Excerpts from my outbox, on Cognitive Load Theory

Thanks for pointing me to that paper. I wasn’t sure if this was worth blogging about, and I don’t even know if this is something that needs clarifying — maybe you already have heard me out on this — but I never really thought I was advocating for CLT to incorporate motivational factors into its theory.

My point [in my essay] was less a practical and more an academic one. That is, I thought that the question as to whether include motivation as part of CLT or not was essentially a choice. That choice has consequences, and there are tradeoffs either way: a more complex theory would encompass more variables but at the risk of becoming less useful. This is a tension I saw CLT grappling with at various points in its development. I didn’t see this as a criticism of CLT, but more of as representing a tension that exists throughout educational research.

So from my point of view, it was never a criticism of Sweller to point out that there had been times when he’d considered incorporating motivation into CLT (along with van Merrienboer).

And the point was never to suggest that CLT should be discredited as less scientific or more subjective on account of its history. Rather, the overall point is that theory-making involves making choices. Those choices can be reasonable or not. To an extent theories are determined by the evidence, but theories are always underdetermined by the evidence.

I think that this is a good thing for people to know about how science works, and I think it’s a useful lens through which to see some debates between more anthropologically inclined educational researchers and those more grounded in psychology. That is, different educational fields have different views on how best to grapple with complexity. Whether those different fields are equally successful in generating insights is an entirely different (but relevant!) question.

Moreover, I am personally agnostic as to whether CLT would be better off with or without motivational variables included as part of their models. I think of that as essentially a question about the viability of competing research programs, and I don’t know whether CLT research would be more or less informative with motivational factors included. I see this paper as making the case one way, but others have made the case the other way. I think the proof is in the pudding, and based on some of his papers from the 1990s, I’d think that Sweller would say the same.

The main regret I have about my initial writing about CLT is that I downplayed the role of worked examples. At the time I hadn’t made worked examples part of my teaching, but since then I certainly have, and it’s greatly improved my teaching. At this point I’ve given talks about constructed example-problem pairs and using worked examples as feedback, and I’ve written about examples a number of different times. I think it’s an incredibly rich aspect of teaching and useful in so many different teaching contexts.

I don’t necessarily regret downplaying worked examples in the essay itself, but certainly in my initial blogging after the essay itself I wish I’d known what I now know.


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