2007 - 2022

Cognitive Load Theory in Scotland?

Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, political debate in Scotland has continuously highlighted a commitment to the ideal of a ‘fairer society’ (Mooney and Scott, 2012). Perceived as something of a cornerstone in the grand narrative of Scottish national ‘identity’, this notion of ‘fairness’ is one often identified alongside that other key aspect of the supposed national mythos – comprehensive education (Mooney and Scott, 2012; Riddell, 2009). Of course, this policy can be viewed as a reaction to the overall challenges and opportunities increased diversity brings to idea of ‘Scottishness’. In a globalised world, where intolerance and exclusion seem to be ever increasing, violence, injustice and unrest are fuelled by what has been described as the interplay of socially constructed and reconstructed ideas of the Self and the Other. This interplay of the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’ is often reduced by some (even in the classroom) to nothing more than a game of power, resistance, and agency over ‘legitimate’ debates of fairness, identity and belonging. The General Teaching Council of Scotland’s (GTCS)‘The Standards for Registration: mandatory requirements for Registration with the General Teaching Council for Scotland’ (2021) explicitly cite the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989) to illustrate the issue of ‘Social Justice’ arising in Scottish schools with particular focus on the problem of ‘inclusion’ and ‘belonging’.  

Evident throughout the whole spectrum of political rhetoric, ‘fairness’ has in recent years been framed in the educational context by reference to the highly politicised sociological concept of ‘Social Justice’. Now considered as ‘policy orthodoxy’, Inclusion is seen as education’s response to social justice and that social justice in education can only be achieved by inclusive, diverse schools and practitioners (Dyson, 1999; Riddell, 2009). This policy orthodoxy stems from the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989) Act enshrining the right of every child to education. By 1995 this Act was legalised under Scots Law as the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, and today entitles every child to the right of education regardless of their physical, cultural, economic or intellectual background (Scottish Government, 2007). Indeed for schools in Scotland the current policy landscape reflects multiple national initiatives concerned with social justice, such as ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ (CfE) (Scottish Executive, 2004), ‘Assessment is for Learning’ (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2005) and Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) (Scottish Executive, 2006a; Scottish Government, 2010a). Out of this legislative framework the GTCS set the parameters of ‘Social Justice’ and diversity training for educational practitioners in Scotland. They make clear the requirement for teachers to address the issue of inclusion in their classrooms, not just as part of their ongoing profession development, but as a means to address wider notions of societal reform. Scottish Government policy such as Child Poverty Strategy for Scotland (2014-17) (Scottish Government, 2014) and The Equality Act 2010 (Scottish Government, 2010) provide further constitutional underpinning enabling practitioners to pursue the inclusive aims of ‘valuing as well as respecting social, cultural and ecological diversity’ (GTCS, 2012, p.5).

It should come as no surprise then that social, cultural or economic backgrounds are considered unacceptable influencing factors in educational attainment for both the GTCS Standards and CfE. In Scotland attainment is clearly seen as attached to these environmental factors. Despite this, there is a rising interest in teaching pedagogies based on the model of cognitive science, particularly the ‘Cognitive Load Theory’. Leaning on evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, I would suggest such thinking sits outside the Scottish educational policy just outlined. I will briefly explain why. 

Cognitive Load Theory:

Greg Ashman explains that Cognitive Load Theory proposes that ‘working memory’ is limited when dealing with ‘biologically secondary’ knowledge i.e. knowledge we have not evolved the ability to naturally acquire.’(Ashman, 2021).The ‘working memory’ can only deal with ‘about four’ items at a time. Therefore when teaching ‘cognitive load’ must be reduced i.e. ‘by keeping the number of novel items students need to process just within the limits of working memory capacity’(Ashman, 2021). This is done by reducing ‘extraneous sources of load’ – such as irrelevant information – which includes humour, personal search, independent enquiry, colour, debate, choice: the very antithesis of Scottish educational policy.  Cognitive load theory relies on evolutionary psychology. It applies the principle of evolved behaviours to children, and the implication is one that attainment is clearly found in nature versus nurture. Reductive and predeterministic, logically, it also falls prey to what Scottish philosopher David Hume called the ‘ought-is problem’, later known as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. The idea that ‘ought can be derived from is’ and that ‘what is natural’ is necessarily morally good – for those that celebrate Cognitive Load Theory, social hierarchies are predetermined ‘natural’ structures, and therefore their continued propagation is ‘morally good’. Those that naturally rise to the top do so due to the highly evolved nature of the supposed architecture in their brains – those that attain are biologically different than those that do not. In the present day Scottish educational system, the teacher’s role is envisioned as one concerned with being an inclusive practitioner; one focussed on promoting an environment of learning that nurtures the development of every child in Scotland. The role of the teacher is to practice and encourage social justice in a way that ensures pupils are not educationally disadvantaged due to social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or disability. Attainment then is envisioned as related to the effect of the child’s immediate environment and the circumstances of their immediate family or carers, not those of their distance ancestors.

In the interconnected twenty-first century, we as a society are starting to look at ways of combatting these perceived hierarchies and move away from fixed notions of identity – not entrench them. Naturally, the classroom is often the only potentially ‘safe space’ in which young people can have a serious discussion on the nature of increasingly overlapping identities and the supposed hierarchies of superiority attached to them. For those who view globalisation as a threat to their own identity, questions surrounding the trend in contemporary society towards differentiation, plurality, social mobility and inclusion have of late become of singular and emotive importance. As the Scottish Government suggest, education has a key role to play in preparing societies for dealing with these questions and what they mean for our young people. Evolutionary psychology has been, and continues to be, used to argue against social change (because the way things are now has been evolved and adapted) and against social justice (the rich are only rich because they’ve inherited greater abilities, so programs to raise the standards of the poor are doomed to fail, because biologically speaking, you don’t have the capacity). I would propose therefore that Cognitive Load Theory is not compatible with the GTCS teaching standards, the ethos of Curriculum for Excellence, or the aims of GIRFEC or, indeed, Scottish Educational Policy as a whole.

Any positives found in the application of Cognitive Load Theory, inevitably, are influenced by the biases of the people conducting the work. Evolutionary psychology is a predeterministic approach that assumes that physical and psychological traits are inherent – if so, what then is even the point of a teacher? Lickliter and Honeycutt have stated that the ‘assumption of genetic determinism is most evident in the theory that learning and reasoning are governed by innate, domain-specific modules [within the brain].’ As an educational theory, no less an actively promoted pedagogy, it is frankly terrifying. 

Of particular relevance in this debate is the societal phenomena known as ‘Othering’. It is something we see reproduced, reinforced, and experienced by people all around the world. Inherently corrosive, the ‘Othering’ tendency manifests itself when certain groups rely on basic binary understandings that categorises people into ‘us’ and ‘them’; giving rise to social injustice. It is this ‘Othering’ tendency that fuels the dangerous ‘power games’ we see so often played out in society that contributes and perpetuates the imagined hierarchies of superiority amongst people. The adoption of Cognitive Load Theory feeds directly into this tendency.

It is in the classroom that intolerance, exclusion, violence and unrest should be discussed, considered, understood and ultimately combated.  If we are to create a tolerant and more integrated society it is crucial that teachers help young people cope with the differences in viewpoint and lifestyles they see in the world around them. However, if young people are to be engaged, and not simply indoctrinated, in legitimate debates of identity and belonging, the teacher’s ideological ‘neutrality’ is prerequisite. The teacher’ must be able to help students to face the globalised world and learn first-hand how to negotiate the natural tendency towards the ‘othering’ phenomena as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. Clearly if a teacher is to provide these skills to today’s children, the teacher’s role in the modern world has transformed into one that is dynamic, fluid and dialectical – all of which may require ‘four items’ or more. When Cognitive Load Theory reaches its logical ultimate conclusion, we will be forced into reaching for our government issued callipers measuring the foreheads of the rich and privileged. 

Comments (4)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Very interesting. this theory reminds me of teachers in East London in the 1970s who claimed that the Black students were incapable of conceptualising. Expectations were lowered, they weren’t likely to do well according to this. It completely failed to take into account the complex social realities they were negotiating and the capacities to deal with many difficult problems at the same time. One of these students is now an internationally recognised documentary film maker. The teachers have sunk into oblivion.

  2. Mons Meg says:

    Yep, the limits of working memory is the reason we write stuff down and organise that writing to make that stuff retrievable. It makes sense to teach children how to process rather than memorise information; that is, how to think. That and to create an educational environment in which every child has an equal opportunity to learn how to think, irrespective of their biology or sociology.

    Not every community would agree though. Some communities would prefer education to be about teaching children what’s right and wrong in the matter of belief rather than teaching them how to decide what’s right and wrong for themselves.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    I gather that since I studied psychology decades ago, advances in brain-scanning technology have revealed even greater neuroplasticity that we were aware of.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity
    As far as I am aware, much of evolutionary psychology is ideologically-driven pseudoscience, with little or no basis for testing hypotheses (and even scientific psychology on current humans faces its replication, bias and quality-of-experiment challenges).

    On a more serious note, the rich elites (in British society) tend towards criminality in the same way that criminals are overrepresented in Parliament and royalty is the prize for the winning organized crime family in generations of bitter feuds, mass murder and civil wars. See Sky Documentaries’ Royal B**tards: Rise of the Tudors for some exceedingly bad behaviour. On a more extensively researched note, the differences between blood siblings raised in the same environment is conclusive that many other factors produce decisive differences.

    It would be interesting to study evolutionary psychologists, to see if they conform to any particular psychological profile.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Indeed! Evolutionary psychology is a conceptual lens through which some researchers seek to explain human behaviour. It proceeds by reducing our behavioural abilities and propensities (‘mind’) to the matter of neurology and then interpreting that matter as the product of blind chance (‘evolution by natural selection’) rather than of design or adaption. As such, it’s not itself a scientific hypothesis; there’s no set of empirical observations by which its truth could conceivably be confirmed or refuted. Rather, it’s a heuristic device by which some researchers enable their understanding of what it models. Other models of human behaviour are available.

      The political question is: to which heuristic device do we as a society conform our teachers’ behaviour as teachers and, thereby, our children’s schooling?

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