cognitive science: the wrong end of the stick

A few years ago, some teachers began advocating the application of findings from cognitive science to education. There seemed to be something not quite right about what they were advocating but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Their focus was on the limitations of working memory and differences between experts and novices. Nothing wrong with that per se, but working memory and expertise aren’t isolated matters.

Cognitive science is now a vast field; encompassing sensory processing, perception, cognition, memory, learning, and aspects of neuroscience. A decent textbook would provide an overview, but decent textbooks didn’t appear to have been consulted much. Key researchers (e.g. Baddeley & Hitch, Alloway, Gathercole), fields of research (e.g. limitations of long-term memory, neurology), and long-standing contentious issues (e.g. nature vs nurture) rarely got a mention even when highly relevant.

At first I assumed the significant absences were due to the size of the field to be explored, but as time went by that seemed less and less likely.  There was an increasing occurrence of teacher-B’s-understanding-of-teacher-A’s-understanding-of-Daniel-Willingham’s-simplified-model-of-working-memory, with some teachers getting hold of the wrong end of some of the sticks. I couldn’t understand why, given the emphasis on expertise, teachers didn’t seem to be looking further.

The penny dropped last week when I read an interview with John Sweller, the originator of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), by Ollie Lovell, a maths teacher in Melbourne. Ollie has helpfully divided the interview into topics in a transcript on his website. The interview clarifies several aspects of cognitive load theory. In this post, I comment on some points that came up in the interview, and explain the dropped penny.

1.  worked examples

The interview begins with the 1982 experiment that led to Sweller’s discovery of the worked example effect. Ollie refers to the ‘political environment of education at the time’ being ‘heavily in favour of problem solving’. John thinks that however he’d presented the worked example effect, he’d be pessimistic about the response because ‘the entire research environment in those days was absolutely committed to problem solving’.

The implication that the education system had rejected worked examples was puzzling. During my education (1960s and 70s) you couldn’t move for worked examples. They permeated training courses I attended in the 80s, my children’s education in the 90s and noughties, and still pop up frequently in reviews and reports. True, they’re not always described as a ‘worked example’ but instead might be a ‘for instance’ or ‘here’s an example’ or ‘imagine…’. So where weren’t they? I’d be grateful for any pointers.

2 & 3. goal-free effect

Essentially students told to ‘find out as much as you can’ about a problem, performed better than those given specific instructions about what to find out. But only in relation to problems with a small number of possible solutions – in this case physics problems. The effect wasn’t found for problems with a large number of possible solutions.   But you wouldn’t know that if you’d only read teachers criticising ‘discovery learning’.

4. biologically primary and secondary skills

What’s determined by biology or by the environment has been a hugely contentious issue in cognitive science for decades. Basically, we don’t yet know the extent to which learning is biologically or environmentally determined.  But the contentiousness isn’t mentioned in the interview, is marginalised by David Geary the originator of the biologically primary and secondary concept, and John appears to simply assume Geary’s theory is correct, presumably because it’s plausible.

John says it’s ‘absurd’ to provide someone with explicit instruction about what to do with their tongue, lips or breath when learning English. Ollie points out that’s exactly what he had to do when he learned Chinese. John claims that language acquisition by immersion is biologically primary for children but not for adults. This flies in the face of everything we know about language acquisition.

Adults can and do become very fluent in languages acquired via immersion, just as children do. Explicit instruction can speed up the process and help with problematic speech sounds, but can’t make adults speak like a native. That’s because the adults have to override very robust neural pathways laid down in childhood in response to the sounds the children hear day-in, day-out (e.g. Patricia Kuhl’s ‘Cracking the speech code‘). The evidence suggests that differences between adult and child language acquisition are a frequency of exposure issue, not a type-of-skill issue. As Ollie says: “It’s funny isn’t it?  How it can switch category. It’s just amazing.”  Quite.

5. motivation

The discussion was summed up in John’s comment: “I don’t think you can turn Cognitive Load Theory into a theory of motivation which in no way suggests that you can’t use a theory of motivation and use it in conjunction with cognitive load theory.

 6. expertise reversal effect

John says: “As expertise goes up, the advantage of worked examples go down, and as expertise continues to go up, eventually the relative effectiveness of worked examples and problems reverses and the problems are more helpful than worked examples”.

7. measures of cognitive load

John: “I routinely use self-report and I use self-report because it’s sensitive”. Other measures – secondary tasks, physiological markers – are problematic.

8. collective working memory effect

John: “In problem solving, you may need information and the only place you can get it from is somebody else.” He doesn’t think you can teach somebody to act collaboratively because he thinks social interaction is biologically primary knowledge. See 4 above.

9. The final section of the interview highlighted, for me, two features that emerge from much of the discourse about applying cognitive science to education:

  • The importance of the biological mechanisms and the weaknesses of analogy.
  • The frame of reference used in the discourse.

biological mechanisms

In the final part of the interview John asks an important question: Is the capacity of working memory fixed? He says: “If you’ve been using your working memory, especially in a particular area, heavily for a while, after a while, and you would have experienced this yourself, your working memory keeps getting narrower and narrower and narrower and after a while it just about disappears.”

An explanation for the apparent ‘narrowing’ of working memory is habituation, where the response of neurons to a particular stimulus diminishes if the stimulus is repeated. The best account I’ve read of the biological mechanisms in working memory is in a 2004 paper by Wagner, Bunge & Badre.  If I’ve understood their findings correctly, signals representing sensory information coming into the prefrontal area of the brain are maintained for a few seconds until they degrade or are overridden by further incoming information. This is exactly what was predicted by Baddeley & Hitch’s phonological loop and visual-spatial sketchpad. (Wagner, Bunge and Badre’s findings also indicate there might be more components to working memory than Baddley & Hitch’s model suggests.)

John was using a figure of speech, but I fear it will only be a matter of time before teachers start referring to the ‘narrowing’ of working memory. This illustrates why it’s important to be aware of the biological mechanisms that underpin cognitive functions. Working memory is determined by the behaviour of neurons, not by the behaviour of analogous computer components.

frame of reference

John and Ollie were talking about cognitive load theory in education, so that’s what the interview focussed on, obviously.  But every focus has a context, and John and Ollie’s frame of reference seemed rather narrow. Ollie opens by talking about ‘the political environment of education at the time [1982]’ being ‘heavily in favour of problem solving’. I don’t think he actually means the ‘political environment of education at the time’ as such. Similarly John comments ‘the entire research environment in those days was absolutely committed to problem solving’. I don’t think he means ‘the entire research environment’ as such either.

John also observes: “It’s only been very recently that people started taking notice of Cognitive Load Theory. For decades I put papers out there and it was like putting them into outer-space, you know, they disappeared into the ether!” I first heard about Cognitive Load Theory in the late 80s, soon after Sweller first proposed it, via a colleague working in artificial intelligence. I had no idea, until recently, that Sweller was an educational psychologist. People have been taking notice of CLT, but maybe not in education.

Then there’s the biologically primary/secondary model. It’s ironic how little it refers to biology. We know a fair amount about the biological mechanisms involved in learning, and I’ve not yet seen any evidence suggesting two distinct mechanisms. The model appears to be based on the surface features of how people appear to learn, not on the deep structure of how learning happens.

Lastly, the example of language acquisition. The differences between adults and children learning languages can be explained by frequency of exposure and how neurons work; there’s no need to introduce a speculative evolutionary model.

Not only is cognitive load theory the focus of the interview, it also appears to be its frame of reference; political issues and knowledge domains other than education don’t get much of a look in.

the penny that dropped

Ever since I first heard about teachers applying cognitive science to education, I’ve been puzzled by their focus on the limitations of working memory and the characteristics of experts and novices. It suddenly dawned on me, reading Ollie’s interview with John, that what the teachers are actually applying isn’t so much cognitive science, as cognitive load theory. CLT, the limitations of working memory and the characteristics of experts and novices are important, but constitute only a small area of cognitive science. But you wouldn’t know that from this interview or most of the teachers advocating the application of cognitive science.  There’s a real risk, if CLT isn’t set in context, of teachers getting hold of the wrong stick entirely.


Geary, D. (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.

Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.

Wagner, A.D., Bunge, S.A. & Badre, D. (2004). Cognitive control, semantic memory          and priming: Contributions from prefrontal cortex. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences (3rd edn.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.











9 thoughts on “cognitive science: the wrong end of the stick

  1. Thanks for this Sue. Can you suggest a good starting point for “fields of research (e.g. limitations of long-term memory, neurology)” and any other examples you have of areas within CS that are not appreciated by teachers?

  2. Hi

    I think from this interview we see Sweller is very interested in designing robust experiments.

    And Sweller has produced a very nice paper on testing whether translated texts have any effect on language and content performance []. I agree with its conclusion but question how the conclusion is derived. I had a short correspondence with Sweller and posed the following questions (without expecting a response from him). Thought maybe might be useful to leave those questions here for those interested in the language applications of cog load theory.

    I guess I see the CLIL/EMI study as demonstrating a general cognitive effect of a dual task paradigm. And further it shows an effect in the short term (as your paper points out). Also the language effect measure (translation of words) is arguably an explicit language measure (I don’t think your paper discusses this?). The SLA literature in instruction often finds short term effects with measures of explicit learning; long term effects with implicit measures are much rarer or non-existent (apparently there are a few cases where (explicit) instruction makes language learning worse).

    Another thought regarding the CLIL study is that the translation of texts into two languages maybe be using a “levels of processing effect” where the second language is helping to elaborate the language input? On the face of it cognitive load seems in direct conflict with levels of processing theory?

    I am interested in the theoretical stance regarding the language system. For example your stance in your co-authored paper that working memory is “unlikely to apply to learning a native language”. This contrasts with studies finding importance of phonological working memory in first language learning? (e.g. Gathercole & Badderley, 1998).

    Theories like universal grammar (UG) are playing the role of limiting the combinatorial explosion potential in the input like you say working memory is playing so this raises questions of the extent unconscious processes, like UG, play compared to conscious processes involving working memory?


  3. Thank you, this is very interesting. Just a quick comment on this point: “John says it’s ‘absurd’ to provide someone with explicit instruction about what to do with their tongue, lips or breath when learning English.”

    In early years we will often do exactly this, particularly with those children who struggle to pronounce particular sounds (typically consonants are the ones that cause trouble). You’ll also see parents doing this with their babies as well, holding their faces up close to their baby as they model for them how certain sounds are made. I sometimes wonder whether commentators might benefit from a week or two spent with some 2 year olds to see what actually happens during early child development.

  4. I really learned a lot from your post. That said, in the interests of balance I’m not sure you’re being entirely fair here by focusing so much on cognitive load as an example of cog sci influencing education. Yes a few high profile people are very interested in Sweller etc but I would hazard a guess that by far the bigger practical day to day impact for most teachers in terms of teaching practice will be from Karpicke or Bjork and retrieval practice and spaced practice, neither of which you mention.

    Karpicke has argued (v convincingly) with Sweller in the past over the efficacy of retrieval practice for complex materials and in terms of practical pedagogy gives a clear evidence base to an area I feel there is a great deal of promise in applying techniques from. Specifically, drama, pe, sports coaching etc where retrieval is used far more than elaborative practice have a lot to teach more academic disciplines in terms of pedagogy.

    Although, I could be wrong.

  5. I’d be grateful for any pointers.

    “Here’s an example” and “imagine …” are not what is meant by “worked examples”. Worked examples are when the topic is taken through each individual step of the working, leaving nothing out. They are more properly “fully worked examples”. Teaching by them also moves them to the front of any teaching.

    Teachers have always used examples, but when they use them without working through them explicitly, taking every step in turn, they make things much harder for their students. If a teacher says “for example Nazi Germany” during a discussion on authoritarianism, that means nothing to most students, as they know that Nazis are bad but have very little idea exactly the differences between them and democracies. (Ask a typical 15 year old to describe precisely what was wrong with Nazi Germany.) A “worked example” would actually specifically list the differences — crushing of unions, banning of other parties, restriction on speech etc — and would therefore be actually understandable to a student.

    In Maths at least the advent of constructivist ideas has eroded examples even further. Allegedly, in order to understand the student needs to discover the idea for themselves. That is, the examples given need to not be fully worked, so students can find out for themselves.

    So you might see someone teach quadratics by showing them a physical representation and then only afterwards letting them into the consequences:
    Any examples would then follow (once the student was utterly lost IMO).

    Teaching by Explicitly by worked example is entirely the other way round. You don’t leap into 2, 1 or 0 solutions, but work up piece by piece. You explain that there might be two solutions, and then you work through explicitly such situations, step by step. Once that is nailed, you move on. Only after the student is able to follow the steps do you let them lose on the wider consequences.

    You really don’t need to look very hard to find teachers who are opposed to “worked examples” as a prime teaching tool. Dan Meyer is down the road to Constructivism, but he’s too good a teacher to fall for that utterly. However some time spent following his wilder fanboys and fangirls will quickly lead you to teaching styles largely without examples of any kind, let alone fully worked ones, and certainly with examples relegated to after the “learning” has supposedly taken place.

  6. CLT along side retrieval practice and spaced practice, is certainly the main theory of cognitive science that I use to inform my teaching. I find its ideas clearer and more reproducible then most other education ideas. I have one serious issue with it. All my sources are second hand as I have no access to the main text, and I will not pay over £100 as a matter of principle. I wish Sweller would take responsibility for this situation, as considering the age and prestige of this idea this text should be affordable in any school or in my case college library. I should not need to enroll on a University course to access it.

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