The greatness and limitations of theory: the case of Cognitive Load Theory and its application to music

It was this, an example of Cognitive Load Theory in practice, that came via twitter as part of the ‘every teacher should know’ movement.
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)  is an example of the current interest in, and promotion of theories thought to improve classroom practice and children’s learning. ‘CLT’, ‘interleaving’, ‘dual coding’, ‘retrieval practice’, ‘Direct Instruction’; these are amongst the ideas abroad at this time. The example above is just one attempt to contextualise such ideas in the case of a particular subject. And it is at this point that problems can arise.
Before examining the example above, it is helpful to point out that this new science of learning, of which CLT is an exemplar, places great emphasis on the role of memory in learning, and in particular, the building of long-term memory. In this CLT claims high status; it seeks to explain the relationship between working memory and long term memory. And within this discourse there are some who see the goal of education as a matter of expanding long term memory or if you prefer, knowing lots of stuff.
Usha Goswami writes:
‘Working memory is a working store of information that is held in mind for a brief period of time, in a ‘mental workspace’ where it can be manipulated. For example, ‘verbal working memory’ is the capacity to hold information verbally in mind, perhaps while seeking somewhere to write it down.’ There is also ‘visuo-spatial working memory’, the ability to hold information in the ‘mind’s eye’. [1]
Usha doesn’t venture further with her examples. But what about ‘musical working memory’, the capacity to hold a musical idea in mind, in the ‘mind’s ear’.
Oh, now we can expose the paucity of the example above, and as Gary Spruce pointed out, its utter ontological failure in respect to music.
But wait, some more explanation.
‘The cognitive load involved in a task is the cognitive effort (or the amount of information processing) required by a person to perform this task’. [2]
The central issue is the need to avoid cognitive overload. The reader may be already ‘glazing over’ at this point. If this is the case you are experiencing cognitive overload and I should have further broken down the information that I am presenting into more discrete elements. This would enable the building of a comprehensive picture of CLT and the issues arising. If there is cognitive overload then learning will be impaired if not negated, and long-term memory left deprived of new knowledge.
In the example the teacher is given a choice:
‘[The teacher] could represent the two sources of information visually as text and a diagram, and make sure they are physically integrated (Strategy 5, page 21). Or, she could present the two sources of information using both auditory and visual channels of communication. She decides to use the second approach.’ [3]
What is of note here is that what is referred to as the auditory channel is Usha’s ‘verbal working memory’. But what about the auditory channel being the music itself.
There is no mind’s ear in play.
Is it worth making a fuss about this?
Well, yes. Because it is an example of the dispensation of theory through limited understanding of the nature of music. The purveyors of the evidence informed/research informed movement, almost invariably fail to grasp the essential non-verbal nature of music, being ignorant of centuries of music educational pedagogical wisdom and the subtle role of verbal mediation in music instruction.
Within some of our schools CLT is likely to be flavour of the month. For the last decade at least, music teachers have been struggling to cope with the misrecognition of what is the nature of musical knowledge and experience seeing them coerced into demonstrating learning in unmusical ways.
So how did all those songs get into your head? Can it be explained by CLT?
Do music teachers really need to know about CLT?
[1] Goswami, U. (2014) Child Psychology: A Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
[2] Reif, F. (2010) Applying Cognitive Science to Education. Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
I wonder if this inspired the example provided.
And what does page 25 have to say?

Phronesis and knowledge organisers

As something of an afterthought to my ten part consideration of ‘knowledge richness’ and its emotively charged satelites offering visions of knowledge goodness, I realise that my final example in part 10 was an attempt to reveal:

‘Phronesis (Ancient Greek: φρόνησῐς, translit. phrónēsis) is an Ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence. It is more specifically a type of wisdom relevant to practical action, implying both good judgement and excellence of character and habits, or practical virtue.’ [Google]

In so far as I am claiming to be wise I must add that I am growing old and at least in that respect feel that I may be entitled to do so.

The music in the gym this morning was very loud. Radio 1 easily overpowered my iPod choice this morning, the Lesser Litany of Thomas Tallis. Oh, the uses to which music is put.

I politely asked the receptionist whether users of the gym liked the music to be so loud and was Radio 1 the preferred option. This unsurprisingly was not known. But they would look into it. Well, I have started a conversation at least. I wonder how it will conclude.

OK, I just need to get some better earphones.

I sometimes propose that the purpose of music making in school is to enable music to be made well. And you say, what on earth does that mean? Well, the ‘well’ bit can be elaborated through phronesis. We should note that it is a practical form of knowledge melting into oblivion any skills-knowledge dualism.

Of course, phronesis won’t fit into a knowledge organiser.

What is knowledge rich? Part 10: the wisdom of practical knowledge

The years 1965 to the coming of the National Curriculum in 1992 were a time of energetic debate on the nature of knowledge and the curriculum. And this was my starting point in part 1. The debate yielded a rich body of literature now little known and no part of today’s stuttering and starting conversation around the subject where the race to knowledge organisers, curriculum templates and the reprofessionalising of teachers as the new curriculum-knowledge bearers gathers pace.
‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’. (Hirst, 1993)
In earlier blogs, and responding to Hirst’s injunction, I worked with the example of bell ringing and mentioned the longevity of the varieties of Indonesian Gamelan playing; and pointed out that particular musical practices will have particular ways of being and thinking; they will have primers and principles, ways of knowing and becoming knowledgeable. But the proposal is not that all musical practices have equal value. There is the challenge of selecting from culture. Writing of musical practices Wayne Bowman notes: 
‘They are good only to the extent they contribute to human, or, in music education’s case, educational ends. No value (no, not even musical value) is ultimate, unconditional, good without regard for situational particulars or ends served. If and when music is good, that goodness is always a function of its contribution to ends beyond itself. The same is true of music education.’ [1]
The value of musical knowledge, in its many shapes and forms, is contingent.
Martin Robinson recently blogged drawing attention to knowledge as being of an ‘uncertain kind’ and different to scientific knowledge. And drawing from Mary Midgley comes the idea that there might be ‘knowledge as knowing what to think, what to do, even not knowing what to think and do. This knowledge organised by values.’ [2] 

Yes, values, so distinctly absent from much of the current discourse about knowledge and the curriculum.

As Martin goes on to argue, much of the current discourse around knowledge speaks of a paucity of attention to the ‘value for what’ question.

Martin concludes that:

‘A knowledge-rich curriculum is values driven – and not just one set of values determined as right or wrong – but the difficult search through competing values that help us determine how we might live,’ [3]

I would like to think that there is some synergy here with Bowman’s ‘ … we acknowledge and embrace musical experience and study as fundamentally ethical resources – as practices in and through which people wrestle with and seek to answer the vitally important educational question, What kind of person is it good to be?’ [4]

But let the arbitrator be an example that might deemed to be, in some sense, knowledge rich.

The account was written in November 2017.

As last Sunday approached I turned my thoughts to what music I should play before and after the morning service in the village church where I was to play. It was Armistice Sunday and there would be times of thoughtful remembrance in the service.

I felt sure that before the service I should play something solemn and fixed on Handel’s Largo as it used to be known. [5] However, I remained far from certain about what music I should play at the end of the service. Should it be bold, loud, triumphant, glorious? I wasn’t sure. By Sunday morning I still had no clear idea about what would be right. I did have the book in which Handel’s Largo featured amongst ‘100 of the world’s favourite pieces’ and my thoughts rested on several possibilities.


In the event, and as the service proceeded, I began to sense what would be right. There were the silences and I thought of my own fore bearers killed in both wars. There were poignant words read by a frail age-ed man and the final hymn was to be ‘I vow to thee, my country’.

I now became clearer about what would be right. I would play ‘I vow to thee, my country’. The congregation would make good sense of this repetition I thought.

As the time approached to play my final part in the service I again felt the mood of the place as I imagined the people’s feelings and sensibilities. And now with a sense of what was right here and now I drew the Lieblich Gedact stop [6] and played the first line of ‘I vow to thee, my country’ slowly and as a single line melody, the second line harmonised and so on with some variation and ending with a lone voice in the lowest of registers.

Later I reflected on what kind of knowledge I had been engaged in.

It wasn’t a matter of knowing that this is the case, these are the facts, here is theoretical knowledge [7] to be applied, but a practical form of knowing bound to particular circumstances drawing upon feeling and intuition to discern what was right. Thought was bound to feeling. It was knowledge that was experienced, felt, saturated with value and independent of concepts and categories and not translatable to any other kind of knowledge.

All this has great relevance for the music classroom and just what it is that is being valued (assessed) and for the ways of knowing that are being prized, for the ways pupils are making sense of their experience.

In response to the demand for a knowledge curriculum, for facts to lead the way, for knowledge to be reduced to statements of truth, for 100 pieces of classical music to be recognised and named, it is helpful to be reminded of a practical form of knowledge that I have tried to communicate above. This will be about learning and living out dispositions towards making music well, finding out what feels right so that all other manifestations of musical knowledge can be imbued with meaning, significance and placed with care in the order of things.



[1] See

[2] See

[3] Ibid

[4] See

[5] ‘Ombra mai fu’ from the opera Serse.

[6] See

[7] Just to note that Michael Young’s Powerful Knowledge is theoretical knowledge.