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?

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