There are urgent matters to attend to

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I was quite happy to post Mike Ollerton’s critique of Cognitive Load Theory. I disagree with it, but I like they way it has implications for teaching and learning. As a teacher, that is what I am interested in. I would like to propose a test for educational ideas.

  1. Does the idea have implications for what we teach?
  2. Does the idea have implications for how we teach?

If the answer is, “No”, to both of these questions then it still may be a very interesting idea, but it is not of practical significance to teachers; the primary concern of this blog.

Let’s explore the difference these questions make. While Ollerton suggests that it is possible to learn through problem solving, I would suggest that such an approach is more likely to fail and that this likelihood increases for the most disadvantaged students. Ollerton may, if he wishes, support his position with evidence. I may choose to do the same. The resulting discussion matters to teachers because of what it suggests about how we should teach maths.

Yet this is rarely the kind of discussion I am drawn into. For instance, it is important for teachers to know that the popular idea of teaching to students’ different learning styles is flawed. Nevertheless, critics will pop up to note that students still express a preference for how they learn and some researchers have even identified ‘cognitive styles’ which they claim are equivalent to learning styles. Reviewing the two questions above, I’m inclined to ask, “So what?”

Similarly, some are keen to explain to me that in Geary’s theory of evolutionary psychology, biologically secondary abilities are built upon the foundations of biologically primary ones. I know this. Geary himself uses the term ‘co-optation’ to explain the relationship. As Geary suggests, schools emphasise the training of secondary abilities. You don’t have to accept his theory to agree that what he classes as secondary abilities have indeed been the traditional focus of schooling.

The power of Geary’s distinction is that is gives a reason why we might not be able to make the learning of academic subjects natural and effortless. It explains why whole language fails. Although whole language advocates wanted to make learning to read as natural as learning to speak, they failed because reading is secondary and speaking is primary. You can’t learn secondary abilities without effort, just as you can’t transmute lead into gold.

This is an idea that seems to be validated by the available data. If you wish to question Geary, or John Sweller’s interpretation of Geary, then go right ahead. Undoubtedly both of them are wrong about at least some of it. However, what I am interested in are the implications for teaching of any potential mistakes. If you can’t think of any then, “So what?”

This is a similar question to that of the role of neuroscience in education. Cognitive models, such as those used by Sweller, suggest we have a limited working memory. However, as I understand it, we cannot currently identify a brain region or network that corresponds to working memory. What if we could? What difference would it make? The implications for teaching would be the same. Cognitive Load Theory stands and falls on the predictions that it makes about teaching and learning.

And the same can be said for directly measuring cognitive load. I have managed to complete pretty much all of the experimental work for my PhD in Cognitive Load Theory without attempting to measure cognitive load. This is possible because the theory makes testable claims about the relative effectiveness of instructional procedures. I am certainly interested in improving methods for directly measuring cognitive load but I cannot, as yet, see how this would have any implications for the predictions the theory makes about teaching approaches. Ultimately, all of these theories are just models. Pointing out that there are holes or flaws in them is no revelation, it is a design feature of all models. It’s like looking at a Monet and complaining that there are details on the trees that the artist has not captured.

The thing is, the education world has not reached a point where there is a consensus on broad principles and we can turn our attention to a meticulous discussion of the finer details over coffee and cigars, signalling our intellectual potency in the process. Far from it.

Just the other day, some education conference in the UK tweeted out the accursed Dale’s Cone of Experience. We have a majority of teachers using the UK’s Teacher Tapp survey app still professing a belief in learning styles and this is despite the eye-rolling you are likely to encounter if you mention learning styles on Twitter. You may be of the view that nobody buys into the idea of teaching generic thinking skills and so we need to drop a pointless binary discussion about them and instead, ladle in some treacly nuance. Yet we have the EEF spending taxpayers’ money trialling a generic thinking skills programme at the same time as a review of Australian education suggests more of a focus on them.

So please don’t tell me that I don’t understand the complexity of education. I do. I really do. Honest. It’s just that I have more urgent matters to attend to.


7 thoughts on “There are urgent matters to attend to

  1. Working memory is generally thought of as s pathway – consisting of a number of processes (encoding, visual, spatial). But that doesn’t mean it can’t be measured. Typically these are behavioral measurements rather than neurological ones.

    Would you then argue that Cognitive load is likely to be the net result of a number of processes – an assumption that does not preclude it from measurement?

    That said, the only reason you would want to measure it would be to assess some kind of cause/effect relationship. Or to explain underlying causes for individual differences amongst students.

    I don’t the the issue is related to whether or not it has an implication for teaching. I think the issue is really the the underlying processes and neural pathways are so complex that measuring them in an authentic way in educational contexts is either impossible or highly reductive.

  2. I think you touch on a wider truth here – and that is, the majority of teachers really aren’t interested in all this stuff. I partly sympathise, even if I consider it short sighted. Many are driven by a ‘simple’ desire to work with children and/ or teach their subject. And there are more than enough other demands on them to leave very little time (or cognitive space) for theorising. Cutting through that would be an enormous breakthrough but it is only going to happen when people have the time and space to perceive its benefit.

    1. I’ll disagree on the relevance of theory in that very often (at least in the US) theory underpins the reform efforts, so to counter those efforts if need be, one has to know where they came from. For example, the Danielson Framework used for teacher evaluations in much of the US is based on constructivist pedagogy and emphasizes engagement, all the while claiming to be research-based. Yet, it has proven a failure to improve educational outcomes in multiple studies, including the latest RAND report finding that the Gates Fdn blew $525 million on a failed effort to shape teaching practices based on Danielson.

      If school leaders knew and understood the the theoretical background of such reform efforts, they might be much better able to discern what might or might not be appropriate for their schools, as well as see through any charlatanry before it wastes vast amounts of time, effort and money.

  3. One use of being able to measure directly a brain’s working memory would be to improve research. If this was physically possible then this could become a controlled variable and allow for elimination of it from statistical results to better analyze other cause and effect relationships.
    A lot of research should be of this nature – it directly makes doing more research easier but has little use outside of a research environment.

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