Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Putting the "Theory" into Cognitive Load Theory

These days we are hearing a lot about Cognitive Load Theory. But what does this actually mean? Well to understand this it is worth reminding ourselves about what it means to be a theory in science.

A lot of people see the idea of a "theory" as something that is somewhat uncertain. This is often the use in everyday language - if someone has a "theory" about something, it often means they have no more than a vaguely plausible explanation for it.

A scientific theory is different though (or at least a good one is). A good scientific theory should broadly aim to do two things:

1) Explain observed phenomena
2) Predict the outcomes of other observed phenomena

This is what Cognitive Load Theory tries to do. It tries to explain phenomena about how/when the brain forms memories that have been observed, and predicts what might happens in certain circumstances. For example, it has been observed that people find it difficult to remember content if they are reading text at the same time as someone is talking. Typically people in this situation will not be able to answer questions about either the text or the content of the speech. CLT explains this by suggesting that the brain processes text in the same way as speech (in a way, you "hear" the words in your head) and that the brain only has one "channel" for processing auditory input. Trying to process two inputs through your "phonological loop" results in cognitive overload.

So what happens when a prediction goes wrong? What happens when CLT predicts a different outcome? Well the same as what happens when any other scientific theory predicts something incorrectly - either the theory is modified to include the new observation, or if it can't be modified sufficiently then it is deemed incorrect. However, incorrect theories can still be useful. A prime example of this is Newton's theory of gravitation.

Newton's theory of gravitation is wrong. It definitely doesn't adequately explain how gravity works in all cases. This was known in the 1800s, as Newton's theory of gravitation was slightly out in predicting the correct orbit of the planet Mercury. Einstein's general relativity is a better model. Its predictions are more accurate, and more applicable. However, in most cases, Newton's theory is still used. Why? Because it is much simpler. The equations that accompany Einstein's general relativity are absurdly complicated. If you are talking about black holes, or getting close to massive bodies in the universe, they are essential. But for most situations, the equations associated with Newton's theory do just fine. They predict to a high level of accuracy the gravitational forces between bodies. Newton's theory was used to put man on the moon.

So what does this mean? Well if we apply the same sort of ideas to Cognitive Load Theory, what it means is that CLT may well make incorrect predictions, particularly in extreme cases, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the other predictions it makes are automatically wrong, or that they can't be useful. But it also means that if you are going to try and apply the ideas within Cognitive Load Theory then it might be useful to remember the following:

1) CLT may well not a complete theory of cognition, and it may well produce incorrect predictions. This doesn't make it worthless.
2) If you are applying CLT, make sure you read information about the studies that supported aspects of the theory. This will give you a greater appreciation for how useful/accurate its predictions might be for your context.
3) Cognitive Load Theory may well support in your pupils converting more of what you teach into long term memory, but that also means you have to make sure that the memories you are getting your pupils to form are the right memories. CLT can't tell you how to teach the content of your subject so that the connections between topics become apparent - that is part of the knowledge/skill (contentious!) of the teacher.

No comments:

Post a Comment