One component of Cognitive Load Theory that does not draw much attention is the parallel that John Sweller and Susan Sweller draw between biological evolution as an information processing system and the mind as an information processing system. This is unsurprising because this facet of the theory operates more at the level of an explanation than at the level of providing practical guidance for teachers. Nevertheless, as an explanation, or rather an explanatory model, it is still worth teachers knowing about it and that’s why I have written about these ideas before.
I have also previously written about Stellan Ohlsson’s views about conceptual change. Part of his argument is that we are capable of holding contradictory ‘theories’ in long term memory at the same time. The status, utility and eventual fate of these theories is determined by competition. Critically, we don’t change our ideas, we switch from one framework to another. This seems to me to be yet another reason to be doubtful about ‘cognitive conflict‘, a mechanism that some have proposed as a way of challenging and addressing misconceptions.
Ohlsson’s writings are pretty hard to digest, but I wonder whether a simpler heuristic can be drawn from them that has practical utility in the classroom.
Consider, as Sweller and Sweller suggest, that long-term memory is an information store similar to a genome. We have become used to describing biological evolution as something that happens at the scale of individual organisms – the survival of the fittest – but it is perhaps better to understand it as the survival of the fittest genes. This is Richard Dawkins’ approach in The Selfish Gene – organisms are the means by which genes propagate themselves.
I don’t know exactly what would be the long-term memory equivalent of a gene. Would it be a schema? One of Ohlsson’s theories? I’m not sure. However, I don’t think it matters in this context and so I am going to use the everyday term, ‘idea’.
By drawing a parallel with biological evolution, we should expect to see the continued survival of the ‘fittest’ ideas at the same time as the gradual decline of lesser ideas. ‘Survival’, must mean persistence both within an individual and between individuals through social learning. Those familiar with Dawkins might note a similarity with his original use of the term, ‘meme‘.
But the fittest ideas are not necessarily the ones that are objectively the most correct. Sometimes, being right about something may actually be a hindrance to an individual and a fiction may possess far more utility. So this process will not necessarily lead to the truth or even anything approaching it. As we can observe out there in the real world, the popularity of an idea often bears little relationship to its veracity.
Seen in this light, the role of education appears to be twofold. Firstly, we must ensure that students have accurate and powerful sets of ideas that they may draw upon (or ideas that are as accurate and as powerful as is possible, given the provisional nature of knowledge). Secondly, we must create conditions in which these ideas have greater utility than their less accurate competitors. Interestingly, the second point would apply equally to biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge.
Mapping this on to the process of education, we might translate this as the need to teach ideas and then ask students to apply those ideas in a variety of contexts. This model does not offer obvious support for forms of discovery learning for novices because the lack of direction could as easily lead to the emergence and eventual competitive success of inaccurate and flawed ideas as it does correct ideas. As ever, the more direction you add to the discovery process, the more effective it would be in this sense, but it is hard to see the point at which it would provide an advantage.
By manipulating educational conditions, we could also increase the utility of non-academic ideas such as politeness, if that is what we sought to do.
Finally, it seems important to note that we cannot easily erase ideas. We can only hope to provide better ones. And I think that perhaps offers an insight into the human condition.