Challenging Government thinking

Posted on 02nd May 2019

Cognitive load theory (CLT) has been hailed as ‘the single most important thing teachers should know’. In an article for TES, Alistair McConville, Bedales Director of Learning & Innovation asks whether it translates to the classroom in a way that benefits teachers and pupils, and urges caution.

CLT, which focuses on working-memory capacity and how we learn, originated from the work of John Sweller in the 1980s, although it has only risen to prominence in recent years.  Alistair explains: “CLT reminds us of the central significance of working memory in the learning process; it emphasises working memory’s limited capacity; it instructs us that if we overload working memory by trying to hold more in mind than we have capacity for, some information will fall out; and, if that happens, this information cannot make the crucial journey into the infinite recesses of long-term memory, where it can dwell eternally. So, as teachers, we need to bear in mind the ‘load’ on working memory when we design our learning activities.”

In the past 12 months, CLT has featured strongly in both the summary of the research underpinning Ofsted’s new draft inspection framework and the new Department for Education Early Career Framework. Suddenly, teachers are being exhorted to have the ‘cognitive load’ of their students at the forefront of their minds.

Whilst Alistair agrees that the limited capacity of working memory is important to bear in mind when contemplating teaching, he questions whether, on its own, it constitutes a philosophy of, or a handbook for, effective learning. He says:  “Sweller et al’s findings have a place in the wider debate about the science of cognition, although the practical implications of CLT for the impartation of information can be used to fuel a particular, rather narrow, narrative about the purposes of education. If we first accept that learning is best defined as a change in long-term memory, it is a short hop to concluding that teaching is aimed at filling up empty heads with content. And a short hop from there to designing a content-heavy curriculum, which is bolstered all around with retrieval practice or, as pupils know them, tests and exams.”

He concludes:  “There is reason to fear that those who emphasise knowledge strongly will seize upon CLT as further evidence that children should sit down, be quiet and listen to the script. From there, teacher agency is eroded, and the life of lessons is depleted.”

The full article can be read on the TES website here (subscription may be required).

Al McConville | TES | Ofsted on cognitive load theory