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Categorizing knowledge from an evolutionary perspective: The example of speaking versus writing March 11, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Dr José Hanham

Learning to write is a complex and cognitively demanding process that is acquired often with difficulty. Learning to speak is also complex, but appears to happen effortlessly. Why?

Educators have long been interested (and perplexed!) as to why learners are able to acquire some types of knowledge with ease, and other types with great difficulty. We know that the ease or difficulty of acquiring knowledge is likely to be related to factors such as motivation and/or the cognitive complexity of learning tasks. Another factor, recently proposed by evolutionary psychologist David Geary (2008), is whether the category of knowledge to be learnt is one that we have evolved to acquire, known as biologically primary knowledge, or knowledge that is the product of our cultural inheritance, known as biologically secondary knowledge.

This distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge is important in several respects. To begin with, there are different demands placed on a learner’s cognitive resources depending on the category of knowledge to be acquired. Acquiring biologically primary knowledge is usually unconscious, effortless and rapid – even when the knowledge to be learnt is complex. In contrast, acquiring biologically secondary knowledge is conscious, effortful and slow – with complex material severely impeding a learner’s ability to acquire knowledge.

With these differences in mind we can perhaps provide an “evolutionary” explanation in regards to why learning to speak is complex, but apparently not cognitively demanding. There is no doubt that learning to speak one’s native tongue is a complex process – one only needs to think of the vast array of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills involved in expressing oneself verbally. Yet, despite this complexity, very few conscious cognitive resources are involved in learning to speak. This is because learning to speak is a biologically primary form of knowledge – to reiterate, knowledge that we have evolved to acquire. Because learning to speak is innate or instinctual (Pinker, 1994), no formal instruction is required when learning to speak a first language. Although in many Western societies we give our pre-school aged children language lessons, this is not necessary for a child to learn how to speak her or his native tongue. In some societies children have very little verbal engagement with their parents or care givers, yet still end up being competent speakers (Harris, 1998). Indeed, children of profoundly deaf couples who do not have the benefit of being able to verbally engage with their parents also turn out to be fluent speakers of their native language (Harris, 1998). In general, the acquisition of biological primary knowledge, such as learning to speak a first language, occurs when we are very young, most often through immersion in a social context.

The differences between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge can also provide an explanation as to why learning to write is both complex and cognitively demanding. The complexity involved in learning to write is widely acknowledged by scholars working in the field of composition studies (e.g. Kellogg, 2001; McCutchen, 2000; Torrance & Galbraith, 2006). Writing often involves the learner managing a large number of cognitive processes including planning, generating language, and reviewing (Flower & Hayes, 1980). Unlike speaking, which we have evolved to acquire, writing is a cultural invention that has existed for the last few millennia – “far too short a time to be influenced by biological evolution” (Sweller, Ayres & Kalyuga, 2011 p.6). Because writing is a recent cultural invention, humans have not yet developed the necessary biological mechanisms to learn this cultural knowledge without instruction. This is important because during the 1970s and 1980s there was view espoused by some scholars that the mechanisms involved in learning to write were very similar to those involved in learning to speak. To acquire cultural knowledge, such as writing, learners have to rely on a cognitive architecture comprised of an apparently unlimited long-term memory and a limited working memory that can only process 2 to 4 elements of new information (Cowan, 2005) for 20 seconds without rehearsal (Peterson & Peterson, 1959). Because writing is a conscious process, this means that working memory is actively engaged in managing multiple cognitive demands. The multiple demands involved in learning to write often overwhelm a learner’s working memory, and as a consequence, many school children have difficulty becoming competent writers. Therefore, it is no surprise that researchers have developed research programs that focus on the demands placed on working memory as school-aged children develop their writing capabilities (e.g., Kellogg, 2001; Ransdell, Levy & Kellogg, 2002).

Using speaking and writing as examples, the differences between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge have important implications for instruction. Despite what some people may think, learning to speak a first language does not require direct instruction. Even in terms of grammar, many children by the age of three (Pinker, 1994) are able to verbally communicate complex and grammatically correct sentences without any formal instruction. Early childhood approaches to instruction often adopt discovery-learning methods, and perhaps these methods may be well suited for nurturing biologically primary knowledge, such as speaking. However, in terms of acquiring biologically secondary knowledge, teaching approaches that emphasise minimal instructional guidance may be ineffective. Learning to write will require teaching that takes into account the limitations of working memory. It is important to point out that may scholars working within the field of composition already acknowledge the importance of explicit teaching (e.g. Graham, Harris & Macarthur 2006) and the need to design instruction that does not overload working memory as learners develop their writing skills (McCutchen, 2000). The contribution provided by Geary’s (2008) distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge is that we now have an evolutionary perspective that adds to weight to claims that formal instruction is not needed when learning to speak, but it is necessary for learning to write.

In my next blog post I will discuss one of my current research projects on the use of worked examples for improving students’ essay writing capabilities. This research is being carried out in conjunction with my colleague Dr Wayne Leahy (Macquarie University).

References:  Cowan, N. (2005). Working memory capacity. New York: Psychology Press. Flower, L. S., & Hayes, J. R. (1980). The dynamics of composing: Making plans and juggling constraints. In L. W. Gregg & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing (pp. 31-50).   Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Macarthur, C. (2006). Explicitly teaching struggling writers: Strategies for mastering the writing process. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 290-294.     Geary, D. C. (2008). An evolutionary informed education science. Educational Psychologist, 43, 179-195.     Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption. New York: Free Press.    Kellogg, R. T. (2001). Competition for working memory among writing processes. The American Journal of Psychology, 114, 175-191.   McCutchen, D. (2006). Cognitive Factors in the Development of Children’s Writing. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.) Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 115-130). The Guilford Press: London.    Peterson, L., & Peterson, M. J. (1959). Short-term retention of individual verbal items. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58, 193-198.    Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct, London: Penguin.    Ransdell, S., Levy, C. M., & Kellogg, R. T. (2002). The structure of writing processes as revealed by secondary task demands. Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 2, 141-163.    Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory. New York: Springer.   Torrance, M., & Galbraith, D. (2006). The processing demands of writing. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.) Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 67-82). The Guilford Press: London.

Dr José Hanham is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His previous post on this blog was on ‘human cognitive architecture’.


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