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Ofsted defends use of cognitive load theory in inspection overhaul

Head of research says cognitive science is ‘just one part of the wide range of evidence we have drawn upon’

Ofsted has defended its use of cognitive load theory in drawing up its inspection framework.

Ofsted has defended the role that cognitive load theory has played in the development of its new inspection framework for schools.

Last month, the inspectorate published an overview of the research base for its plans to change the way schools are inspected.

Its use of cognitive load theory (CLT) in the research has been criticised by Dame Alison Peacock, the chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching.

She raised concerns that in places Ofsted was citing CLT research that was based on undergraduates to underpin its decisions affecting school-aged children.

However, Dame Alison later backtracked on claims that CLT was not based on research with school-aged children.

This afternoon Daniel Muijs, the inspectorate’s head of research, outlined the role of the CLT in developing the education inspection framework in a blog.


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He writes that CLT “forms one part of the evidence we looked at from the learning sciences”, but says that Ofsted had “not based either our evidence review or the inspection framework on CLT”.

Mr Muijs describes CLT as “one of the best supported theoretical frameworks in education”, with research using adults, children starting to learn to read, children in upper primary school years, and those in secondary school.

In the blog, he acknowledges that CLT has faced legitimate criticism around issues such as measurement of cognitive load, the precision of definitions, and changes to the theory over time.

He writes: “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.”

In his blog, he says that CLT does not dictate a specific teaching method, adding: “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!”

He says that the new framework will be “the most evidence-based, research-informed and tested framework in Ofsted’s 26 year history”.

He adds: “Cognitive science is important, but just one part of the wide range of evidence we have drawn upon.”

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