Why child-led learning 'does not work' and what you should do instead

Knowledge comes in two categories and teachers should be concerned only with the second, argues Professor David C Geary

Cognitive Load Theory

“Once you get to real academic learning, the child discovery approach is just not going to work,” explains David C Geary, Curators' Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri, keeping alight the eternal flame of debate about the best way to teach.

Geary’s statement is based on what is really his secondary research focus: much of his career has been spent looking at how we learn maths, but his surety on how best we should teach in general is based on his theory of primary and secondary knowledge.  

“By primary, I mean human universal abilities,” he explains on this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast. “These are things that would go under the rubric of folk psychology, folk physics and folk biology."


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He continues: “Folk psychology would, for example, include language, the ability to know what other people are thinking, facial recognition. Folk biology would be things about plants and animals that are not important to people in the developed world now, but living in the real world you would need an extensive knowledge base of these things to survive. And folk physics includes things like navigation and using tools.”

Geary argues that the brain is wired to be ready to learn these things without much effort.

“The brain has a certain organisation to it in certain areas that makes sure infants and young children find some things more interesting than others,” he explains. “And then by attending to these things, say human faces, that provides the experience that teaches them to recognise one person against another, or discriminate a happy, sad or angry face.

"So you have these inbuilt skeletal structures that guide kids’ experience to make sure they get the feedback necessary to fill out these primary skills and adapt them to whatever their local conditions are.”

Knowledge acquisition

For the most part, Geary says, children need no guidance or instruction to acquire these primary skills. Instead, they just need the opportunity to socialise and experience the world.

Secondary knowledge is much harder to acquire, he believes. 

“Evolutionary novel knowledge is secondary,” Geary explains. “These are abilities or competencies that have emerged relatively recently in human historical time, so the past few thousand years or so, and it would include typical academic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic – you do not need these skills to survive in traditional societies, but we certainly do need them today."

Cognitive Load Theory

He continues: “Once you get to the non-evolved skills, the brain is not easily structured to learn those, so the structured environment has to provide that organisation to the child’s experiences. The teacher is providing the structure the brain is not providing. 

“So, one of the important distinctions is that the things that are sufficient for learning primary knowledge, are not going to be sufficient in learning in secondary domains. There have been educational theories that have not made that distinction: whole word, whole maths and so on.”

Different approaches

Essentially, Geary believes that primary knowledge will naturally evolve as long as children are in an environment that permits exploration, play and social interactions. This is more important in early childhood, he says, but primary knowledge continues to be refined into adulthood. 

So how much play and social exploration should a child be getting? Does early schooling get in the way? 


Quick read: Professor John Sweller on Cognitive Load Theory

Quick listen: Professor Dylan William on memory and cognitive load

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“I am not sure anyone knows for sure what the sufficient amount of experience is needed to make sure it develops," Geary states. "It is probably not much – kids can play after school or at recess, weekends. That is probably sufficient. Their natural bias to want to play with other kids, and interact in increasingly complex ways, will naturally result in that.”

Secondary knowledge is not learned this way, he says. This knowledge takes a lot of effort, children do not naturally seek it out, and you need explicit instruction to persuade them to learn the material. 

Building new knowledge

“You have to build secondary abilities. It takes effort. That is where working memory, attentional control and cognitive load come in,” Geary explains. “As a basic example: one of the important things kids need to learn early on is phonemic awareness, they need to know the letter ‘b’ has a ‘buh’ sound and so forth and that then allows them to sound out or decode words they have not seen before. 

“So the phonemes are built into the primary language system, but kids would not explicitly focus on the different sounds normally. They do not need them to access language. But associating those sounds with random letters in secondary [learning] – that is something a kid is not naturally going to do without some kind of guidance.

“With the primary learning, kids can hum along, do what they are going to do, play – all these child-initiated activities – and they do not have to put much effort into it.

“Secondary knowledge takes a lot of well-organised schooling.”

Tricky relationship

The relationship between the two is not a simple one. Geary explains that sometimes the secondary knowledge builds on primary knowledge, whereas, for other domains and skills, primary knowledge can get in the way. 

“There are certainly things in secondary areas that can be assisted in positive ways by primary knowledge,” he says. “But in order to construct secondary knowledge, it involves attention-driven engagement of working memory and inhibition of folk biases.

“People have folk ideas, or intuitive ideas, about motion, biological growth or evolution, that provide good-enough explanations for day-to-day things but are scientifically incorrect. You can teach people the science and they get it, but their intuitive notions remain intact, and if they are not careful, they can easily slip into the primary biases.

"In addition, if kids are just working together, playing, the default mode of the brain is probably very active. But if you need to learn, say, algebra, you really need to focus on what the teacher is doing or what is in the book. That attentional focus kicks in the dorsal attention network, which actually inhibits the default mode.

“There is a literal seesaw: if one is up, the other is down. For primary stuff, default mode needs to be up. For a lot of secondary knowledge, the other needs to be engaged. 

“That is why a lot of the child-directed stuff does not work so well. They are going to slip into the default mode, and concentrate on things that are much more interesting to them. It is more pleasurable to be in the default mode."

Cognitive Load Theory

Much of this work has become a pillar supporting the research of professor John Sweller and his theory of cognitive load, which was heavily cited in recent publications from Ofsted and the Department for Education (in the Early Career Framework). 

As Geary tells it, Sweller found an "answer" to the question of why the results of the cognitive load tests he was running were presenting in a certain way: secondary knowledge simply took more load than primary knowledge. 

“He had the insight to see it explained why he was getting his effects. It was primary and secondary knowledge. It flowed right together and it made a lot of sense of his findings,” says Geary.

In the podcast, he goes on to talk about his views on cognitive load theory, and also on motivation, teaching instruction and the developmental points where secondary knowledge can be taught and which teaching approach should be used. He also discusses the need for regular breaks in the classroom to enable time in the default mode. 

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