Recognizing Writing as the Key to Learning

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It was already common knowledge that Johnny couldn't read when a 1975 Newsweek cover story made it clear he couldn't write either. Aware of this calamitous condition, researchers and educators were already seeking remedies, and by now probably every school in the United States has done something about writing. Writing programs abound. Standardized tests now come equipped with "writing components" and test scores provide information about writing performance. There is even talk (some of it serious) about "writing across the curriculum" or "writing in the content area"--that is, teaching and using writing in subjects other than English.

Leading proponents of reform are all for writing. The major reports on American education put a high premium on literacy in general and writing in particular. In High School, for example, Ernest L. Boyer declares: "Clear writing leads to clear thinking; clear thinking is the basis of clear writing." And in Horace's Compromise, Theodore R. Sizer asserts that "exercises in writing should be the center of schooling."

Nevertheless, writing has not made much progress across the curriculum and it still is not used extensively in subjects other than English. There are few indications that the schools recognize that writing is what the British anthropologist Jack Goody called "the technology of the intellect." The schools continue to treat writing as if it were little more than an aggregate of various communications skills.

But it is much more than that. As Stanford University's Arthur Applebee put it in his 1981 report for the National Council of Teachers of English on writing in the secondary school: "It is only when students write on their own that the implications of new knowledge begin to be worked through, and that they really come to know the material." But whatever writing students now do beyond the boundaries of the subject called English consists largely of transcribing knowledge given them by teachers or taken from text or reference books. Writing in the school is rarely used as a process of working through material and coming to "new knowledge."

Writing is an essential means of learning, and the best reason for writing in school is to learn. But unless the schools recognize and exploit the relationship between writing and learning, literacy in our society will not rise much above the functional level and learning in school will continue to amount to nothing more than the tentative storage of data, most of it unrelated, and much of it trivial.

For the past two years, I've been working on this topic of "writing to learn" with public and private schools in big-city and small-town districts around the country. My goal is to show teachers of subjects other than English how to work writing into their classes and to persuade them that students who write will learn more than students who don't write. I have worked with teachers of all academic subjects, including the sciences, art, physical education, and vocational subjects such as home economics. An example of the type of assignment I've been trying to promote is the one below, which was given to a 9th-grade biology class. The students were given 25 minutes to write:

Show how genetic variety can be produced within the limits of the existing gene pool. Use as many of these concepts as possible: multiple alleles, codominance, incomplete dominance, mutation, polygenic inheritance, crossing over, chromosomal aberrations, chromosome numbers.

During the writing-to-learn experience, I have seen notable results, with a few positively thrilling successes with teachers who have strongly taken to the idea. At the same time, I have run into certain realities that cannot be ignored, and I believe I understand why writing is not making much headway across the curriculum.

Many of us who confronted the "writing crisis" in the 1970's, faithful to the idea that "all teachers must be teachers of writing," were mistaken to assume that schoolteachers of every subject would fall in line to take on part of what they believed was the English teacher's burden. Many were simply not interested in writing, and they certainly did not want to be teachers of writing.

The temper of teachers is not much different now. Having gone to school or college and then to work at a time when writing was a fast-diminishing necessity, teachers themselves (not without exception) have only limited competence as writers, little "feel" for writing. They take it for granted that students will go through the conventional motions of writing lab reports, occasional book reports, and a term paper or two. Beyond exercises like these, they find little need for students to write, given the style of present-day instructional and testing materials.

As long as it remained a diminishing necessity, writing was the exclusive concern of English teachers, and teachers of other subjects were content to have it so. Faced with the requirements implied by "writing across the curriculum," however, they throw up a bulwark of reasons-why-not.

The word "writing" gives teachers nightmares in which they find themselves reading pages and pages of unspeakable student prose and spending hours correcting it. The nightmares come from two prevailing misconceptions about what writing is as a subject and how it should be taught.

One is the notion that "writing" means a lot of writing. The presumption is that to amount to anything worthwhile, writing cannot be confined to a few sentences or paragraphs. Typically, when I note the paucity of student writing in a school, some teacher will protest that each of her students has to write a 25-page "thesis," replete with footnotes, bibliography, and all the trimmings.

The reality that totally escapes most teachers is that a single paragraph, coherently composed with careful diction, is likely to signal more intellection than pages of prose ground out to meet a quota. Even a single simple sentence may be worthwhile writing and an important step in the "learning process"--if it is one a student composes, and not one given by a teacher for the student to feed back.

The second misconceived notion is that writing involves "correcting." Teachers are hung up on correctness. They like to mark spelling errors, faulty grammar, incorrect or missing punctuation. These things are easy to spot and red-penciling makes teachers feel like they are doing something. More to the point is the fact that teachers are unwilling or afraid to let their charges make mistakes--partly because uncorrected mistakes (in this case, uncorrected papers taken home to parents) reflect badly on the teacher.

Correct English is important, and there's no use pretending it's not. Nevertheless, there is no need for teachers to be so distracted by incorrectness that they spend hours correcting it, or so disconcerted by it that they avoid writing altogether.

I do not mean to imply that with initiative and common sense any teacher can have students writing to learn tomorrow. Nor can consultants install a program of writing to learn, or a school district impose it. Just about any teacher can have students writing to learn--but not tomorrow, or by next Monday. Consultants can help, and support from administrators is important; but teaching is an idiosyncratic practice, and every teacher must ultimately find and develop the ways in which writing is worthwhile in his or her classes.

Teachers who take the time, have the patience and imagination, and survive the trials and errors usually find that writing does not take an inordinate amount of time. Others have difficulty shaking the notion that writing is a time-consuming, extra duty--an "add on" they don't want. I can offer no empirical proof, but I believe that whatever time teachers invest will be repaid with huge dividends in the form of more effective teaching and sounder learning.

To be sure, teachers sometimes resist even after they have seen the light and proven the value of writing in their classes. I recall an art teacher and a physical-education teacher, both of whom had been outstanding contributors in a series of workshops. At the end of the series, I proposed that the teachers plan a course around a series of writing assignments. I'm not sure what she meant, but the art teacher flatly rejected the proposal on the grounds that such a procedure would "distort" the work of her class. The physical-education teacher--staggering under a load of mandated health, fitness, and safety programs--said frankly that if he had to choose between writing and covering the mandated material, he would sacrifice writing.

I have to be persuaded that writing will "distort" the teaching or learning of any subject. I respect such apprehensions, nevertheless, and I don't need to be persuaded that the mandates of school and society on teachers can have the effect of preventing learning and precluding education.

The bulwark of resistance to writing is made up of hard facts that have to be faced along with clearly specious claims. Hardest of the hard facts is teacher complacency. And by that I do not mean teachers are satisfied with things in school as they are--I mean the "worldly wisdom" that prompts them to leave well enough alone, even when well enough isn't very good. It is such wisdom of the world of education that breeds compromises like Horace's.

There are risks in making writing the central activity of schooling. There is the risk of neglecting prescribed coverage, with all the possible and imagined consequences of such neglect. There is the risk of bringing down the wrath of principals anxious about test scores, or the outrage of parents who see only the incorrectness in writing their children bring home. There is the risk teachers take of exposing themselves as less than expert at something expected of competent teachers and educated adults.

There is also the risk that young people in school will begin to work through more of what they are "taught" and come to an understanding of subjects on their own. That risk will not be very great, however, until the bulwark against writing is dismantled.

Vol. 04, Issue 01, Page 87

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