Cognitive load theory

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Cognitive load theory may be summarized as the claim that working memory is limited, therefore all learning should be incremental.

I have no reservations about this formulation other than it is somewhat misleading. Learning is incremental because of the nature of the conceptualization process (see: Jigsaw puzzle metaphor). At the same time, the capacity of working memory may simply reflect the needs for an efficient conceptualization of the operational status quo. In other words, we tend to add pieces of knowledge to the knowledge network one by one. At the same time, when making decisions, we like to have a simple model of what decision data says. We may have vast maps of concept activations in the brain, however, the brain chooses to focus only on a small subset to make decision-making efficient.

Optimal learning is naturally guided by the learn drive and the load is minimized by selecting learning trajectories which traverse concept networks via short semantic distances.

Free learning adds well-matching pieces of knowledge, which produce minimal loads on working memory

In problem solving, performance decreases at low loads, and at high loads. This is why students will naturally gravitate towards the goldilocks zone as determined by the problem valuation network (compare: knowledge valuation network).

Cognitive load may be compared to power in physics. While the power can be expressed as the distance traversed in a given time for a given force, cognitive load is the semantic distance divided by the acquisition time given constant (maximum) focus.

Cognitive load = Semantic distance * Learning speed

In optimum learning, acquisition of new knowledge will seek short semantic distances to maximize the learning speed for the same working memory load.

Schooling is like an inefficient railway system that attempts to increase power by adding coal to increase speed, while incremental learning is like a lubricant that makes knowledge easy and increases speed while using the same cognitive power. As cognitive load has a ceiling determined by the capacity of the working memory, the greater the pressure of compulsory schooling, the lesser the efficiency of energy use.

Schools expend a great deal of energy to inefficiently produce minor outcomes

During the day, maximum cognitive load keeps decreasing with passing time due to homeostatic fatigue that can be resolved with sleep. Total daily loads can be maximized with optimum napping in biphasic lifestyle based on free running sleep.

The key author of the cognitive load theory (1988), Dr John Sweller, took his reasoning a step too far. See: Horrible theory of minimal guidance learning. As early as in 1984, Sweller was a proponent of direct instruction as opposed to discovery learning. He believed fervently that a good teacher and good instruction can facilitate learning, reduce cognitive load, and help students move from A to B with minimum effort. His seemingly plausible reasoning is incorrect. Even if we provide a student with a genius teacher, and even if the student and the teacher agree on the subgoal of learning (B), the optimization of the learning trajectory is far more efficient if it is executed by the brain, rather than by a perceptive tutor. Command economy of the Soviet Union had its successes and advantages, however, we know that free markets are predominantly superior optimizers (see: Modern schooling is like Soviet economy).

This glossary entry is used to explain texts in SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving