Fake news about Cognitive Load Theory

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There is a common myth that we do not need to know anything any more because we can just Google information when we need it. It is a myth because without knowledge it is difficult to know what to search for and it is difficult to process what we find. In addition, we can think with dynamic knowledge in long-term memory in a way that we cannot think with inert knowledge on the internet and this overcomes the limitations of working memory.

Although we cannot substitute the internet for our brains, it is very useful for checking things. When I read the following in an article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES), my initial reaction was that it could not possibly be true:

“Dame Alison Peacock has said Ofsted’s definition of learning in its new inspection framework is based on cognitive load theory, which has been tested on university students but not school-age children.”

My own Cognitive Load Theory research is on primary school-aged children, but that has not been published. However I was sure there was plenty of research on school-aged children that had been published. First, I recalled a thesis by Chen that I had recently been reading. When I Googled this, it had indeed involved primary school-aged children.

But perhaps this was a unique example? So I searched Google Scholar, and found loads more studies involving kids in primary school.

So Peacock’s claim is clearly false. This is a problem because it will mislead the many teachers who read the original article but who do not read this blog. Yet, Peacock is head of the Chartered College of Teaching in England and so she should get stuff like this right, or at least check it before putting it out there.

I sent the article to John Sweller and this is what he had to say:

“[Alison Peacock] clearly states that none of the data underpinning cognitive load theory comes from school children. Most (I’d guess more than ¾) come from school children with the rest coming from apprentices and university students. Most of the data from school children are based on secondary school children but a large proportion (let’s say about 1/3) tested primary school children. We are talking of several hundred experiments and several thousand school children. Furthermore, I’m only talking of papers with me as a co-author. If we count all papers using cognitive load theory, we are likely to have many thousands of school children who have been tested from around the world. She may not have read a single empirical paper.”

Peacock needs to retract her incorrect comments and the TES need to publish that retraction.

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6 thoughts on “Fake news about Cognitive Load Theory

  1. Greg You are a researcher and so recognize that there is a difference between papers which take CLT to be true, and then fiddle with some aspect of instructional design for some age group to make it more CLT compliant, and those which set out to test whether CLT has validity, preferably with a RCT. Does the “tested on all age groups” statement hold true with the second more rigorous criterion?

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