Is Inquiry Learning Unjust? Cognitive Load Theory and the Democratic Ends of Education

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Cognitive load theorists Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark argue that an array of inquiry-based pedagogies widely promoted in teacher preparation programmes are out of step with current cognitive science and should be eliminated for novice learners. According to these cognitive load theorists, inquiry-based pedagogies are likely to increase achievement gaps between the lowest and highest achieving students while reducing total learning. On almost any theory of justice in educational provision, an educational practice that results in the acquisition of fewer total educational goods by students and greater inequality in the distribution of goods will be considered unjust. I argue that inquiry-based pedagogies can be defended, even for novice learners, not as means to other goods but as embodiments of the least controversial liberal-democratic educational ends. I claim that once understood as part of the ends of liberal democratic education, inquiry-based pedagogies cannot be rightly eliminated from educational pathways. In addition, I argue that by interpreting cognitive load theory in light of uncontroversial liberal democratic educational ends, central claims about instructional design that are advanced by both cognitive load theorists and their opponents are either moderated or overturned. Most notably, the claim that there are no domain-general inquiry skills which need to be taught, which is advanced by cognitive load theorists against inquiry theorists, is revealed to be self-refuting. Integrating cognitive load theory into processes of liberal democratic problem-solving turns out to be a biologically secondary domain-general inquiry skill of just the sort cognitive load theorists deny exists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1167-1185
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Philosophy of Education
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • History
  • Philosophy


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