How can we close the knowing-doing gap?

Posted on 28-01-2017

This is part 4 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

One frequent criticism of memorisation is that it doesn’t lead to understanding. For example, a pupil can memorise a rule of grammar, or a definition of a word, but still have no idea how to use the rule or the word in practice. This is a real problem. I would say almost every pupil I have ever taught knew that a sentence began with a capital letter. They ‘knew’ this in the sense that if I asked them ‘what does a sentence begin with?’ they would instantly respond ‘a capital letter’. Yet many, many fewer of them would reliably begin every sentence they started with a capital letter. This is a classic example of a knowing-doing gap, where a pupil knows something, but doesn’t do it.

Frequently, I see people using examples like this one to prove that explicit instruction and teaching knowledge do not work, and to argue that we should use more authentic and real-world teaching practices instead. For example, if we just ask pupils to read lots of well-written books and articles, and do lots of writing, they will implicitly understand that sentences begin with a capital letter, and use capital letters in the same way in their own work too. Unfortunately, this kind of unstructured, discovery approach overloads working memory. If only it were possible to pick up the rules of the apostrophe simply by reading a lot of books – the world would be a lovelier place, but it wouldn’t be the world.

So what is the answer? The approach with the best record of closing the knowing-doing gap is direct instruction. I will discuss one specific direct instruction programme here, Expressive Writing, as it is the one I know best. Expressive Writing aims to teach the basic rules of writing. Whilst it does introduce some rules and definitions, this is a small part of the programme. The bulk of the programme is made up of pupils doing a lot of writing, but the writing they do is very structured and carefully sequenced.  The programme begins with the absolute basics: pupils are given a list of verbs in the present tense, and have to convert them to the past tense. Then they are given sentences that use those same verbs in the present tense, and they have to cross out the words and replace them with the past tense verb. Then pupils are given sentences with a blank which they have to fill in with either a past or present tense verb. As the programme continues, pupils are expected to do bigger and longer pieces of writing. Each activity is carefully sequenced so that pupils are never expected to learn too many new things at once, or take on board too many new ideas, and there is frequent repetition so that important rules are not just things that pupils ‘know’ – they are things that become habits.

To sum up, there is such a thing as the knowing-doing gap. Pupils can memorise a definition and not know what a word means, and they can memorise a rule and not know how to apply it. But this does not mean either that memorisation is redundant, or that discovery learning is better at producing true understanding. The way to close the knowing-doing gap is through memorisation and practice, but through memorisation and practice of the right things, broken down in the right ways. Expressive Writing offers one way of doing this for writing, and I think Isabel Beck’s work does something similar for vocabulary. In the next post, we’ll look at how this approach can be applied to the creation of formative and summative assessments.