The Writing Revolution: a Discussion About the Way Writing is Taught in Schools

The Writing Revolution is an article in the current issue of Atlantic that discusses a school that vastly improved test scores primarily (or so the article claims) by emphasizing writing in the school–specifically a writing curriculum that emphasizes mechanics over an approach that emphasized personal expression. I won’t go into all the details (I read the article a few days ago, and I don’t want to re-read the article before I post), but the school seems to have done at least two things: 1) place more emphasis on writing mechanics and expository writing over creative writing and personal expressive writing like journals or memoirs and; 2) require more expository writing in non-English classes. In the next few weeks, Atlantic Monthly will be having a debate about this issue–allowing prominent individuals to respond to the article (You can see the posts if you follow the link above.), and I thought we could follow along and discuss the issue here.

Some Personal Thoughts on Writing Instruction
Reading the article excited me because a part of me has agreed with the approach advocated in the article. I think learning how to write well is really important, and I have felt dissatisfied with the way schools teach writing. The approach featured in the article–which not only emphasizes good writing, but also emphasizes more writing in general–is something that I support. At the same time, I think the article sets up a false dichotomy–pitting the skill of writing against the student’s personal and emotional involvement in the writing. In my opinion, both are critical. Can you be a really good writer with one and not other? I don’t think so.

I would also like to say that I think in order to be a good writer one must write a lot–in other words: the old adage–practice, practice, practice. (The Writing Revolution curriculum, as it’s called, does seem to emphasize this.) Personally, I think of writing as a skill like playing an instrument or shooting a basketball. Constant repetition of the proper form will eventually lead to mastery–at least mastery of the mechanics.

To be a good writer also requires interesting ideas and insights–writing that makes connections between ideas that others may not have seen; writing that contains passion and soul. (By the way, this doesn’t just apply to creative writers.) This is the aspect of writing that can be quashed if educators over-emphasize technique and mechanics and neglect the student’s emotions and interests. So repetition and feedback on writing also have to incorporate–or at least shouldn’t destroy–the student’s active involvement. It is not an easy balancing act, and I think it can seem impossible–and to be honest, in some cases, balancing the two may be impossible. This is what makes teaching writing–nay, teaching in general–such a challenge in my opinion.

A Larger Issue

In addition to discussing specifics about the writing curriculum and pedagogy, I’d also like to discuss a larger issue–one that is really at the heart of these two different approaches to writing–one is a fundamental challenge for all educators. This challenge involves meeting two broad objectives, often at odds with each other. One objective involves teaching the vital knowledge (e.g., familiarity with great books, etc.) and skills (e.g., computation, reading, writing, critical thinking, etc. We might also include character traits like honesty, fairness, kindness, courage, etc.). I don’t think I need to say much about this.

But the other objective, which might require more commentary, involves keeping the student engaged and active in the learning process. This means that the student cares about learning–the knowledge and skills are meaningful to the student; curiosity and a hunger for learning (hopefully) drive the student’s acquisition of knowledge and skills. Now before readers dismiss these statements as unrealistic, let me say that I’m only speaking in terms of an ideal. Teachers will be lucky if they have one or two students like this in a class. However, I do believe that teachers can and should preserve, nurture and tap into a student’s curiosity and initiative; the good teacher will find ways to make the material meaningful and if that’s not possible, she may even change the material to match the student’s interests.*

You can see the way this could create a tension with the first objective. Some of the skills and knowledge may be too difficult or uninteresting to a student, and a teacher risks losing a student if they continue to hammer away at these skills and knowledge. On the other hand, if a teacher accommodates the student’s interests, the teacher might fail in imparting critical knowledge and developing important skills.

My sense is that education involves wrestling–or see-sawing–with these two objectives. A school might recognize they have neglected one objective and may overcompensate in the process. This will lead to shifting toward the other objective, which may go too far–and on and on it goes. A good school constantly tries to find equilibrium between the two objectives and it is a never-ending process.

(*Why is fostering a student’s curiosity and getting their active participation in learning important? Well, consider a student with a lot of knowledge and skills, but who doesn’t really find the knowledge and skills very meaningful. I believe this is what A.N. Whitehead described as “inert knowledge.” This type of knowledge orbits around the individual–never really making contact–contact signifying some meaning and interest that the individual has for the knowledge. Whitehead goes on to say (I think) that this type of knowledge can’t or won’t be used in any creative or interesting way–such as, solving a novel problem or applying it to real life situation. Such knowledge is good for Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, but not much else.

Moreover, if a student has a lot of knowledge and skills, but lacks an interest in learning, he will be less likely to continue learning–which is really important. If learning stops at the end of formal education, then can we hope to have well-informed and thoughtful citizens in our society? I don’t think so.

Hopefully, I’ve made a compelling case for the importance of preserving a fostering curiosity and involving students in the learning process.

Now, if a student has a healthy curiosity and interest in education but lacks the vital knowledge and skills, that is not an ideal situation either (for obvious reasons). But in some ways, this individual will stand a decent chance at acquiring those knowledge and skills depending on the deficiency of knowledge and skills and the level of desire to acquire them.

In any event, a good school should ideally produce individuals that have the critical knowledge and skills as well as the ability to meaningfully apply those knowledge and skills as well as the interest in learning.)

1 Response to “The Writing Revolution: a Discussion About the Way Writing is Taught in Schools”

  1. Teresa McKinley

    I’ve been reading many pro and con commentaries about The Writing Revolution, and the experiences of success at New Dorp School, and debate about how to approach writing instruction. There seems to be a one approach or the other stance taken by many. Simply put, I believe we teach students how to write, and we teach students how to be a writer. There is a difference, and I’m certain that my English colleagues join me in this sentiment.
    Call it “old school” or noncreative and not motivating to teach mechanics (how to write), but without the nuts and bolts of how to write, the toolkit for writing lacks some of the power tools! I know it’s a lot easier to drill a hole with an electric drill and bit, than use a hammer and nail when I’m trying to hang a picture!
    Giving our students the best possible tools ensures that they have a repertoire of resources to facilitate the effective writing. Additionally, they need opportunity, encouragement, and success along the way, and that’s what teachers do!
    Teaching students to be a writer is the “art of writing.” I hate to use it, but here goes, the “je ne se qua” of the craft! I’m a fan of Lucy Calkins, and that is exactly what you’ll find in her years of research and wisdom-teaching students how to BE a writer.
    Effective writing instruction requires both approaches, so there’s no argument for exclusivity to teach one over the other. The writing experiences of students will require knowledge and adeptness at both how to write and being a writer, throughout their academic and professional careers. Write on friends, write on!

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