Teaching with Writelike

Teaching with Writelike

The educational theories behind Writelike

The skill of identifying and adapting voices turns out (maybe unsurprisingly) to be pretty complex.

For Writelike to teach this skill to middle years and senior students, we draw on three areas of educational theory, which we'll outline below.

Each of these is a rich domain in its own right, so we won't go into detail, but having even a cursory sense of the concepts can help you understand why Writelike is designed the way it is and how to make the most of it in your teaching.

(We'd encourage you to explore each area if you are unfamiliar with any of them. They're all useful no matter what you're teaching.)

Artist painting in the Met

Cognitive load theory: Small steps and giant leaps

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is one of the most robust and reliable learning models in educational psychology, with 40 years of controlled-trial experiments and replicable findings.

Writelike actually began as an experiment to use CLT theories to improve the way good writers tended to develop their skills, which was by either intuitively or systematically mimicking other writers, and make these skills more accessible to a wider audience.

You will see CLT-informed decisions in the way we approach:

  • Modelling
  • Short snippets
  • Minimalist instruction (...well, we try)
  • Worked examples
  • Part-whole construction
  • Massed practice
  • Expertise reversal

Taken together, these design decisions lead to a strategy of developing automaticity at low level skills (phrase, sentence and paragraph construction) building fluency that unlocks high level cognitive skills (creative, analytical and persuasive writing).

If you want to know more, the NSW Department of Education have a great set of introductory resources.

If you want to go further, Advances in Cognitive Load Theory: Rethinking Teaching is one of the most up to date books. 

Alfonso Cuaron directing cast and crew of Gravity

Social learning theory: Meaning and motivation

CLT is great but has a big hole with regards to motivation.

CLT-informed instruction helps students develop fluency, and fluency can be self-reinforcing (because it's pleasurable to do something you're good at), but beyond that CLT has almost nothing to say about why we teach or why students should want to learn.

Social learning theory goes some way towards filling this gap.

We are social animals. We derive motivation and meaning from our relationships with other people, and we tend to want to learn skills that have social value. 

That said, relative to CLT, social learning theory is a messy area and it doesn't produce the same kind of consistent and predictive recommendations. The branch of social learning we find most helpful is the apprenticeship and community of practice model from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. 

You'll see elements of community of practice type approaches in:

  • Authentic text, written for a legitimate social purpose
  • Pseudo apprenticeship—modelling expert performance, with coaching from tool and teacher
  • Community of practice—peer writing and feedback, with scaffolding to improve quality of feedback
  • Social performance—tools like Wrotevote give students structured opportunities to "perform" for others

If you are interested in this line of thought, check out these extracts from Etienne Wenger’s 1998 book on Communities of Practice

If you want to go further, Learning in Landscapes of Practice is one of the most current texts, although as with most CoP writing it is skewed towards workplace contexts.

Spread of fiction and nonfiction books

Genre-based pedagogy: Mastering individual text types

Where CLT and social learning theory are content-agnostic, genre-based pedagogy is explicitly about teaching reading and writing. The genre-based approach emphasises the social role of text types and attempts to develop student mastery of genre-specific features.

Similar to social learning theory, genre-based pedagogy tries to involve students in a practice of meaning-making and cultural exchange through text. Similar to cognitive load theory, it advocates teaching complex skills by starting small and providing lots of modelling on a genre-by-genre basis.

Writelike design decisions based on genre-based pedagogy include:

  • Writing framed as a cultural and social practice
  • Classification of texts by major school genres
  • Systematic exploration of genre-specific features
  • Grammar taught from a functional perspective—as a useful analytical tool, but nothing to get hung up about
  • Mentor texts
  • Explicit instruction
  • Modelled writing—examples, joint construction, independent writing

If you are interested in learning more, here is a good summary of the genre-based approach to reading and writing from the Victorian Government Department of Education.

If you want to go further, Learning to Write, Reading to Learn is a comprehensive text, with an associated Reading to Learn teacher training program

Liszt at 10

Like learning music, sport or art

If you roll all of this together, you get something that sounds radically unsurprising:

  • learn from great examples
  • work on small tasks and increase complexity as you get the hang of it
  • make a distinction between exercises and performance
  • work within a learning community
  • occasionally perform and share where you're up to.

It's basically the way most people develop most expertise, especially in perfomance fields such as sport, fine art and music. 

Writelike is just an attempt to pull these ideas into an online platform that can provide high-quality writing instruction to more students, support independent learning, and free teachers to spend more time on rich instruction, discussion and feedback.

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