Cognitive load theory: when is it useful?



I have been reading Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later, by Sweller, van Merrienboer and Pass, 2019. The article explains how Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has generated a wealth of experiments, designed to improve instruction by testing in practice the effects that the theory predicts will occur. These are summarised by Stephen Tierney with elegant illustrations by Oliver Cavigliolihere.

One of the claims made about CLT is that it is the theory that new teachers most need to know about, and many expert teachers who can demonstrate its usefulness, such as Kate Jones, @87History have asked why it seemed to be missing in their teacher training.  This is a very good question. The new ITT core framework, and Early Career Framework, reference CLT extensively. So is CLT useful for new teachers?

One of the key ideas  in CLT is that we need knowledge with which to think, and to solve problems. This applies to teachers of course. One of the challenges for new teachers is that they have to acquire all kinds of knowledge very quickly, including pedagogical content knowledge, knowledge of schools systems, knowledge of children. But whilst acquiring these kinds of knowledge, they may not yet know what they need to know to make intelligent use of CLT.

I think that to make good use of CLT as a new teacher, you will need access to articles that illustrate the power of the theory in practice. From what I have read so far, these articles exist if you are learning to teach Mathematics or one of the sciences. I haven’t yet come across much for History, for example. This creates a yawning gap between theory and practice that (again as predicted by CLT), novices might struggle to cross.

Even if there are illustrations of the power of CLT  in your subject or phase, as a new teacher it is often tempting to turn strategies into ‘activities’. We should not mock new teachers for this, but we should be sympathetic to the complexity of the professional work they are undertaking as a new teacher. Sometimes these activities then lack meaning and purpose, and this is not good for the children they teach.

Finally, there is opportunity cost. In the History teacher community, there is both a strong tradition of professional theorising developed over decades by the Historical Association, and schools of research into learning in History all over the world, that I think are accessible to new teachers. Some people, such as Arthur Chapman, connect these two sources of professional wisdom very powerfully. Alphonse the Camel anyone?

This means that if  (if?!) new teachers struggle to find time to read, or make sense of what they read, I want them to start with Debates in History Teaching and Teaching History. 

I have made it my mission to try to remember what it is like to start teaching. Every year, as I get to know a new History PGCE group, they enable me to retrieve some of the fear, joy, and confusion of my first few years in teaching. So whilst I salute the expert teachers on Twitter making good use of CLT, I am very sceptical about its value with new teachers.






One Comment

  1. I think this is a really interesting discussion for a number of reasons and the notion that CLT is the *one* thing teachers need to know is interesting. What about theories or how to read research papers? What about the philosophy of science? It really does seem that we are now in the same space the humanities were with the post-modern challenge in the late 80s and early 1990s. Are we that far behind? If so, there will be a lot of gnashing of teeth before we get to a sensible place.

    You are absolutely right about linking the studies so far with history teaching. Maybe more research rather than anecdote would help.



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