Mike Ollerton critiques Cognitive Load Theory

Mike Ollerton is a maths education consultant in England. He tweeted the following about Cognitive Load Theory (CLT):

This caught my eye because I am an advocate for applying CLT to classrooms and I am conducting a PhD in this area. I asked Ollerton what his criticisms were. He answered via an email which he has kindly given me permission to reproduce below:

I keep hearing about Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) in the same way I hear about ‘Mastery’ and ‘direct instruction’. What I mean by “the same way” is people talk about these constructs but don’t provide definitions or explain what the guiding principles are which informs their pedagogy for teaching. The other day, in discussion with a somewhat annoyed head of mathematics, CLT came up, being described by the HoM as something that was getting in her way of seeking to help develop hers and her colleagues approaches to teaching and learning.

Reading a brief paper/synopsis on the Teamthought.com I offer four extracts which, I shall seek to deconstruct [I think this is intended to be teachthought.com – Ed].

1. “Problem-solving takes up crucial ‘bandwidth’ reducing what’s left to ‘learn new things’.”
This appears to presuppose that problem-solving cannot be used in order to learn new things. For example I use problem-solving approaches to help learners to develop knowledge of many concepts and connections such as relationships between fractions and decimals, to derive Pythagoras’ theorem, to derive trigonometric functions, to derive the product rule for differentiation and to explore place value which, in turn, can lead to students engagement with quadratics and cubics.

2. “Explicit instruction involves teachers clearly showing what to do and how to do it rather than having students discover or construct information for themselves…”
This is sounding like another tool for an unhelpful, time wasting debate about ‘traditional’ v ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching and learning. So I am certainly not going to waste my time commentating on this, because there are certainly times when I am going to “tell” my students things, such as conventions about plotting co-ordinates and the order of carrying out combinations of functions. However, this would not prevent me first of all getting students to see what happens when they accidentally-on-purpose plot the co-ordinates of a polygon the other way round, i.e. as (y, x). Likewise to explore the difference between fog(x) and gof(x).

3. “In which case, the brain is free to ‘learn’ the specified objective.”
Again this appears to presuppose that all teachers specify the learning objective. I for one never have done nor never will do. This is because I place great store on the value of intrigue and surprise and because I want to base my students’ learning upon what I consider to be a strong driving force which is are common human characteristics of curiosity and inquisitiveness.

4. …education should be looked at with fresh and honest eyes on how the brain works…”
This makes me despair. Not only do teachers have a myriad of tasks to do beyond being in the classroom they also have to become amateur psychologists, sociologists, referees and now need to add neurologist to their list.


26 thoughts on “Mike Ollerton critiques Cognitive Load Theory

  1. Janita Cunnington says:

    I take my hat off to you for posting this, Greg, and especially for refraining from early comment. But please don’t refrain for too long. I want to hear your response too. My main impression of his piece is of impatience. No definitions? Mike Ollerton seems to be reacting to suggestions about the application of cognitive load theory as if they were just another bunch of slogans. It seems as if he just doesn’t want to be bothered with thinking about the cognitive processes involved in learning (he’s not a neurologist, after all!) and would rather rely on his intuitions. I wonder how well his appealing-to-natural-curiosity method works.

    • I’ve spent nearly 50 years in education and more than half of that time in two secondary comprehensive schools where I used exploration and inquiry-focused approaches to help feed students’ curiosity. As a HoD I helped colleagues to move away from setting by ‘ability’ and from using textbooks. We used hundreds of different problems, many different types of resources and a range of strategies. If you want to know any more you are welcome to check out my website: mikeollerton.com

      • Fiona Walker says:

        I think the ultimate in teaching is to be able to quickly sum up students’ needs using appropriate tools and then cater for them (which means giving them all exactly what they need as much as possible). To reject the one size fits all idea makes perfect sense to me. A class of 32 will be composed of 32 individuals That said, there needs to be a level of pragmatism. This means that teachers need to be expert in a number of pedagogical approaches. The way they apply them and shift expertly between them is the goal. Content will determine pedagogy, surely.

  2. Janita Cunnington says:

    The point of “No definitions?” (see my comment above) was probably too obscure. What I meant was that Mike Ollerton may have been right in claiming that people who talk (casually) about CLT don’t provide definitions, but scholarly papers certainly do. He would not have to search far if he was interested. I think he has decided in advance that he is not.

    • It is more about how I choose to prioritise my time which is split between work and play. In my work I spend most of my time devising ways of supporting the many teachers I have the privilege of working with to think about using more problem-solving approaches in their teaching. To go beyond this into neulogical stuff would impinge on my playtime which involves spending time with the people I love the most walking, cycling and going to watch Liverpool FC.

  3. Simon H says:

    #1 – I feel like this misses the point. Problem solving to learn something new takes up more bandwidth than just having that new thing explained to you really well (with questioning and practice along the way), even if problem solving is the method you use to learn the thing. It leads to false starts (where kids remember the wrong thing) and privileges those kids who already know quite a bit – particularly in the mixed ability setting that Ollerton advocates.

    #2 – is Ollerton saying we should see what happens if we switch the (x,y) coordinates, or explore the difference between fog/gof, before or after explicitly explaining the convention? If before, surely this will lead to some kids remembering the wrong thing? If afterwards then that’s a valid thing you could get them to do in an explicit lesson. In any case this doesn’t answer the explicit v discovery question (which Ollerton considers to be an unhelpful debate, though he clearly advocates one side of that debate.)

    #3 – I’m not sure if Ollerton is arguing against telling the kids the learning objectives, or having them at all. I sometimes create mystery, intrigue, and a sense of inquiry by e.g. not beginning every lesson with “today we will learn how to…”. But that is not incompatible with subsequent explicit instruction in line with CLT. Or is Ollerton is arguing against having learning intentions at all, and just seeing where a particular task takes the class? It’s easy then for the teacher to tell herself that lots of “mathematical thinking” occurred, and that the approach was a success.

    #4 – A PGCE tutor is against teachers having to learn the best way to teach? I don’t need to be a psychologist to understand CLT and its implications.

    Mike Ollerton was a tutor in my PGCE. He’s a passionate chap and I thoroughly enjoyed his sessions, as I got to explore how the maths *which I already new* could be applied to interesting problems. But that was the rub. It was fine for motivated graduates who liked maths and knew a bit about it, but we were supposed to take this approach to novice learners who weren’t necessarily that interested. I tried for years to make it work, and it was only when I was introduced to CLT that I had a good explanation as to why it wasn’t working. (No doubt I’d be told that I was just doing it wrong…)

    What would be good to hear from Ollerton is an explicit rebuttal of CLT, and/or actual evidence that the approach he advocates is superior. All he’s done is say “I don’t do it that way”, following on from his earlier critique that it’s a “load of bollocks.”

    I would also like to hear from him – if the evidence that CLT offers isn’t enough, then what would it take, in theory, to realise that the approach you have been advocating is wrong? Can someone who has spent years teaching both teachers and students a particular approach, honestly admit that they’d got it wrong, knowing the implications of that?

    • Tom Burkard says:

      As for #3–when I started teaching, I thought that the best way to start a lesson was by presenting my pupils with a puzzle, and then taking them on a magical mystery tour. I quickly learned that all too often, they got off at the wrong stop–usually, right at the beginning. If your pupils can possibly misconstrue something you’ve said, you can best believe that some of them will. When we design lessons to show how clever we are, we’re more likely to irritiate and confuse kids than impress and inspire them.

      The most useful thing I ever learned about teaching is to use closed questions every minute or two confirm that pupils are following the lesson, and to give a short written quiz at the end. Not only does it expose weaknesses in your teaching, but it concentrates your pupils’ attention wonderfully. It may not be as exciting as Ollerton’s approach, but from modest beginnings, pupils soon build schemata that enable them to grasp complex ideas.

  4. Chester Draws says:

    So many straw men!

    I never specify the learning objective to my students either. It’s what *my* aim is to impart to them.

    You can surprise them with explicit teaching.

    We hear all this brain stuff from the likes of Boaler, and that’s not OK now? Hard to keep up!

  5. Tom Burkard says:

    It would be interesting to hear his definition of ‘problem-solving approaches’. By comparison, I should think ‘cognitive load’ is clear and unambiguous. One seldom goes wrong with Occam’s Razor.

  6. “I for one never have [specified the learning objective] nor never (sic, I assume) will do. This is because I place great store on the value of intrigue and surprise and because I want to base my students’ learning upon what I consider to be a strong driving force which is are common human characteristics of curiosity and inquisitiveness.”

    And this bloke used to be a *maths* teacher?

    Holy cow.

  7. Good on Mike Ollerton.
    The issue with what I call the Pied Piper mode is that, it only takes a small mistake, such as tiredness or lack of knowledge to lose all students.
    The Mike Ollerton route is similar to a shepherd. You know where the students are starting from and you know where they are aiming for, but you let them make their own decisions unless they are so off target they need to be ‘pushed’ in the right direction.

    • Read it again Higgins, he claims to never have any learning objective of his own. He is driven by whatever the students are curious about. Well that or he just can’t write coherently, which the commentary he claims he won’t make in item #2 does point to.
      Can you imagine treating works of fiction this way. Covering “A Midsummer nights dream” would be a class spent guessing what this might be about without reading another word of it. Learning a play where all the dialogue and plot is explicitly written by the author would be robbing students of too much opportunity to create the play for themselves.

      This whole item is Dunning-Kruger exemplified. As Simon points out these ideas don’t work well for beginners. Try to estimate the cost of this. Perhaps the math content for people with enough math is worth the time everyone spends in Ollerton’s classes but the misinformation means math is taught ineffectively for thousands of hours a year with the multiplier that students in these classes create a slow down in future years.

      • Fiona says:

        ‘Covering “A Midsummer nights dream” would be a class spent guessing what this might be about without reading another word of it. ….’ This is just silly and perpetuates the black and white / with us or against us, stuff. Disappointing. Any good teacher would spend a whole lot of time contextualising this and telling them the story and stopping along the way to discuss things and occasionally being the devil’s advocate for the sake of encouraging justification. Teaching is complex and fluid and not formulaic.

      • I think it is Ollerton that is perpetuating simplistic all or nothing thinking. He is only going to tell students conventions and even then after they have tried and found out what happens when you don’t follow them. My point was just that if you apply this idea in another subject the stupidity becomes obvious. Most people place a lot of value in digesting good works of fiction as both enjoyment and learning. The fact that all the words of a play are fully prescribed and the best actors have no say in adjusting Shakespeare’s words doesn’t stop us valuing the actors skill or artistry or stop a play being enjoyable or valuable as a learning experience.

        Math is no different. If you could explicitly teach someone all the math currently known they would be both able to appreciate an immense body of both ugly and beautiful work and be able to explore fascinating problems as yet unsolved by anyone.

        To say that explicitly teaching something is at odds with curiosity makes zero sense. You can be curious about a play or story or piece of music even though you are just enjoying someone else’s creation.

        As Greg has mentioned many times over the issue is not one way or the other but what sequence and weight you give to explanations verses students working things out for themselves. I think Greg is exactly right that the big problem today is not a problem of too much explicit explanation.

  8. So much wrong there. My favorite: curiosity and inquisitiveness are wonderful when it is about the puzzles I am telling people but if I have to learn a bit about the brain to better do my job I despair. That’s arrogance purified to its essence.

  9. J.D. Fisher says:

    If I may be so bold (since I’m not a teacher), there’s something I see happen in education, which gets under my skin: Educators come to believe sometimes that their own interests, hardships, and perspectives are mostly aligned with students’. And the general public tends to play along. This may cause a number of problems, of course, but a big one is that students occupy less and less the center role in discussions.

    The critique posted here reminds me of that pitfall. There is ample talk about how CLT affects teacher work and how some teachers think it’s silly and what teachers do or don’t do in the classroom and how CLT gets in the way of seeking to help (?).

    But I don’t see one mention of any kind of effect on students or even a concern about it.

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  11. John Stevens says:

    #3 As others have said – having a learning objective is not the same as sharing it at the start of the lesson. I can’t imagine any teacher planning a lesson without having an objective in mind for what they want students to achieve (although the lesson may end up going in a different direction)

    #4 There is a difference between expecting all teachers to be neuro-scientists, and expecting teachers to make use of the conclusions of neuroscientists. I’d like to know what Mike bases his rejection of VAK on, if not an acceptance of conclusions reached by psychologist…

  12. I was on first blush sympathetic to Ollerton’s views. I am all for the slow revealing of truths rather than delivery of spoilers, the “signposting” of where we are headed and the likes. I sense I am prevalent type in schools: a Maths-physics teacher instinctively more partial to maths/physics research itself (with its meaningful “canonical ensembles” ) than to the educational research (with its “Mastery” talk) focussed on its dissemination.

    For me much of this learning theorising needs to be packaged more cogently. I sense (perhaps wrongly – always the sceptical scientist) some of this frustration in Ollerton’s words. Between the extremes of quoting acronyms or vacuous phrases to that of the (necessarily) padded academic research papers (which merely pitch to their own), there is a need for more writing in the spirit of this Blog for us time-poor teachers. Give me a list of the ongoing debated theories and map it (per subject!) to their implementation techniques in the classroom. No less and more importantly, no more than is necessary. I will find out in time what is working for the students’ learning in my best efforts to churn those teaching methods deemed to be the latest best practice, while having scope for the hobbyist scientist in me to also model in my classes the process of science thinking as it is actually practised.

  13. I tweeted a somewhat intemperate response to Greg’s posting of this blog by Mike Ollerton, which, in retrospect, was unfair, and I apologize.

    However, while the language I used in the tweet was intemperate, I think the point I was making is entirely sound and something that Mike and I have had several discussions about over the years (I think we first met around 40 years ago!)

    First, Mike appears to categorize cognitive load theory as “another load of bollocks” along with learning styles, which is a manifest mis-reading of the research. The best available evidence (see, for example, Pashler et al, 2008) indicates that there is no evidence to support the idea that teaching students in their preferred learning style has any impact on their learning. CLT, on the other hand, has extremely strong theoretical and empirical support (see, Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres, 2014).

    Second, Mike misrepresents CLT. In fact, Sweller and his colleagues have extensively documented productive uses of problem solving in instruction, and indeed, has shown that it can be superior to worked examples (for instance) for non-novices.

    Third, Mike provides lots of evidence of the instructional techniques he uses, but produces no evidence that they have been successful in getting students to learn mathematics. If the purpose of education is to provide child-minding services for busy parents, then keeping students engaged and happy is enough. But if we actually want students to learn mathematics, then we have to look at how much learning takes place. Mike was clearly a very successful mathematics teacher, but the research on CLT suggests he might have been even more successful had he taught students—and particularly low-achieving students—in a different way. There is at least a case to answer.

    Fourth, Mike says he has, and will, never use learning objectives. This seems to me to go to the essence of his argument, and of my tweet. He is saying that even if there were clear evidence that providing students with learning objectives would improve learning, he would not do so. I am myself not convinced that the evidence in favor of learning objectives is that strong, which is why I am highly critical of those (e.g., Marzano) who say that every lesson must begin with an objective. However, Mike is saying something different. He is saying that he would not use learning objectives even if there were evidence that his students would have higher achievement as a result. In other words, he would deliberately lower his students’ education achievement because of his beliefs.

    Fifth, and perhaps most surprisingly, Mike does not want teachers to have to become “amateur psychologists”. As teachers, our main—and perhaps our only—job seems to me to be to get our students to learn stuff. The idea is that after some time in our classrooms, our students know, understand, and can do things that they couldn’t do before. As teachers, we are in the learning business. For someone professionally involved in education to be incurious about how this happens, and how to do it better, seems to me rather odd.

    Finally, I should point out that for many years (most of my teaching career in fact) I taught mathematics in a very similar way to Mike. I used problem-solving, mathematical investigations, and extended projects, and my students seemed enjoy mathematics. I was dismissive of cognitive load theory because I did not want it to be true. I did not want to believe that the way I had been teaching was in all likelihood less effective, especially for lower-achieving students. But then I looked at the evidence, and although I could quibble with details here and there, the overall evidence was so overwhelming that I was forced to change my mind. We still know relatively little about how to apply the lessons of cognitive load theory in real classrooms, but I remain convinced that it is the single most important thing for teachers to know; students can be happily, productively, and successfully engaged in mathematical activity and yet learn nothing as a result. I don’t like the fact that our brains work in this way, but it seems they do. And, as I am sure Mike would agree, the best first step in solving a problem is to make sure that you understand what the problem is.

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