Sources of Cognitive Load

Sources of Cognitive Load

June 30, 2024 Off By JR

Stephen Downes comes right out of the gate in response to this article from The Learning Scientists: Sources of Cognitive Load:

I’m just going to come out and say it: there’s no such thing as cognitive load. The concept of ‘cognitive load’ is at least as mythical as ‘learning styles’. Stephen Downes

I would love to pull up a chair in a conference plenary where that statement is made. Largely because of how my peers (probably me at many points in history) act around so-called myths in learning. In fact, a conference I was at recently one of the audience members made some derogatory comment about learning styles and the room filled with chuckles. There was even a whole conference session on big myths in L&D: learning styles, generations, and personality types. But should you suggest that Cognitive Load Theory isn’t all its cracked up to be, or to the extreme Stephen goes to say it’s as mythical as learning styles would cause a riot.

I seem to be bumping into a lot around this idea lately, whether it’s through the Best Practices lense, evolving literature and practitioners not investigating new ideas, or something else. Recently, Dave Cormier shared a post from Alfie Kohn about CLT (not a huge Kohn fan myself, but the post was interesting). One thing that came up in the post points to something that I’ve written about recently that is often missed when we boil things down to learning “fact” and learning “myth”, boundary conditions.

Reducing cognitive load isn’t always desirable. CLT warns us off of having students construct meaning and discover solutions because that’s less efficient than just showing them the preferred way to get the answer. But what kind of teacher cares only about efficiency? “Conditions that maximize performance in the short term may not necessarily be the ones that maximize learning in the long term.”29 That’s because “learning can be impeded…when too much help is provided.”30 To put it the other way around, “Increasing the cognitive load under certain circumstances can improve learning.”Alfie Kohn

Context is so often ignored, on both sides. From a hard L&D stance, desirable difficulty (a whole branch of research I think Bjork & Bjork have published about in recent years, but relates to Vygotsky’s ideas of the zone of proximal development) is often ignored, in favour of a strict adherence to one interpretation of CTL. On the other hand, Kohn’s comment of what “teacher cares only about efficiency” is also a misdirection. It would be odd for a teacher to care only about efficiency, but does context come into play? Can a teacher prioritize efficiency in some cases and not others?

Similar to the learning styles debate, perhaps it’s better to focus on what we can apply. The most important thing we learned from LS was not that audio only is the best way for someone to learn anything, but that multiple modes of representation are important to support learning (you now find this in UDL). Helpful pieces of CLT might not be to strip everything down to a bare minimum, but maybe we can take away that it’s probably a bad idea to have music blaring in the background of an instructional video.