A little story of “why”… (and the science of elaboration and dual coding)


frosthollow100_bigThe story starts on a recent cold and very frosty morning in Rickmansworth – which incidentally really is one of the coldest towns in the UK!  There is a technical term for it – a
frost hollow.  It sits in a steep valley at the foot of the Chiltern Hills, and when cold air sinks down into the town it stays there, trapped by a railway embankment the Victorians built in the valley.  The greatest daily temperature range in England was recorded on 29 August 1936 in Rickmansworth when the temperature climbed from 1.1 °C at dawn to 24.9 °C within 9 hours due to this unique geographic feature!

This story provides the backdrop to the importance of encoding information for the brain so that it can create long term memories that can be retrieved when needed and make links to other new information.

Anyway back to the story…. On this particular very cold frost hollow morning I was trying to get my 5 year old son out to gymnastics early on a saturday morning, picture the scene: I’ve got my ice scraper, I’m making sure we’ve got hats, water bottle, gym bag and so on… when a little voice with no sense of urgency says:

  • Henry: Mummy why is it so cold?
  • Me: Because it is winter
  • Henry: Why is it winter?
  • Me: Because it is the coldest of the four seasons
  • Henry: But why is it so cold in winter?
  • Me: Well…we are further from the sun in the winter
  • Henry: Where does the sun go? 
  • Me: Nowhere it’s because the earth spins on it’s axis…let me explain  (I have to know retrieve from my deepest long term memory a science lesson from a long, long time ago!) The seasons are caused as the Earth, tilted on its axis, travels in a loop around the Sun each year. Summer happens in the hemisphere tilted towards the Sun, and winter happens in the hemisphere tilted away from the Sun. … At the equator there are no seasons because each day the Sun strikes at about the same angle.
  • Henry: What is an axis, why has the earth been chopped up?
  • Me: No not an axe…its like a stick running through the earth.
  • Henry: Where is it sticking out?  Is it in London? Can we go and see it?
  • Me: Err… no it’s an invisible stick
  • Henry: Oh and is equator like the equator in the Shotgun song? (George Esra) 
  • Me: What???
  • Me: (Big sigh), Henry we are running rather late now…
  • Henry: Why are we late?
  • Me: Come on…
  • Henry: Mummy, will we need to hold on when the earth goes round the sun later?
  • Me: ARGHHHH!!  I’m sure Daddy can tell you more about it later…

earth and the sun

Later that day….Daddy with a blueberry and cocktail stick through it as the earth and an orange as the sun…Henry then ate the earth while I sat eating the orange and  admiring my non teacher husband’s teaching skills and wondering if I really am cut out for teaching! 

So how does this story relate to me  as a teacher?  Firstly it demonstrates how powerful the  WHY question is in Elaborative Interrogation.   Elaboration enables the brain to make connections between old and new knowledge, making the memories easier to retrieve later. 

There are a lot of different questions that can be asked, the important thing is that the questions lead to describing and explaining the main ideas, and making connections between various ideas.  A good tool for this is the Question Frames (see the resources section of the blog) 

  • How does x work?
  • Why does x happen?
  • What caused x?
  • What is the result of x?
  • What is different?
  • What is similar?
  • What have you seen that is anything like this?  

Secondly this reminded me of the importance of Dual coding.  This is the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials.  Learning is enhanced because we process visual and verbal information through separate channels. What opportunities can we create for students to dual code (visualise) something we want them to remember?

Young children love the Why question…but unfortunately at some point in a child’s life the rate of questioning decreases.  As teachers we should embrace the Why and provide opportunities for why (and other questions) whenever we can to facilitate the elaboration process to occur.