Cognitive Load Theory and its implications for instruction

I was a little perturbed to see the following tweet from celebrity maths teacher Dan Meyer in a thread that I was following:

John Sweller is one of my PhD supervisors. Although I would never attempt to put words into his mouth, I would like to point out that the devil resides in two significant details here; details around which there are some troubling misconceptions.

What is fully guided instruction?

It may seem obvious, but many people don’t actually get what fully guided instruction is. They conflate it with lectures. Once this is done, it becomes possible to draw on studies that show that lectures where students can interact via “clickers” are more effective than ones that are purely one-way. This may then be used as evidence against fully guided instruction.

Instead, fully guided instruction simply means explaining concepts and ideas and modelling processes prior to asking students to do this themselves. It places problem solving after explicit instruction but it does not require there to be no problem solving at all. In my view, good practice at fully guided instruction involves lots of interactions between teacher and students in order to ensure attention – this is why the clickers work. In some cases, as is common in East Asian countries, the practice phase is completed as a whole class.

I set out my summary of a cycle of explicit instruction here. Rosenshine made much of the early running on this when analysing the process-product studies of the 1960s. You can find his description of explicit instruction here. And the Direct Instruction that was so successful in Project Follow Through is also known for being highly interactive. All of these methods aim to move students from dependence upon explicit instruction to independence. Otherwise, what would be the point? Fully guided instruction is not just a one-way lecture.

Should we always provide fully guided instruction?

I responded to Dan Meyer and mentioned the expertise reversal effect. Slava Kalyuga, my other supervisor, has been a leading researcher in this area and he, Sweller and others have written extensively about it.

Essentially, it shows that fully guided instruction, although the most effective approach for novice learners, is not as effective for those who already have considerable expertise within the given domain. We reach a point where the effectiveness reverses and solving problems becomes a more effective way to learn. This is for a number of reasons: Fully guided instruction provides information that experts already have stored in their long term memory. If these elements cannot be easily ignored then the requirement to pay attention to them leaves less attention available to process the problem.

Christian Bokhove suggested on Twitter that Sweller’s acceptance of the expertise reversal effect indicates that his position is perhaps not as ‘extreme’ as it once was. Again, I do not wish to write on Sweller’s behalf. However, it is decidedly odd to suggest that the idea that experts are different to novices is some kind of softening of Cognitive Load Theory. There must be some point to becoming an expert. What is it, if not to be able to solve problems independently? For instance, experienced readers do not require continual phonics instruction. Expertise must gradually develop over the process of learning something. What Kalyuga and others have done is uncover something of the mechanism.

Indeed, the central problem with constructivist teaching strategies is that they don’t properly acknowledge the differences between novices and experts. “Experts do X,” say constructivists, “and so we must make novices also do X”. It is the fallacy that by mimicking what experts do we can become more expert. Hence we see science students running open-ended investigations and Jo Boaler noting that maths PhD students do maths differently to how it happens in your average maths classroom.

The key point is when and how we release students from fully guided instruction to more open-ended problem solving. I would suggest that some students studying coding, for example, might be such enthusiastic hobby coders that their level of expertise is such that they don’t need much explicit instruction. However, most students studying a new mathematics concept will need the careful guidance of an expert before they can start solving problems on their own.

You certainly don’t start the process by removing instructional supports or withholding guidance.

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8 Comments on “Cognitive Load Theory and its implications for instruction”

  1. teachwell says:

    You have hit the nail on the head!! Today I was teaching an intervention group and it was exactly so – they didn’t understand how to work out the area of rectilinear shapes.

    They had completed a short online quiz where they just could not figure it out for themselves despite being able to work out the area of rectangles. A bit of direct instruction and guidance and (it being a small group) they were able to move onto solving problems and working independently without my input needed for them to practice further. However, it took the explanation and teaching of the difference between efficient and inefficient strategies before they could fully cope and start to work on their own. This was a group of high achievers by the way so it would be the case even more so for those who struggle and can not simply expect to work it out for themselves. That does not however mean that they receive all the adult support to do the task – there is a tendency among progressive to veer from let the children completely do it for themselves or to basically do it for the children as they are ‘not ready’ to work on their own. It does not help!!!

  2. I didn’t know you were a student of Sweller’s Greg. Explains a lot about your insights (presumably there’s been a wee bit of expert reversal there too, of course…)

    Uncharacteristically, don’t have much to add, except to note that the characterization of the Common error some make: “Experts do X, and so we must make novices also do X” appears to have become something of a formal system in certain circles in the UK where it is called MOE, or “Mantle Of the Expert”, and there is a group that advocates a student’s entire learning experience be wrapped in that nonsense.

    The other thing that occurred to me about this is that it is the educational equivalent of what Feynman famously called “Cargo Cult Science” except that it is Cargo Cult Education: the notion that by taking on the outward form of an expert one magically acquires the inward expertise. It’s entirely analogous.

  3. “Indeed, the central problem with constructivist teaching strategies is that they don’t properly acknowledge the differences between novices and experts. “Experts do X,” say constructivists, “and so we must make novices also do X”. It is the fallacy that by mimicking what experts do we can become more expert. Hence we see science students running open-ended investigations and Jo Boaler noting that maths PhD students do maths differently to how it happens in your average maths classroom.”

    Thanks the kind of statement Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke make. Any chance of a quote? I wonder whether either Bruner or Papert ever said such a thing

    • gregashman says:

      I wasn’t referring specifically to Bruner or Papert. I mentioned Boaler and that’s why I gave that link. It is quite common, in my experience, for people to say something like, “but real scientists don’t do X, they conduct open-ended investigations” and then use this as an argument for inquiry learning or something. I am sure that there are more sources but I’m not going hunting right now. In terms of labelling these as ‘constructivist’ ideas, I accept the label is problematic. I suggest following my link on this.

      • Thanks for replying Greg

        Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke quoted Bruner and Papert; wrongly in my view but I await a quote to prove me wrong.

        Others can judge the relevance of the link and the veracity of the assertions about constructivists.

  4. […] quoted by teacher bloggers. Or at least its sentiment is even if it isn’t directly referenced. I have critiqued this paper before; teacher bloggers often dismiss the whole gamete of […]

  5. […] Ashman keeps a well-written blog on cognitive science (and educational research generally). His post on ‘cognitive load theory’ challenges some widely held assumptions about what ‘guided instruction’ is, raising the […]


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