Perhaps prompted by the release of a new practice guide from the Centre for Education and Statistics in New South Wales, a number of teachers have appeared in my social media timeline commenting on how they first encountered cognitive load theory.
Most state they were never taught about cognitive load theory as a trainee. However, a few teachers have suggested that they were introduced to the theory at university and a number of enlightened tutors seem to be teaching it on their courses. This raises the question as to whether this is a good thing.
It is easy to understand why cognitive load theory has largely been neglected. As Kirschner, Sweller and Clark pointed out in their seminal 2006 paper, the implications of cognitive load theory for fashionable teaching methods are dire. Not only is it inefficient to learn via problem solving or by imitating the behaviours of expert practitioners, it is quite possible to learn nothing at all. Behavioural activity is not a proxy for learning. In other words, we cannot assume that learning will always accompany doing. Instead, we need to engage cognitive activity and at just the right level of complexity.
This is hard to take if you are a part of the long and broad educational progressivist tradition with its focus on ‘learning by doing’. This is also hard to take if you have been grounded in Freire’s critical pedagogy or one of the branches of postmodern ‘grievance studies‘ because cognitive load theory implies an important role for the instructional designer in making choices and structuring learning for students – a role that could be perceived as oppressive according to these outlooks.
It is therefore surprising that cognitive load theory features at all in teacher training and the fact that it does is a testament to the independent-mindedness of those involved.
You might expect me to be in favour of teaching trainees about cognitive load theory, and I am. However, I think we need to caution that it is not a finished theory. Some of its tenets, such as that we possess a severely limited working memory, are well established and accepted across the field of psychology and some of cognitive load theory’s effects, such as the worked example effect, have been replicated many times in different contexts.
However, cognitive load theory is not on the same footing as, say, the theory of evolution. We do not yet have a reliable way of directly measuring cognitive load – a situation similar to evolution prior to the discovery of DNA. There is also the issue around germane cognitive load that is wrapped up with a current controversy about whether ‘element interactivity’ is a thing. Sweller and others, including me in my research, use the construct of element interactivity to try to differentiate between occasions when cognitive load should be reduced, such as when first learning a mathematical procedure, and when it should be increased, such as when learning a list of names. However, the concept has been the subject of harsh criticism by educational psychology luminaries such as Jeffrey Karpicke.
We might also add that some of the explanatory ideas about the evolutionary underpinning of cognitive load theory are not as well established as practical findings such as the worked example effect. For instance, although I think it provides a helpful explanation of why academic learning proceeds differently to more natural forms of learning such as learning to speak your mother tongue, there are those who argue that Geary’s theory of biologically primary versus secondary knowledge is unfalsifiable. If true, that is a problem for a scientific theory, albeit the kind of problem that scientific theories tend to run into during the course of their development.
Fortunately, the most settled parts of cognitive load theory are the ones of the greatest practical significance to teachers.
It would be a shame if cognitive load theory were taught as if it were established fact. It is not. It is a provisional model with all the kinds of problems a developing scientific theory encounters. If we teach trainee teachers about cognitive load theory then we need to make this clear. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Instead, we want to induct new teachers into a practical, sceptical professionalism that sits at the confluence of science and art.