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Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with the juicy bone.

Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum,

Bring out the school bell. Let the learners come.

(Adapted from, and with apologies to, WH Auden)

Few people who hear the poem adapted above, realise that WH Auden originally wrote it as a piece of satire, mocking the sort of eulogies that are  delivered for public figures who don’t really deserve them.  The fact that the poem is often seen as and used as, a heartfelt tribute at funerals, suggests that it is easy to misrepresent  a poet’s intentions by making use of their work in such a way that its original meaning is lost, and the same might be said of educational research. John Sweller’s work on cognitive load is often promoted by a group of teachers and researchers who have come to be identified as “the neo-trads” or neo-traditionalists.  However, just like when a legion of summative assessors leapt misguidedly upon the Black and Wiliam Black Box and nearly broke the system with their enthusiasm for inefficient assessment of work and learning, so we need to be careful before doing the same with Sweller’s work on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT).

Sweller is working just as hard as Wiliam did in correcting misunderstandings about his work. Like any good researcher, Sweller acknowledges the limitations of his work. And it is these limitations which fail to cross the divide from research to school teaching that we need to pause and reflect upon.

Many people forget that Sweller accepts the constructivist view of learning – namely that we learn because of a set of mental structures (often referred to as schemata) which allow us to construct meanings and information from that which we perceive of the outside world. The difference for Sweller is what this means for teachers. For social constructivists, like Jerome Bruner, this construction is facilitated through the individual’s interaction with others and the world they inhabit. It is a journey of discovery rather than a  guided path. For Sweller, this is the problem. The mental structures with which with he is concerned need to be built in a particular way, and this is where the teacher comes in. They must teach certain things in certain ways which develop the architecture of the schema, allowing them to be stored in the individual’s long term memory. For Sweller, teaching methods which allow students to discover things for themselves do not do this.

But…..Sweller is clear that his ideas do not constitute “ a theory of everything”. Most of the data which supports his theory comes from the subject domains of Maths and Science. He doesn’t feel that Cognitive Load Theory works as a way of informing instructional design unless what is being learnt has a high level of what he calls “element interactivity”, namely, the number of different elements that must be considered simultaneously in the instance of learning – say, something like a complex equation. Interestingly, an Australian academic called Arianne Rourke has tried to apply Sweller’s ideas to the Art classroom , but only in the sense of using worked examples to teach students about the history of design and designers – an area of Art education that we might see as being largely a matter factual information, rather than the affective matter of expression or interpretation.

The real problem with CLT then, would appear to be its adaptability and scalability. Can it, as a basis for instructional design, be adapted to subjects like Drama, Geography or DT? Probably not, though it might be worth thinking about areas of these subjects where CLT might have an application? Could it be scaled properly across schools so that everyone was using it to inform their teaching? Again, probably not, but some teachers might benefit from thinking about cognitive load and where this idea was advantaging or disadvantaging learning.

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