Me: Right, you’ve been writing for 20 minutes. Does anyone have anything that will change the face of contemporary literature as we know it?
Jerome: [hand shooting into the air and speaking in a confident tone] Mine’s sick Sir!
Me: OK, read me the first few lines…
I position myself over his shoulder so that I can follow what he is reading. The opening line is written very clearly as follows:
‘It was a rain day they we’re tired’
Confidently, Jerome begins to read.
Jerome: [reading with excellent dramatic emphasis] It was a rainy day. They were tired…
Me: [interjecting gently] Read it as it’s written Jerome.
Jerome: OK Sir: It was a rainy day. They were tired…
Me: [interjecting a little more forcefully ] No, Jerome. Concentrate. Read the words as you’ve written them on the page.
Jerome: [with a quizzical look] I am Sir, look [points at book]: It was a rainy day. They were tired…
Me: [interjecting forcefully] Jerome, I’m trying to teach you something here. Read each word as it’s written on the page please.
Jerome: OK Sir: It was a rainy day. They were…
Me: [interjecting more forcefully] What are you doing?
Jerome: Reading, Sir. But you keep stopping me. And the next bit is siiiick Sir - it will definitely change the face of literacy!
Me: ...You’re not really reading what you wrote though are you?
Jerome: [confused] What am I reading then Sir…?
Me: [with creeping exasperation] Right, let’s try this one more time. This time, I want you to read very slowly and really pay attention to each word in the opening line. OK?
Jerome: OK Sir: It [pause] was [pause] a [pause] rainy…
Me: [interjecting wildly like a pedant possessed] No! Read what it actually says! On the actual page where you actually wrote it! You wrote it for goodness sake, you should be able to read it! I swear, it would be easier to teach an actual potato!
Jerome: [nonplussed] That’s harsh Sir.
Me: Harsh but fair Jerome, harsh but fair…
Jerome: You’ve got problems Sir.
Me: Please shut up, Jerome. I’m trying to focus on gouging my eyes out with my board pen as I plunge into existential crisis.
Bell rings; exeunt all players, one with the joyful bounce of youthful ignorance, the other with the uniquely haunted look of a man urgently in need of half-term
The above exchange (amended only marginally to trim the sardonic extremity of my usual soul-crushing classroom rhetoric) has been a fairly common one over the years. I once had a pupil read me an error-strewn sentence a full seven times. Each time, he read the sentence as if it were error-free. It was infuriating but illuminating in equal measure. The thing that’s important to note here is that this pupil could read. In fact, he could read very well – his inference skills were not the most developed but he could certainly decode text accurately: his phonemes and blending were very secure and his comprehension was sound. If I asked him to read a section of a novel or a newspaper article aloud to the class he would do so very competently. He certainly wouldn’t invent letters on the page that weren’t actually there or inadvertently add articles where none were really present. What’s more, if I put were and we’re on the board he would, I have absolutely no doubt, have been able to read each correctly and explain the difference between them. He could even have explained why there was an apostrophe in we’re. He could also identify a full stop and explain its use.
So what was going on? Why was he making so many basic mistakes with things that he ostensibly knew not to do and why could he not spot these mistakes when they were so glaringly obvious? And, earnest pedagogue of the English language that I am, how was I supposed to help him fix things?
The answers to these questions, I think, have to do with cats, jumpers and, most probably, basketball, gorillas and, I’m pretty sure, Boston radiologists. That is to say that the root of my student’s problems likely has more than a little to do with the theory of schema and the inherent tendency towards self-deception of the human brain.
Our brains, as many studies tell us, are, in some very important respects, designed not to think. For those of you not acquainted with much cognitive psychology, this may sound counter-intuitive. But really, it makes perfect sense: the role of our brains is, largely, to interpret information for us so that we don’t have to exert ourselves unnecessarily by laboriously thinking stimuli through and drawing conclusions. In fact, this is largely the central premise of the thesis promulgated by cognitive scientist J D Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? (2010). Willingham surmises that much of how we expect our students to learn in a classroom relies on conscious, exertion-intense thinking, not the natural, intuitive kind that our brains have evolved to be best at.
A central way that our brains avoid over-exertion (and therefore reduce our cognitive load) is through the use of schemas. A schema is a cognitive framework that helps us organize and interpret information. In simple terms, this means that the brain builds up internal frameworks of expectations. This, on the whole, is incredibly helpful.
Imagine, for example, if every time we walked into or through a familiar place our brains had to re-compute everything that was there and reinterpret it as if it were new. Our cognitive load is significantly reduced when we enter our lounge and everything is as we expect it to be.
Despite their overwhelming usefulness (indeed, their necessity to our very functioning) schemas can cause us some difficulties. These can relate to both the misinterpretation and omission of information. Supposing, for example, you have a black cat that tends to sit in a particular place in your lounge. If you come home from work one day and someone happens to have left a dark-coloured jumper where your cat often sits, you can most likely imagine the trick that your brain may play on you when you first enter the room: you will interpret the jumper as your cat. You will also have a separate set of schematic stimuli that constitute ‘cat’ in your brain – the jumper, being of similar size and colour to your cat, will trigger at least some of these stimuli. When coupled with its placement as part of a broader contextual schema, this ‘mis-recognition’ can be particularly powerful: your brain receives a number of signals that are consistent with your cat being on your sofa and, although it hasn’t received all of the necessary signals, to save you from thinking it simply fills in the gaps and assumes that the cat is present.
Indeed, it might even take a second or two for you to realize that the shape you are looking at is, in fact, not what you first assumed. In this sense, you see what you expect to see, not what is actually there until your brain processes the finer details of the information on display and readjusts.
The second piece of cognitive self-deception – which many readers are likely familiar with - is the omission of information that does not fit with (or within) a particular schematic context. This was beautifully demonstrated by one of the most well-known experiments in cognitive psychology: The Invisible Gorilla. Conducted by two Harvard psychologists in 1999, participants were asked to watch a short video of people playing basketball; they were tasked with counting the number of passes made by the players in white shirts. Unbeknown to the participants, midway through the video a man in a gorilla suit enters the frame and remains on screen for a full 9 seconds. Following the video, participants were asked if they had seen the gorilla. A full 50% of participants had missed it entirely. To all intents and purposes it was invisible. The devisors of the experiment termed the phenomenon ‘inattentional blindness’ – the brain is paying so much attention to see and process what it expects to see that it completely ignores information which does not fit with those expectations.*
The experiment has spawned a host of spin-offs both from its original creators and many others with an interest in cognitive function. One of my favourites is Trafton Drew’s (2004) experiment involving radiologists at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Drew asked 24 radiologists to study a batch of CT scans from 5 patients. Aping (pun intended) the original experiment, Drew added an image of a dancing gorilla to one of the scans in each batch. Despite detailed analysis of each scan, only four of the 24 participants spotted it. It’s worth noting that the gorilla was a whopping 48 times larger than the average lung nodule – something that radiologists are very adept at spotting as a matter of routine – yet still it remained invisible because (quite understandably) participants did not expect to see a dancing gorilla on a CT scan. By tracking the radiologists’ eye-movements, Drew ascertained that half of them had looked directly at the gorilla but, for the vast majority of them, it had simply failed to register. When Drew repeated the task with laymen who had no specialist medical training, not a single participant spotted the gorilla.
It seems to me that the findings of these experiments and the cognitive theories upon which they are based might go a long way towards explaining the maddening literacy difficulties of my pupil (and the countless others like him).
Many teachers will be familiar with a pupil making a number of spelling mistakes in an extended piece of writing with words that, if they were written discretely, the same pupil would spell correctly. They will likely be similarly familiar with pupils making grammatical or structural mistakes within sentences when pupils are writing a multi-paragraph piece which they would not make if they were writing a discrete sentence.
It would seem they are concentrating so greatly on simply retrieving words from their head, attempting to put them into an intelligible order both within and between sentences and paragraphs, as well as on the motor skills necessary to transfer these words onto the page,that they experience significant cognitive strain - for the weakest writers, we might even say cognitive overload. Their exertion is so great that errors in their writing are inevitable. The fact that they are paying so much attention to the multitude of micro-tasks necessary for them to produce the written word seems to leave them prone to a kind of ‘active’ inattentional blindness – pupils require so much concentration just to put pen to paper that they fail to recognize the gorillas of their own creation.
And this blindness holds true not only when they are in the act of writing, but when they are reading their work back to themselves. It occurs even when they are, on the surface at least, actively looking for errors.
The fact that pupils fail to spot their own mistakes would appear to be a classic piece of schematic deception. Our learning and appreciation of language rely as much on schemas as anything else. Thus when pupils read their work back to themselves they do not necessarily see what they have actually written – or at least, they see it, but do not accurately process it. Their brain interprets what they have written based upon their schematic understanding of linguistic structures: they have been repeatedly exposed to correctly constructed written language and their brains have developed a set of expectations for what this looks like. The consequence is that when they read their own work their brains deceive them into thinking that what they have written conforms to their schematic expectations of correct written language, even when it does not.
The idea that inattentional blindness occurs when self-checking a piece of writing is hardly anything new; it is, after all, why publishing houses have professional proof-readers. But in my years of teaching I have not once heard it discussed amongst English teachers and I certainly don’t recall it ever being mentioned during teacher-training which would suggest that many remain ignorant of the phenomenon. I suspect that it is, at the least, due a little more consideration than it is currently granted. Where school-age (particularly teenage) learners are concerned, I also suspect that the depth of this ‘blindness’ is deepened by a kind of confirmation-bias.
A number of studies have shown that students, particularly boys, have a tendency to perceive their own academic ability as higher than it appears under objective assessment. If pupils perceive themselves as competent writers (irrespective of whether they actually are) it follows that their brain is less likely to expect to see errors. In this sense, it is likely that students may also selectively - although subconsciously - ignore mistakes in an attempt to maintain the security of their self-esteem as a learner. Perhaps this natural over-confidence can even influence learners’ schematic frameworks for their own language production thereby compounding their inability to identify their own errors even further.
This is likely to account for some pupils’ maddening resistance to acknowledging their own mistakes. Many teachers will be all too familiar with the frustrating irony that weaker pupils (who are naturally more error prone) are also far less likely to admit their mistakes when they are dutifully pointed out to them. Their desire to preserve a positive sense of self and of their own ability level in the face of evidence to the contrary can be infuriating but fits neatly with Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance.
Festinger claimed that we have powerful motives to maintain ‘cognitive consistency’ which can cause apparently irrational and even maladaptive behaviour. Festinger’s initial experiment involved interviewing members of a cult which believed the Earth was destined to be destroyed by a flood. Festinger investigated what happened to its members when the flood did not occur. The more fringe elements of the group were more likely to recognize the errors in their beliefs but committed members were found to make all sorts of leaps of unreason to explain away the world’s survival without questioning their core beliefs (principal amongst these, of course, was the view that the Lord had taken mercy on the world on account of the group’s great faith). Apart from explaining why such groups as the Seventh Day Adventists are still going strong despite incorrect predictions of the second coming dating back to 1844, I suspect that Festinger’s ideas might also help further explain why some pupils seem to find identifying and correcting the mistakes in their writing so intractably difficult.
If a pupil holds the belief that they are more intelligent and/or a better writer than they actually are, when they are made aware of their mistakes many of them are likely to enter a kind of denial. Often this takes the form of excuses or an abdication of responsibility which, frankly, can border on abject lunacy. I recently observed a colleague point out a spelling mistake in a pupil’s title. The title had been copied from the board in a previous lesson. The pupil’s instant response was: ‘If I copied it then it’s your fault. You wrote it on the board wrong.’ Only when my diligent – and remarkably self-controlled – colleague had shown this young lady the books of three other pupils in which the title had been copied down correctly did she accept that the mistake was hers. This kind of thing is, of course, more common amongst more challenging pupils whose sense of self is either extremely fragile or (usually as a consequence of compensatory over-inflation) far superior to objective reality.
The key to all generating this progress is feedback and, dare I say it, some really good Assessment for Learning (the kind that’s as rare as unicorns in Skegness and actually does something useful…).
First of all, when you are looking at errors in a piece of pupil’s writing, have a think – which errors are a result of gaps in knowledge and which are a result of inattentional blindness? It’s important to delineate between errors that require teaching to be corrected and errors that require seeing. The errors with high-frequency words or common structures that you are confident pupils have been taught (in some cases repeatedly) are most likely to fall into the latter category. These mistakes have become embedded blind-spots and they are the first weed that you should aim to uproot.
The simplest way to begin this process is with your trusty highlighter. Rather than correct pupils’ errors for them, simply highlight them. Then leave your pupil a brief comment which actually makes them think and engage with whatever mistake they are making: ‘What’s the problem with the highlighted areas?’ seems to work well for me. If the error was a result of inattentional blindness, pupils are able to respond to the comment by identifying the specific error that they have made; if they can't respond, there's an obvious knowledge gap that needs filling. A nice follow-up question is: ‘How many of these errors have you made?’ Simply getting pupils to count the number of times they have repeated the same mistake can be powerful in itself and help to pierce any of the latent self-defence mechanisms which ultimately obstruct their learning. It also provides the pupil with a very easy way of tracking how their writing is becoming more accurate since, in their next piece, you will require them to aim for fewer errors.
This process yields particular fruit when you can demonstrate the same error being made over a number of pieces of work – to paraphrase the Lord and Master of edu-research, John Hattie, this makes pupils' mistakes visible in a way that simply correcting their work does not. It’s also vital to make sure that your pupils respond to your questions in writing so as to ensure engagement with them. This can be onerous at first but, with a little training, most kids enjoy this process and find it surprisingly enlightening. Of course, they especially enjoy it when they are able to self-track their improvements which, if the process is implemented consistently, can be rapid. The boost to pupils' self-analysis and meta-cognitiion skills also bears subsequent fruit.
It's easy, and, most comfortingly given the ingloriously mangled slew of pseudo-psychological teaching strategies that have been inflicted upon us in recent years, it actually bloody works.**
* Pedant's corner: I find the term 'inattentional blindness' somewhat irksome as it seems to be a double negative - surely 'attentional blindness' would be more accurate since the subjects were actually paying attention, they just couldn't see what was really happening.
** For some excellent debunking of said pseudo-psychological approaches to teaching, see Make It Stick (Brown, McDaniel and Roediger, 2014); for some regular psych-teach fodder get over to learningspy.co.uk (although, if you're reading this, you probably already have)