start off with the answer?

I was just skimming this post of mine from last year about the pedagogical and cognitive limitations of PowerPoint presentations. The research suggested that

the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digest in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time.

I concluded with this note:

Professor Sweller also says that it’s better to teach by presenting an already-solved problem rather than asking students to work out the problems themselves. That seems counter-intuitive. But he says that “Looking at an already solved problem reduces the working memory load and allows you to learn. It means the next time you come across a problem like that, you have a better chance at solving it.

Now that makes me wonder if that’s the same reason we in the west prefer essays which state their theses right at the beginning and paragraphs which start off with topic sentences. We like easier reading. If we valued complexity and/or put more emphasis on the needs of the writer as opposed to the needs of the reader, we would probably have evolved a rhetoric, like some non-western rhetorics, which makes the reader’s brain work harder, which circles around the thesis, only getting to it much later (or not explicitly at all).

Does Professor Sweller’s observation also mean that deductive explanations will work better in classrooms than inductive ones?


3 thoughts on “start off with the answer?

  1. Many of our students definitely want to know the right answer – how they should do something. Asking them to reinvent the wheel, the thesis, the organization, scares and frustrates some of them. The idea that writing is an art and that there are many possible good (if not also right) answers can make class a challenge. This may be why they like seeing examples of successful essays. On the other hand, in business and tech writing, we have more formulas and formats to use, and there are definitely more “right” and “wrong” approaches here, yet surprisingly we get memo-letter hybrids and wonder how it was that the students didn’t notice.

  2. I know that is the way I learned — imitating models, until I learned enough to know how to break the rules. I guess the main “right answer” or goal for writing students is “affect your reader the way you want to affect your reader.”

    Hmmm… Writing is an art, but we don’t ever teach other arts by asking students to reinvent the wheel, huh. I mean, we don’t teach composers by telling them, “Here, write a symphony.” We teach them music theory, scales, modulation, and examples from great composers, and then they break the molds and do their own thing (if they’re good). So, obviously students have to be taught techniques and models before they can become creative (as in flexible) writers.

    It all comes down to degree, doesn’t it — how much modeling, how much technique, and how much freedom.

  3. Laura: I thought you might like to know I threw some notes on my class this quarter on my blog. I really do want to contribute to it more often. I just have to figure out how to find the time.

    Re models: I’m more likely to give them models and break the steps down pretty small now than I was before. I used to say, “Here, write an essay. You’ll figure it out.” They didn’t. Your music analogy is great, by the way. Now I give them more steps and suggestions and models. Still, there are no really good formulas, and in the end, they organization has to occur in response to the purpose and projected audience of the piece.

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