Capital Letters


This week, I spoke to Daisy Christodoulou for my new podcast. Daisy is one of the smartest people I know involved in education and so it’s no surprise that I’ve been left with a few issues to think about as a result of our exchange.

At one point, we discussed the teaching of writing. In her new book, Teachers versus Tech, Daisy argues that we have fallen into the trap of setting up a false choice between teaching students rules for writing and just letting them write. Daisy suggests that these two seemingly opposite methods often go hand in hand – eg in genre-based writing curriculums – and what we actually need to give students to help them progress is carefully sequenced examples and tasks related to those examples.

To illustrate the issue, Daisy noted that when she was teaching, pretty much all students would state, if asked, that sentences should start with a capital letter, and yet many of them did not start sentences with a capital letter in their own writing. It’s as if there is a step missing.

This brought to mind two ideas I’ve been thinking about. The first is what we may call default explicit teaching. This is the kind of teaching I defaulted to early in my career when I realised the methods I was meant to employ simply didn’t work. Briefly, I would explain a concept or two or three, maybe model an example – although I didn’t appreciate their importance at the time – then ask students to complete a task.

Highly effective explicit teaching, as captured well in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, is different to this. We could summarise it as proceeding in three phases: I do, we do, you do. Default explicit teaching has very little ‘we do’ and I have found that highly controlled micro practice with tight, concurrent feedback is the most challenging aspect of explicit teaching to first appreciate and then implement.

It’s through cycling through ‘I do’ and ‘we do’ that the capital letters issue is addressed. However, you have to get down to the nuts and bolts. You cannot talk in abstract terms. It’s not about exhortation. It has to be doggedly procedural.

Understandings such as this are what drive Filling the Pail. I am angry about the default explicit teaching I used to employ because I was not given a better alternative. Instead of learning about effective explicit teaching I was being encouraged to differentiate or set-up inquiry based learning experiences. And those were the more sensible suggestions. I wasn’t as good a teacher as I could have been and my students deserved better.

But another idea also springs to mind from this discussion – one I hadn’t really considered before. Knowing that sentences begin with capital letters is the kind of thing mathematics education researchers call ‘conceptual knowledge’ or, more broadly, ‘understanding’. And you can see why. A teacher turns up, explains something to their students, they understand it and feel they have learnt something and the teacher feels they have taught something. But none of it really matters if the students cannot put this understanding to use.

We tend to overemphasise conceptual understanding in mathematics when what it actually looks like is a series of rules and declarative statements. We say students don’t understand the principle of equivalence ie they don’t understand that a “=” sign means “the same as” and instead think it means “and the answer is”.

If we merely teach them to give back to us the correct definition of the equals sign, we haven’t achieved anything much. None of it matters until they can put this principle into practice to solve equations. Nothing matters until we get down to the procedural nuts and bolts.

A fuller understanding of the world should always be our goal as educators, but there are no shortcuts and the route is full of hard, detailed work. Be on the lookout for those capital letters.

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5 thoughts on “Capital Letters

  1. teachwell says:

    I really enjoyed the discussion between you both. While I think it’s right to move away from a genre driven approach to writing, I do think it’s important to realise that some features of presentation and layout need to be pointed out and taught. This does not need to be drawn out but it can’t be excluded neither or assumed to emerge through teaching through example alone in primary aged children.

    Moreover, in the absence of a whole school writing curriculum, an unintended consequence of teaching composites and bringing them together is it could lead to a backdoor introduction of a multiplicity of genres. If each teacher decides on which writing to do in each year group then the pupils will experience a disjointed writing curriculum.

    I do believe that a writing spine of some sort is needed to enable work at the word/sentence/paragraph level but also to contain the genre monster and ensure progression across the year groups. It would also allow for building on prior knowledge.

  2. Harriett Janetos says:

    I definitely agree with this statement: “I do think it’s important to realise that some features of presentation and layout need to be pointed out and taught. This does not need to be drawn out but it can’t be excluded neither or assumed to emerge through teaching through example alone in primary aged children.”

    In “Cognitive training: Implications for written language” by Graham and Harris in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology in the Schools: A Comprehensive Handbook (1989), the authors write:

    “There is an executive schema for managing the overall writing process, a genre schema that activates and directs knowledge and strategies for certain kinds of writing (e.g. an essay rather than a story), a content-processing schema that retrieves material from memory and organizes it so that it is compatible with the writer’s knowledge of the genre under consideration, and a language-processing schema that transfers ideas into explicit language.”

  3. Manuel del Río Rodríguez says:

    Dear Mr. Ashman:

    I would be interested in reading about the theoretical and practical justification of the alternative(s) to Constructivism, but I don’t seem to find a book or books that clearly tackles the issue of stating, explaining and naming such an alternative (Instructivism? Content-rich?). Is there any bibliography you can refer me to? I have read some books in that line, I feel, although not too much on a line of theoretical affirmation of the alternative to Constructivim (Christodoulou’s 7 Myths about Education, De Bruyckere’s Urban Myths about Education).

  4. Manuel del Río Rodríguez says:

    Ok! Do let us know when it’s out. It would be interesting to hear its arguments also about other multiple heads of the same hydra – Thinking-Based Learning, Competency-Based Learning or Skills (‘Learning to learn’) learning.

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