Cognitive load theory is not neuroscience and it does not claim the mind is a computer

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Google gives this definition of neuroscience:

“any or all of the sciences, such as neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain.”

The key distinction from psychology is the emphasis on the structure of function of the nervous system and brain.

Cognitive load theory proposes a simplified model of the mind that consists of long-term memory and working memory. It does not make claims about where these components are located in the physical brain or even whether they have a specific location.

It may be interesting to know whether working memory sits at the front or back of your brain, but there seems little this could tell us about the design of instructional procedures – the key focus of cognitive load theory. Some researchers are trying to measure aspects of brain function as part of cognitive load theory research, but this is a secondary concern at present,

Right now, the chances are that if you come across diagrams of brains or images of brain scans in the context of an educational theory or approach, they are being used to lend credibility to something dubious.

Cognitive load theory also does not model the mind as a computer. It models it as a natural information processing system. The analogy researchers use is not the laptop on your desk but the process of evolution.

Computers run a program executed by a central processing unit. Evolution does not. In fact, a distinguishing feature of the model of working memory proposed in cognitive load theory is the lack of any central executive, with these functions being taken by schemas in long-term memory.


4 thoughts on “Cognitive load theory is not neuroscience and it does not claim the mind is a computer

  1. It was really interesting in The Truth About Teaching where you briefly argue happiness correlates with education and knowledge and that is a good reason to learn. This idea can be be put this into a evolutionary model. We humans are in a Malthusian trap so the effective way to compete is have more knowledge. We’re happy when we’re competing well, like a supporter watching his team win. The only difference is the stakes are higher.

  2. Cognitive Load Theorists might not think they model the mind as a computer, but the rest of us have a hard time distinguishing between the two… The language especially (for example “working memory”) draws direct comparisons between the mind, and a computer, and through these comparisons, we build our model/schema for what CLT is.

    If you CLT researchers are serious about distancing your model from the computer metaphor, then you need to invent new language that separates the two. Further more, all diagrams I have seen about the relationship between working memory and long term memory are drawn with boxes and arrows, that just force me into comparisons to algorithms and computers.

    Not trying attack anyone’s work, its just that when I read this post I was surprised as it disagrees with my mental model of CLT. And we know how hard mental models are to change! So please, give me some things that will help get me on the same page as the experts!

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