What is writing for?

Whatever the troubles kids are facing, I usually work my way back to the same conclusion: the important part of teaching is articulating the ideal, giving students the vision, telling the story. If they can see it, the rest is up to them.

I wonder how much of the trouble is that writing has been lodged in the English classes, which are associated with “soft” things such as poetry and fiction. Would it help if boys understood that significant achievement in science and business are quite unlikely without strong writing ability?

To clarify what writing is and why it matters, it might help to do a small set of vignettes of heroic or great writing, making clear that what’s really happening in writing is that a person is struggling at the limits of what can be seen and known, drawing on or calling forth sources of spiritual and intellectual inspiration to push back the darkness just a bit.

I think of Lincoln composing the Gettysburg Address, changing the meaning of the Civil War, revising the arguments away from Constitutional debates about states rights and such and articulating with new power the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the meaning of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I think of Einstein sailing on a lake in Switzerland, struggling with images of how the cosmos overhead worked and of how to organize an explanation of it into a few thousand words that would transform human thought.

In less lofty but still vital realms, the ability to research and write a coherent and detailed business plan is the secret to freeing tens of thousands of dollars in capital to operationalize a dream.

The ability to research and write an organized, detailed, and imaginative grant proposal is the key to moving forward with dreams in a vast segment of today’s economy, including all of the nonprofit segment and much of education and government.

Still less lofty but still very important are the facts gathered by the National Commission on Writing (http://www.writingcommission.org/) and included in their important report on writing and the workplace. Facts like these should be common knowledge among students, I think:

• Writing is a “threshold skill” for both employment and promotion, particularly for
salaried employees. Half the responding companies report that they take writing into
consideration when hiring professional employees. “In most cases, writing ability
could be your ticket in . . . or it could be your ticket out,” said one respondent.

• People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired and are unlikely
to last long enough to be considered for promotion. “Poorly written application
materials would be extremely prejudicial,” said one respondent. “Such applicants
would not be considered for any position.”

• Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing
responsibility. “All employees must have writing ability . . . Manufacturing
documentation, operating procedures, reporting problems, lab safety, waste-disposal
operations—all have to be crystal clear,” said one human resource director.

• Eighty percent or more of the companies in the service and finance, insurance,
and real estate (FIRE) sectors, the corporations with the greatest employment growth
potential, assess writing during hiring. “Applicants who provide poorly
written letters wouldn’t likely get an interview,” commented one insurance executive.

• A similar dynamic is at work during promotions. Half of all companies take writing
into account when making promotion decisions. One succinct comment: “You can’t
move up without writing skills.”

• More than half of all responding companies report that they “frequently” or “almost
always” produce technical reports (59 percent), formal reports (62 percent), and
memos and correspondence (70 percent). Communication through e-mail and
PowerPoint presentations is almost universal. “Because of e-mail, more employees
have to write more often. Also, a lot more has to be documented,” said one respondent.

• More than 40 percent of responding firms offer or require training for salaried
employees with writing deficiencies. Based on the survey responses, it appears that
remedying deficiencies in writing may cost American firms as much as $3.1 billion
annually. “We’re likely to send out 200–300 people annually for skills-upgrade
courses like ‘business writing’ or ‘technical writing,’” said one respondent. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/28 at 05:52 PM
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“Graduates no more employable than dropouts”

Students’ failure to learn to write is a serious problem in England:

Good writing isn’t just a matter of presentation. As my ferocious history teacher used to say, if you can’t express something clearly, it is because you don’t understand it clearly. And even if you do understand it, if you haven’t learnt how to order your thoughts and construct a line of argument, you will appear not to do so. If students cannot write clearly, that is evidence that they cannot think clearly; they have not been encouraged to do so. But why not?

Full Article

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/26 at 06:18 AM
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Students’ writing not adequate for college

“I teach composition, and many of my students do not understand the very basics of formulating an argument — for example, you must support a claim with evidence. High-school teachers need to emphasize writing skills and critical-thinking skills. Colleges should organize seminars for high-school teachers to help them understand an institution’s expectations of first-year students.”

— An English professor at a public university in Georgia

“Students are hurt by a watered-down level of course placement. Guidance counselors recommend students for honors and AP courses who are not necessarily honors/AP students. The school administration then puts pressure on teachers to have an acceptable grade average in the class, forcing teachers to ‘dumb’ down the material. Therefore, honors courses are no longer really honors courses, and AP courses are no longer AP courses.”

— A social-studies teacher in Connecticut

A recent study reported in a special report of the Chronicle shows that many college teachers don’t think high schools students are being taught to write well enough for college, though high school teachers have different perceptions. In companion national surveys, forty-four percent of college teachers say students are not well prepared for college-level writing while only ten percent of high school teachers hold the same view. The surveys were conducted and analyzed for The Chronicle of Higher Education by Maguire Associates, a Boston-area research and consulting company.

Diane Ravitch remembers when high school instruction was driven by the reality that students needed to write well to get into college--and not just persuasive essays displaying little knowledge of the sort that are fashionable today.

In a related article, Stanley N. Katz argues that we need to revitalize liberal arts at the high school level:

The current regime of testing is aimed at raising the test scores of students who are performing poorly. It is an entirely skills-based approach, geared toward using the threat of federal sanctions to raise a low common denominator. It leaves out subjects like history, civics, literature, the arts, foreign languages — and advanced courses in every subject. As a result, many states have adopted a dumbed-down definition of proficiency.

It’s an axiom of organizational development that systems are driven by what they evaluate. If we want students to be thoughtful, careful and coherent thinkers, we will ensure that they take courses that require substantive reading and we will pay attention to how they think with what they are learning by paying attention to what they write.

. . .testing, not curriculum, has come to dominate our discussions of the transition to college. The issue was at the top of the agenda of elite prep-school and college reformers, who issued a report, General Education in School and College: A Committee Report, in 1952. They emphasized a liberal-studies, seven-year program for high school and college and, in an appendix, almost as an afterthought, suggested “an experiment in advanced placement.” But their intention was to set up examinations to “be used, not for admission to college, but for placement after admission.”

Today the full report has been forgotten, the Advanced Placement course has taken on an unintended life of its own, and the AP examination has become little more than yet another testing hurdle to college admissions.

I think the answer is to revisit the earliest ideas about liberal education for young people. That would mean recommitting ourselves to fostering intellectual development across the years of the late teens and strengthening liberal education in the schools. That does not mean expanding test-driven AP courses, but developing courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences that challenge young people to think synthetically and to understand that the essence of education is the courage and ability to make value judgments. Moving in that direction would permit us to reinvigorate general-education courses during the first two years of college, giving upperclassmen the deep understanding to think better and do more in their disciplinary majors and, more important, to contextualize those majors.

The testing regime has given educational leadership to officials contrained by politics and bureaucracies. It is not clear “that they even know what ought to be done.” It’s pleasant to think that it might still be possible to have a high-level conversation of scholars, leading to institutional action, about what matters most in education. It’s even more pleasant to believe that, if such a conversation did occur, liberal arts would be given an important place.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/20 at 05:20 AM
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