In order to be ready for college, Ben Johnson is proposing that students write.(1) Really? This is new? When I started in education, back in the late Pleistocene, one of the radical new techniques that was in favor was “writing to read”. Basically it featured the idea that if students wrote more they would be better readers. It seemed intuitively obvious to me but there was a time when this radical idea scared some teachers.
Change is hard for some people. They have a system they feels works for them, by changing they risk losing that which they have trusted to ground in reality all along. Venturing into uncharted lands takes someone of vision.
Crap! Almost anyone can do it if they are willing to put their precious self-respect on the line.
Everyday I walk into a classroom I am entering uncharted waters. It takes no bravery to do so, just a sense of duty like Frederic in the “Pirates of Penzance”. I’m making this up as I go. As a teacher everything I think is real is always in question. All it takes is one child to melt down because they had no breakfast, or another to share that their family has to leave their apartment, or the discovery that one of my students has unintended guests in their hair to blow everything I have written down all to hell. Sure, I have plans but so does every other individual in that room. Theirs may not be written down and may appear a bit chaotic but they are still plans. And they have lives that intrude on everything we do. It is up to me to bend them in my direction as far as I can, for as long as I can before they leave for the day.
Writing can be a powerful outlet for such eventualities.
Unlike reading (2), teaching people to write is possible. You can rely on grammar, syntax and meaning. Having a child read their writing to you is powerful, getting them to put down their thoughts even more so. Saying that college students should be able to write a cogent argument that can be read and understood by someone else is fundamental to the core beliefs of education. And yet where is our focus?
Here is what Johnson says:
There is an amazing power to learn when you read what you have written. When we write to learn, we analyze, we revise, we organize, we rewrite, we evaluate and so on until what is written is what we want to communicate. These are all higher order thinking skills that we aspire to achieve in the classroom setting.
In education we believe that we can teach anyone, but we can’t teach them any thing. Not everyone can do advanced calculus – my daughter Can, but I can’t. And it is not worth taking the time to try and teach me. As teachers we have a limited amount of time in which to effect teaching. We must prioritize our time. Writing to read is one of the most powerful ways of utilizing that time. Writing to communicate is even more so. Writing to learn sounds like a fast track to teaching heaven. Whereas testing their ability to recall specific facts they were taught is so much less useful and in my mind may actually represent educational criminal malfeasance.
Johnson ends with this question:
How do your students use writing to learn?
It may be the best question in re learning and education I have ever heard. What a great idea! Thanks, Ben.