I read this today:
“Cognitive load theorists suggest teaching domain-specific skills is more effective because, while general problem-solving skills are innate to humans and therefore do not need to be explicitly taught, domain-specific skills are not automatically acquired by learners without explicit teaching.” From ‘Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand’ (NSW Education Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation August 2017)
Cognitive load theorists are psychologists interested in the relation between how the brain works and how children should therefore be taught. They seem to be saying ‘don’t expect children to learn a technical skill without modelling it’.
At the end of this article, the authors point out that this statement refers to research conducted in Maths, Science and Technology, that there is very little research in relation to other areas, including the teaching of writing. So, the first thing to question about it is, is it relevant for a teacher of primary age children learning how to write? Then, if it is, what would that modelling look like?
‘Worked examples’ are the way to go, according to the article, which explains the term as follows:
A ‘worked example’ is a problem that has already been solved for the learner, with every step fully explained and clearly shown. The ‘worked example effect’ is the widely replicated finding that novice learners who are given worked examples to study perform better on subsequent tests than learners who are required to solve the equivalent problems themselves (Carroll 1994; Cooper & Sweller 1987; Sweller & Cooper 1985). The reason for this, according to cognitive load theory, is that unguided problem-solving places a heavy burden on working memory, inhibiting the ability of the learner to transfer the information into their long-term memory. The learner may effectively solve the problem, but because their working memory was overloaded they may not recognise and remember the rule that would allow them to quickly solve the same problem again in the future.
Can this be transferred to the context of primary writing? Can you compare a Maths problem to a piece of writing?
One obvious difference between a Maths problem and a piece of writing is that there is no single, correct outcome (though when it comes to solutions, I understand, there are those that would be considered more mathematically elegant … ). However, ‘worked problems’ are something that teachers of writing arguably use routinely.
We might write this as the following equation: vocabulary + adverbials + detail + variety + sense description + variety of sentence length = a really good piece of writing.
I know that some teachers like to tackle vocabulary by providing lists or directing children towards thesauri, that the government likes to direct teaching of fronted adverbials, and that since sense description and variety of sentence length have been removed from the curriculum (and with it APP guidance).
But I’d rather spend a whole lesson unpicking what makes this extract so good, within the context of the children reading the whole book, and then instructing them carefully on how to write one like it.
Here’s the whole extract:
That night when everyone was fast asleep
Tabby Cat came to lie on Annie’s bed.
She purred until she woke her
then got up and walked towards the door.
And Annie thought, she wants to show me now,
and stumbled sleepy out of bed
and followed through one door
and then another
and out into the barefoot garden
where Tabby Cat turned in circles
round and round Annie’s warm legs
in the cool grass
under the moon.
“Show me your kittens?”
And she was gone.