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Developing the education inspection framework: how we used cognitive load theory

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: education inspection framework, research and evaluation

Teacher explains something to two pupils

Our research commentary prompted quite a bit of discussion on cognitive load theory (CLT) and how we’ve used it. We thought it would be useful to address some of the issues raised.

CLT as part of the learning sciences

CLT forms one part of the evidence we looked at from the learning sciences. Other learning science aspects we used included dual coding and spaced practice.

This evidence from the learning sciences in turn is only one part of the broader evidence base we looked at, which included research from school and teacher effectiveness, research on leadership and research on school effects on physical and mental health. We have not based either our evidence review or the inspection framework on CLT.

However, CLT does form a valuable part of the evidence base on effective practices in education. It is a well-established theory, with over 30 years of research behind it, making it one of the best supported theoretical frameworks in education. That research has been conducted with adult learners, but also with children beginning to learn to read, in upper primary school years and at secondary school.

As with all theories, it has come in for legitimate criticism. This has been around issues such as:

Criticism does not invalidate the theory, which as mentioned above is supported by a large body of research. It does, however, show that we would be misguided if we relied solely on CLT as the basis for our evidence. We have therefore steered clear of doing this.

Teacher helps two pupils with their work.

What CLT says and implications for classroom practice

CLT is about the architecture of memory and the brain and, in particular, the capacity of the short-term memory to process information.

Long-term memory consists of a range of schemata. These are complex structures that link knowledge, create meaning and allow skills to be performed. They are built up over time.

Learning is about developing those schemata through acquiring knowledge and making connections with different schemata. However, before information enters long-term memory, it needs to be processed by the short-term or working memory. This has limited capacity. It is not able to retain knowledge or develop schemata if it is overloaded i.e. if we are given too many things to think about at once.

However, CLT is not about minimising cognitive load. It is about not exceeding the cognitive load that people can deal with. Deep learning requires cognitive load (learning is hard!), but it must be relevant to the task and help rather than hinder learning.

CLT has been interpreted by some as leading to a narrow conception of classroom practice. However, what CLT actually suggests is that teachers should consider what cognitive load they are asking from learners and whether that is appropriate at that particular stage of learning a topic. It is important for teachers to understand the distinction between novice and expert here.

When teaching, we need to take account of expertise reversal effects (these are the interactions between levels of learners’ prior knowledge and the effectiveness of different teaching techniques). Experts possess more detailed and complex schemata than novice learners and therefore it is easier for them to perform complex tasks in their working memory. Novices need more help to gradually build their schemata on a topic and to link it to others. Expertise here is not primarily about age but about the knowledge the learner already has about a particular topic.

This approach suggests teaching activities that do not need too much working memory capacity until learners acquire the knowledge that allows them to spend less time processing content. In many cases, when we are teaching novices, it will make sense to teach in small chunks and ensure that pupils obtain mastery in these before moving onto the next topic. Many teachers have found CLT helpful to their daily practice.

No specific teaching method

CLT does not dictate a specific teaching method. It does not imply that, for example, teachers should use direct instruction all the time (though of course this is often a useful approach supported by a lot of evidence that does not derive from CLT). Some studies suggest, for example, that collaborative group work can lighten cognitive load in complex tasks. Of course, other evidence suggests that collaborative group work, though potentially highly effective, is hard to do well, which is another reason to draw on multiple sources of evidence!

When it takes effect in September, the education inspection framework will be the most evidence-based, research-informed and tested framework in Ofsted’s 26 year history. Cognitive science is important, but just one part of the wide range of evidence we have drawn upon.

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  1. Comment by Ross McGill posted on

    We cannot dispute the power of cognitive load theory and its impact on the classroom - however, we know this is difficult for teachers to achieve with ~30 learners sitting in front of them. For teachers be able to assess this on their feet is highly complex, and for observers, just as difficult to observe.

    It is very useful to highlight that this has been used in your research methods as part of the new framework, and I can also read from this blog that you acknowledge there are many other ways to support pupils in lessons. E.g. how to improve memory and retrieval; we should assume that CLT will be different in many different subjects and age groups. If we place CLT at the heart of policy and evidence, there is a danger that it will draw significant implications on national pedagogy. As you rightly point out, "CLT does not dictate a specific teaching method."

    My question here is, will Ofsted be advocating as a pedagogical approach for all schools to adopt? And form part of the 'quality of education' judgement in inspection?

  2. Comment by External Relations posted on

    Hi Ross. CLT is primarily a theory of learning rather than a pedagogical approach, and as it says in the blog, CLT does not dictate a particular teaching method. Ofsted itself doesn’t advocate or recommend any particular teaching style.

  3. Comment by Knowledge Organisers posted on

    I predict that headteachers will be requiring written lesson plans from teachers indicating how Cognitive Load is taken into account, because OFSTED inspectors will be asking headteachers for this evidence. However much OFSTED later proclaims that this is an "OFSTED Myth".

    Every time there is a new OFSTED framework there are massive unintended consequences for teacher workload. From past experience we can guarantee this 100%. So more teachers will be leaving the profession!

    Every OFSTED framework is thought to be the best of thinking at the time. The fact that we have had so many different frameworks tells us that the new framework is likely to be as unsuccessful as all the previous ones. Unless we regard ever increasing teacher stress as a marker of success.

    If this is the perfect framework, let OFSTED stand up and tell us it will not be changed for the next 10 years. I won't hold my breath. It will be another flash in the pan. Until the next person to lead OFSTED comes along.

    How did we ever teach children things in the past without this obsession with "evidence"?

  4. Comment by Yitzchak Freeman posted on

    I have huge respect for Prof. Daniel Muijs & his work, and it's also great to know that Ofsted as an organisation recognises the value of evidence-based education and is clued-in on CLT and a number of other well-established theories of learning and evidence-based successful strategies for supporting learners. But I find this post deeply worrying.

    The response to Ross McGill's earlier comment repeats the mantra that "Ofsted itself doesn’t advocate or recommend any particular teaching style." But the blog post itself says openly that CLT "suggests teaching activities that do not need too much working memory capacity until learners acquire the knowledge that allows them to spend less time processing content. In many cases, when we are teaching novices, it will make sense to teach in small chunks and ensure that pupils obtain mastery in these before moving onto the next topic." It is simply delusional to think that a statement like this by Ofsted won't get thousands of headteachers and innumerable teachers scrabbling to concoct or create evidence of plans that show small chunks of teaching interspersed with assessment of mastery, leavened with a fair sprinkling of collaborative group work. This is where Ofsted-driven distortion of the system comes from: printing before thinking.

    And frankly, plenty of us who are interested in cogsci and evidenced-based research know al about what's in this blog already, and more besides. And teachers who aren't (yet) interested interested in cogsci aren't reading anything by Ofsted because they want to stay on top of research or because they're mesmerised by the idea that cogsci has somehow (I'm still not clear how, having read the blog) "informed" the new EIF - they're just trying to spot the next bullet that they need to dodge.

    And finally, it's nice to know that the denizens of Ofsted Towers have infused the new EIF with a few of the insights offered by cogsci. But frankly I'm sceptical as to whether the average HMI, let alone AI, is capable of even articulating intelligently and in a deeply expert way what cogsci has to offer teaching at each phase etc., let alone reliably recognising it (or its absence) in lessons or even in long-term curriculum policies and plans, given the considerably greater number of cogsci theories and insights that a school or teacher might choose to draw upon in their particular practice. And that has serious implications for the impact of the direction outlined in this blog on the reliability of inspection. Have we been there before?

  5. Comment by Terry Pearson posted on

    A useful post from Ofsted. Thank you Daniel.

    Ofsted rightly informs readers that the extant base of education research evidence usually contains a mix of corroborative (evidence to support a view), contradictory (evidence to dismiss a view) and contrasting (evidence to support a different view) findings. Indeed, Norman Denzin explored this aspect of research in some depth with his work on triangulation and came to the conclusion that research is best used to develop depth and breadth of understanding rather than make predictions.

    So given the omnipresence of variation and uncertainty in education research findings I would be interest to know how Ofsted reached it conclusions about which evidence to retain and which to overlook for the inspection framework.

  6. Comment by Bradley lightbody posted on

    I think a good way of approaching CLT is applying the rule of three to take account of the limited capacity of working memory. Three points are reflected everywhere within wider culture e.g. three wise men, three wishes, three little pigs, three course meal, three branches of government and of course a three part lesson. We can apply the rule of three by expressing just three lesson objectives although I much prefer posing key questions. Objectives tend to be task focussed whereas answering a specific question is learning focussed. We can also aim to limit group collaboration to three students for maximum participation . Aim for three outcomes from each group task with the first two building towards a more substantial and demanding outcome. I am discovering lots of satisfaction with the new framework and the holistic definition of Education.

  7. Comment by MC posted on

    Hi, you mentioned that the new framework also takes account of research on school effects on physical and mental health. Please can you provide references the specific research that influenced the framework? Thanks.

  8. Comment by External Relations posted on

  9. Comment by External Relations posted on

  10. Comment by Terry Pearson posted on

    Thanks for the prompt response. I am aware of the publication for which you have provided the link. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give an adequate answer to the question I am asking. It doesn’t provide sufficient details of the selection and rejection criteria for the inclusion of the research material.

    Perhaps noting a specific example would be helpful. The document discusses briefly, and provides some references for, the concept of retrieval practice and in doing so mentions the benefits that can arise from using it for the retention of knowledge in the long-term memory. The document does not discuss, or provide references to, retrieval induced forgetting which is one of the drawbacks of retrieval practice. It is not clear from reading the document why only the positive aspects of retrieval practice and none of the negative aspects of it have been included in Ofsted’s research, hence my query.

    Are you able to let me know how Ofsted reached its conclusions about which evidence to retain and which to overlook for the inspection framework?

  11. Comment by External Relations posted on

    For each judgement area research was selected on the basis of relevance and rigour. The document is of course a summary of the evidence, rather than an exhaustive overview of every study in each domain.

  12. Comment by Terry Pearson posted on

    Once again thank you for a prompt response. However, like the previous response it is rather short. It would be helpful if you were to provide a bit more information in relation to the question I am asking. I am interested in clarifying the overall inclusiveness of Ofsted’s approach to evidence selection rather than asking for an exhaustive overview of every study in each domain, however I will continue with the specific example I have mentioned as it provides a useful illustration.

    The Ofsted research document only refers to the benefits of retrieval practice and none of the drawbacks. This provides a skewed account of the research findings which is misleading to readers. Teachers, leaders, policy makers, inspectors and others are therefore more likely to gain a skewed understanding of the concept. This makes it more difficult to appreciate how retrieval practice can not only contribute to the retention of knowledge in the long-term memory but most importantly how it can restrict it. Used unwisely retrieval practice can do more harm than good and thus knowledge of this is crucial for underpinning the framework and for those using it.

    Choosing research outputs in this way does not support the stance that the findings from research which have been included in the document have been selected on the basis of relevance and rigour. It is common research practice to provide a more balanced selection of findings. I would appreciate knowing why Ofsted considers in this instance research on retrieval induced forgetting is not relevant to the framework but research on retrieval practice is, given that both concepts are supported by rigorous research. It is worth noting that research on retrieval practice is not the only aspect of the research base which has been treated in this way.

  13. Comment by MC posted on

    Thanks - the link doesn't work due to bad html, but I found the research here:

  14. Comment by Kevin Hewitson posted on

    I can not get to the document to which you refer using the above link. Can you check the link please. All I get is document not found!

  15. Comment by External Relations posted on

    Apologies - we've fixed this link now.