Try This… Overcoming cognitive load to develop writing

Teaching children to write creatively is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, teaching tasks we do. It is difficult because it requires a number of different parts to come together at once: the technical aspects of writing – grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc. – the imagination of the student, and something to write about – content.

Too often this is an overwhelming experience for students and their work is either disappointing or formulaic. (Of course there are exceptions). 

One reason for this is ‘cognitive overload’, meaning that trying to concentrate on all these parts at once is too much for the brain to manage. This is especially true if the students are not fluent in the technical aspects and struggle to remember basic grammar and spelling.

One way to overcome this is to tell the students not to worry too much about the technical aspects in the first draft and to come back and fix those things later. This works up to a point, but there are other things we can do as well. One of those things is to explore the context of the students’ ideas through different forms of representation. That is, before they set pen to paper, giving the students the opportunity to experiment, develop their imagination, and think about the content of their writing, so that when they sit down to write, they have plenty of things to write about.

This is the purpose of Key 27: Draw a plan, in our book ‘Try This…

The key follows a sequence that includes the following steps:

  1. Setting the scene using the six elements of story-making – characters, locations, events, time, tension, and focus.
  2. Opportunity for the students to discuss the context.
  3. Draw their ideas.
  4. Enact their ideas in small groups, working out the details and thinking through how it will work, through physical movement.
  5. Writing down events using a text type decided by the teacher.

Let’s look at an example from the book:

Imagine a class of seven year old students with the task of writing a plan. The plan will take the form of six steps, using the vocabulary: ‘First, then, next, later, afterwards, and finally’.

  1. The teacher sets the scene using the voice of a story-teller: “The elephant was all alone. She couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t in this place, with its concrete walls and hard stone floor under her feet. Perhaps there was another place, with others like her, but if there were she knew nothing about them.”
  2. Discuss this with the students: “I wonder if it might be possible to move the elephant back to Africa, maybe to an animal reserve. What if we were the team given that job?” Talk about the challenges and how they might overcome them by planning ahead, using specific resources and equipment.
  3. Draw their ideas: “Why don’t we start with a picture – a drawing of the team at work moving the elephant. I’ve put some paper and pencils out on the tables ready for you to start.” After creating their drawings, ask the students to examine their pictures and number the order in which things are done.
  4. Enact the plan, working together in groups: “So, it’s time to move the elephant. We’ll have to go carefully, as you know she’s had a tough time in the zoo and is wary of people, especially strangers. Let’s organise ourselves into groups of four or five and practise how we’re going to go about doing this. You’ll want to refer to your plans.”
  5. Write down the plan: “Now we’ve worked out a plan, it’ll be good to write it down. Using the vocabulary on the board, can you please write how to transport the elephant.”

Each of these steps provides a kind of scaffolding that supports the students when they finally come to the activity of writing.
The first step uses story to provide a meaningful context. Stories are memorable and engaging if they make sense and involve the use of tension. In the example above, there is an assumption that the transportation of the elephant is part of a larger context the students have been exploring for some time. The context also provides a purpose for the writing, it is not just an exercise for something that might be useful later but is urgent and important now within the fiction.

The second step gives the students the chance to discuss what’s happening, to ask questions, talk about possible solutions, explore hurdles that might get in the way. The teacher structures this discussion, adding vocabulary, offering other opinions, extending the students’ thinking.

The third step gives the students time to consolidate their understanding of the context and to expand their imagination and investment in the narrative. Drawing of this kind is more like story-making than creating artwork and is a very important (perhaps underestimated) aspect of the way children, particularly children between the ages of five and ten, make meaning. It is a fascinating process to watch: a class of students rushing off to blank pieces of paper and creating stories as they draw.

The fourth step is about bringing the students into the fiction and giving them the opportunity to test their ideas by working together, and further developing the context as they see it. This is what Jerome Bruner called ‘enactive representation’. That is exploring a moment from a story ‘as if’ the students are people in the story. It is close to imaginative play, but with the boundaries of the fiction set and agreed upon.

Bruner’s ‘Enactive’ is one of three forms of representation, the other two are ‘symbolic’, which is the use of words, and ‘iconic’ which is the use of images.

If we go back to the steps above, you can see how they align with the different forms of Bruner’s model. Each step adds more content and, crucially, ownership to the context for the students. Therefore, when they reach the fifth step, they have plenty to write about.

Following this format, we can help students to overcome the limits of cognitive overload: they can look at their picture, think about what happened when they enacted helping the elephant, and, as a consequence, put all their brainpower into their writing. This way of developing ideas and supporting writing using Bruner’s three forms of representation is a powerful way to overcome cognitive load and plays a significant role in the strategies we have written about in ‘Try This…