Why Front-Loading is Bull*#%!

To be honest, I’d not heard the term ‘front-loading’ until I arrived in SA. For those unfamiliar with the term, it describes the explicit teaching done to young people before they can practice. The premise is that young people must have a mental model that’s taught to them by a teacher before they can actually do anything. And, it’s crap.

Image by Robert Waghorn from Pixabay

When I began in the Army Reserves last century, front-loading was definitely the modus operandi. Here’s the general shape of every lesson:

  1. “In this lesson, you will learn…”
  2. “You will learn this…”
  3. [content of lesson — AKA Powerpoint with talking]
  4. “In this lesson, you learnt…”
  5. “Any questions?”
  6. [someone asks a question]
  7. “Don’t get ahead of me. That’s the next lesson.”

And, on it continued. They call it Blocked Training.

Blocked Training is a method in which students or trainees are directed to perform a specific skill after it is known to the student in advance. The training is structured, conducted in a sterile environment and skills are presented in a logical and progressive manner (Salomon, 2016). Studies have consistently shown that Blocked Training can offer high standards of performance at the end of short training periods, but offers lower results when tested after long periods with no training (Vickers, 2007).

Last century, in the Australian Army, no one touched a weapon without knowing its specifications and the safety procedures off by heart. We drilled the safety procedures with our unloaded rifles until they were unconscious actions so that when we had live rounds, no one would accidentally shoot anyone else. Then, for every subsequent shooting practice, each shooter was paired with a more-experienced and higher-ranked coach who laid next to you and fed you every instruction. The decision-making is taken out of the equation. Makes sense, right? Except that decision-making is actually crucial to embedding understanding in long-term memory.

When someone is required to make a decision, their long term retention is increased due to the development of a much stronger formation of memory traces. This allows better consolidation of neural connections and therefore better retention of the skill in the long term (Salomon, 2016).

Here’s what’s interesting. The Army has changed this procedure, specifically in regards to weapons training. Why? Because soldiers were so nervous about their weapons that they became poor shooters and, indeed, their shooting became worse over time.

Welcome, Interleaved Training.

Instead, the Australian Army has moved towards a relatively new learning phenomenon; “Contextual Interference”. Contextual Interference involves adding unpredictability or chaos to interleaved training whilst someone performing a skill or several skills (also referred to in the book, Range, Epstein, 2019). The strange thing is that although this learning method lowers the immediate measurable performance, it increases memory retention in the long term. In terms of shooting practice, Contextual Interference requires shooters to make the decision to apply a skill or skills in context rather than just training the skill itself.

Not only that, instead of having a more experienced coach next to the shooter on the range, every soldier has a coach of the same rank. Every soldier is required to learn and to coach each other.

And the confidence and accuracy in shooting has gone through the roof.

Image by Chris Aram from Pixabay

What does this mean for education?

Although the research is very new, in short, by front-loading our students, we’re ensuring that they’ll forget what they’ve learnt after it’s no longer useful. Which might be next week after the test, or tomorrow, after the lesson.

A 2015 study by Rohrer in which students encountered interleaving learning in Maths showed a 25% improvement the next day and 76% improvement when tested a month later.

By interleaving learning experiences where students might perform several skills before they have all the information, potentially requiring the information in the moment, and where students can make the decision about how to use the skill/s, we help students to perform more effectively, confidently and over time. Early research suggests this is because the brain is working harder.

Interleaving not only helps you learn multiple skills fast, it can also help you connect different ideas from various disciplines whilst you build strong pathways in your brain.

Oppong, 2020.

Now, let’s imagine we add the Australian Army’s practice of peer-coaching to the learning.

Training students as coaches led to increases in emotional intelligence, improved attitudes to learning and enhanced communication skills (van Nieuwerburgh & Tong, 2013).


What might all this mean for ‘Cognitive Load’ theory? Maybe that’s a bit of a load?