Argument from lack of authority
Why I don't recognise Guy Claxton's version of Cognitive Load Theory
If you asked me who Guy Claxton is, I would say he is the guy behind Building Learning Power, a painful learning-to-learn programme popular in the UK during the last high tide of educational progressivism in the early 2000s. However, Claxton has a long list of achievements, beginning with his ‘double first’ in natural sciences from Cambridge, various professorships and his credentials as a cognitive scientist. And credentials matter a great deal to Claxton, a perspective I am afraid that I do not share as we will see.
Another perspective we do not share is on what cognitive load theory is. I have vacillated about whether to read Claxton’s latest book, The Future of Teaching, but hearing anecdotally that Claxton’s ideas are on the rise again in Australia spurred me into action. In Chapter 6, Claxton has cognitive load theory in his sights.
As others have pointed out, The Future of Teaching is a rather eccentric book. Claxton starts out with a plea to rise above the ‘Punch and Judy’ drama of the debate between educational progressivists and educational traditionalists. And yet he then vents his barely contained rage at a ‘cabal’ who he labels ‘DIKRists’. DIKR is Claxton’s acronym for proponents of direct instruction and a knowledge-rich curriculum - people like me - and the connotation is pretty plain.
If Chapter 6 of Claxton’s book was the only account of cognitive load theory that you read, you would be left with a number of peculiar impressions. You would think that cognitive load theory draws on outdated research about memorising nonsense words or strings of meaningless numbers and inappropriately applies it to classroom learning. You would not realise that cognitive load theory is actually rooted in hundreds of studies and replications conducted mainly in school classrooms with students learning regular educational content. For instance, in my own study, students learned about how to compare the efficiency of different energy saving lightbulbs. There was not a nonsense word or random string of digits in sight.
Claxton does not mention any of the cognitive load theory effects that these classroom studies have generated, not even to criticise or cast doubt on them. And there is plenty of scope for doing that if you are so minded. It’s almost as if empirical evidence from randomised controlled trials does not matter.
Reading Claxton, you would also think that cognitive load theory suggests that all learning must pass through limited working memory. And yet I was under the distinct impression that cognitive load theory suggested this only applies to biologically secondary knowledge - knowledge we have not evolved to acquire - and not biologically primary knowledge. You can dispute this distinction - and many do - but I’m pretty sure it’s there in the theory.
I cannot help feeling Claxton is a little confused. A number of times, Claxton almost seems to highlight the importance of the knowledge students hold in their long-term memory, even if he may dispute that term. For instance, Claxton states that, “Students can be given time to think, discuss and digest new information and ideas, so they can make sense of them in terms of what they know already.” I agree. But does this not imply that ‘what they know already’ is important and that growing the base of ‘what they know already’ might be a worthwhile educational goal so that they are better able to ‘discuss and digest new information and ideas’? Seems reasonable to me. In the framework of cognitive load theory, we would argue that knowledge available in long-term memory reduces the ‘element interactivity’ in new information. However, Claxton criticises a similar idea, ‘chunking’, on the basis that it comes from ‘artificial experiments’ of some kind.
Claxton also seems to tie himself in knots about working memory. In different places, he appears to argue the contradictory points that there is no such thing, that different researchers have different names for it and that its capacity can be increased (it probably cannot). He makes a stirring case for learning through analogies (that eventually break down), such as the solar system analogy for the atom (which, of course, requires students to have prior knowledge of the solar system) but then insists on interpreting cognitive load theory’s models literally. He effectively asks where the box in the brain for working memory is physically located, suggests it is not in any specific place and then uses this to cast doubt on the model. It’s a bit like walking around London, demanding to see where ‘the teaching profession’ is located and when told that it is in no single place, concluding that it does not exist.
As well as the biologically primary/secondary division, Claxton seems to have missed the entire evolutionary perspective of cognitive load theory - although he does discuss David Geary’s theory in a later chapter so he must be aware of it to some extent. Despite the central analogy in cognitive load theory being one between the mind and the process of evolution by natural selection, Claxton continually asserts that cognitive load theory views the mind as a computer and even argues against this model on the basis that the mind does not have a central executive:
“How can packages of information be moved around in the way the metaphor suggests? And who exactly is the intelligent operator who is doing all the thinking and deciding: where is the 'executive' in the brain? Are they just a 'ghost in the machine' who magically appears to do the tricky stuff when the machine gets into trouble? In the era of neuroscience, it is very hard to justify smuggling in this homunculus.”
Oddly, Claxton appears to be furiously agreeing with at least part of what John Sweller, Paul Ayres and Slava Kalyuga write in their 2011 book, Cognitive Load Theory:
“The cognitive architecture used by cognitive load theory does not postulate nor need an independent central executive… We argue that an independent central executive dissociated from knowledge held in long-term memory results in an infinite regress of central executives. If knowledge held in long-term memory does not have the attributes normally attributed to a central executive, we are immediately faced with the question of how a knowledge-independent central executive determines its actions. We require another central executive governing the first central executive that in turn requires a third central executive, etc. The problem is eliminated by assuming that knowledge in long-term memory acts as a de facto central executive…”
This is one of the reasons why cognitive load theory makes an analogy between the human mind and evolution rather than between the human mind and computers - evolution has no central executive.
I began to wonder whether Claxton was arguing against some other cognitive load theory with which I was unfamiliar and which did require a ‘ghost in the machine’ but then his repeated references to John Sweller seemed to suggest otherwise.
I am sure some people will find solace in Claxton’s polemic. Perhaps there is a constituency who no longer get professional development gigs, who feel wronged by the ‘DIKRist cabal’ and who will be cheering with every turn of the page.
Or perhaps it is a difference in perspectives. We all have different ways of viewing the world and trying to make sense of it. Mine is largely empirical. When someone asserts a view, I want to know what evidence supports that view. Claxton’s seems different. Rather than drawing on empirical evidence, he largely prefers to quote authorities whose credentials he highlights. He briefly chides David Didau for not mentioning research by John Duncan “FRS [who] holds professorial positions at both Oxford and Cambridge,” in one of his books. As if that matters.
Perhaps this is Claxton’s truth - a world mediated by the great and good where academic authority supplies veracity. Perhaps that’s how he has ended up with his version of cognitive load theory. One thing is clear - it is not a perspective I share.