, and would see Sweller’s claim as unnecessarily narrow and contentious. The bare “accumulation of information” is no more valuable than the accumulation of mountains of food in a refrigerated larder. Information is for using just as food is for eating, and for information to be useful, it has to be digested and assimilated in a way that makes its relevance to meaningful real-life tasks and challenges apparent. Mere accumulation will not do – unless your sole goal in life is to display erudition at dinner parties or win quiz shows. The psychology behind CLT is highly naïve, limited - and limiting.

6. CLT was born out of experiments on mathematical problem-solving. Some studies have explored the use of CLT in other subjects, but Maths is taken to be the prototypical subject, and learning to solve well-defined problems the prototype of all learning. But this is only true if these other subjects are shrunk to fit the Maths prototype. Most teaching and learning in Drama is not like that. Nor in PE. Nor in PSHE. Nor in English Literature. Most subjects, and most of life actually, are not best addressed as if they were like mathematical problem-solving. Ask any counsellor or theatre director or sports coach.

7. CLT presupposes and advocates a didactic, “direct instruction” approach to teaching. Time students spend exploring, arguing and grappling is adjudged wasted time if the key points to be retained could simply have been explained, practised and hammered in through testing and repetition. WM gets clogged up unnecessarily. Most teachers know that good teaching is a subtle and shifting blend of explanation and exploration. Sometimes it’s good to let kids struggle and argue; sometimes it isn’t. The craft of teaching is, in part, knowing when and how to let a discussion run and when to cut it short because unproductive. Art and History cannot be reduced to facts and explanations without having the life blood sucked out of them. CLT, in other words, seems hell-bent on making school learning as dull as possible.

8. And finally, CLT is catnip to fogeys (young and old) who want education to hark back to the “good old days” (ahem) of the grammar school; to middle-class parents and politicians who know that statistically their own children will inevitably rise to the top in such schools; and to simpletons who are unable or unwilling to grapple with the thorny problem of how education could function as a better preparation for life in complex and challenging times – for all children, not just those destined for the traditional professions. CLT is just a fad; it is, as someone said, like Brain Gym for Traditionalists. The sooner the fad passes the better.

Many of these flaws have been pointed out already by, for example, Naomi Fisher in her articles in The Psychologist, and by Alastair McConville in a great piece in the TES. But the arguments bear repeating if we want to hasten the passing of CLT. Cognitive Load of Baloney Theory, more like.

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