Why write?

This is an early extract from our book Practical Writing Strategies, which will be published in 2023 by Amba Press.

The elephant in the room

Most of the time, we get students to write so we can assess them on their knowledge. Simple. It’s a sad truth that the main purpose of most writing in education is as a formal way to judge the knowledge a student has gained over a course of study. It’s also a driving factor behind formulaic writing structures like TEEL, PEEL, CEEL, TEEEL, and any other acronyms you might care to throw around. If the purpose of writing is to assess knowledge, then providing a consistent, easy-to-teach framework to cram all of that knowledge into makes perfect sense. The structures which many teachers decry as boring and predictable are actually perfect for the system they are designed to support.

Assessment driving the purpose of writing is an obvious example of the tail wagging the dog. In fact, it’s so common, that we rarely even notice it. It has become a fundamental aspect of the education system, to the extent that teachers are often told “we are all teachers of literacy”: generally code for “your students are all assessed on their abilities to write in an examination.” In humanities subjects such as History and Geography, students are assessed on their ability to compose a source analysis or write an essay. In Health and PE subjects, they may need to write a case-study, or a response to one. In the sciences, students often have to write lengthy reports. All of these forms of writing demonstrate knowledge, but they are rarely treated as an opportunity to teach writing.

Writing for writing’s sake

We promote something different. The purpose of writing is to communicate ideas. The delivery of those ideas – imaginative, persuasive, informative, and so on – varies but the opportunity to teach the skills remains the same. If the demonstration of knowledge is the goal, then a student can achieve that in many ways: orally, visually, using digital technologies, in writing, by hand, electronically, by creating a product, and so on. So when we ask students to produce a piece of writing, it has to be because writing is the most appropriate vehicle for the ideas and knowledge.

Writing for writing’s sake means there is no “hidden agenda” to the writing. Again and again I have seen assessment rubrics – including those used in formal senior school English settings in Australia – where the quality of the writing is “tacked on” as the fourth criteria in a rubric. Not only does this devalue the writing process, it also comes to devalue the demonstration of knowledge. Here’s an example:

The characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice often make their decisions with their heads and not their hearts. Do you agree?

Austin’s pride and prejudice shows that many ppl in society are driven by reason and not emotion and that the main problem with people in the society that Austin lived in was that they thought with their heads and not their hearts. This means that people made stupid decicions because they thought they had all the answers and characters like Mr Darcy always thought he was right because he had lots of knowledge. Even Lizzy thinks she is always right because she has a good knowledge for ppl or so she thinks and it turns out that both of them thinking with their heads are actually wrong and that maybe they should of used their hearts and made an emotional decision instead.

The above paragraph is obviously very flawed. The misspellings, awkward grammatical constructions, rambling sentences, and lapses into informality make it hard to judge the content and the ideas. As a teacher reading that, my first inclination would naturally be that this is a student who struggles with writing. If the criteria for this piece are based around knowledge of the text, understanding of the values of the author, response to the topic, and use of language, then the final criteria would weigh heavily. But take a look at what the student has achieved:

  • Comments on society, and the author’s views on people who favour reason over emotion
  • Alludes to the fact that ‘rational’ decisions are sometimes “stupider” than ‘emotional’ ones
  • Comments on specific characters, and the fact that they pride themselves on reason over emotion
  • Ends with the conclusion that making decisions with your head and not your heart is “actually wrong”

In terms of the requirements of the task, this student has demonstrated a reasonable amount of knowledge. It’s not elegant, but it’s there. And yet a response like this would inevitably be heavily penalised because of the quality of the writing.

Because of that, we would make the following suggestions. These might be out of your control at certain levels. For example, in the VCE in Victoria, the fourth criteria on the quality of writing is written into our formal assessment documents which are out of teacher’s hands. But in many cases the criteria schools build around written assessments can be developed in house.

If you’re looking for knowledge, assess for knowledge

If the purpose is to ascertain what a student knows about a text, or an historical event, or a scientific process, then assess the knowledge and only the knowledge. If the most appropriate way to do that is in writing, then consider whether there is a difference between an essay, or a list of dot-points, or even a transcript of a conversation or a copy of an electronic chat. Ask the question: does the quality of the writing matter if we are assessing the knowledge learned?

If you’re looking for writing, assess the writing

If the purpose of the writing is to establish whether the student can write, then only assess the writing. For example, if the intent is to assess a student’s ability to construct a persuasive argument, then the content of the argument is irrelevant. If the purpose is to write an essay about a text, then the text they choose to write on is equally unimportant. Use the purpose from the writing cycle to develop the criteria for the writing. Use the mentor texts from the exploration stage to develop an understanding of how the writer’s will achieve the final product. Ask yourself: if the quality of the writing matters, does it matter what the student is writing about?

In PWS we’ve constructed a writing cycle which values the process of writing, not just the product. Through research, trial and error, and the excellent work of others in the field of writing, we’re hoping that we can shift the narrative around how and why writing is taught in schools.

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2 responses to “Why write?”

  1. Thanks for sharing Leon. I’ve often thought of how unfair it is to tack on “spelling” as one of the last criteria on every rubric (in English and other subjects) given that dyslexic thinkers will likely be penalised every single time.

    1. Absolutely – it may also penalise students from an EALD background, particularly those who have English as a second language in the home but who are not technically qualified for the EAL curriculum (e.g. have lived in Australia for longer than the max. allowed years, etc.). Plus, some students simply don’t like writing – doesn’t mean they don’t have great ideas!

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