This post refers to the new VCE English and EAL Study Design. However, the ideas about personal writing can be applied anywhere in the English curriculum where students are expected to respond personally to texts.
Many schools in Victoria will be preparing for the new Unit 1 Reading and Exploring Texts outcome, the Personal Response. I’ve written elsewhere about teaching and assessing the Personal Response – I think it’s a great area of study which will open up some opportunities to students that have been missing from senior English until now.
But I’m still hearing about schools who plan to “condense” this area of study into just a few weeks, perhaps using time from last year’s Head Start or step-up style programs to fill a gap. The most alarming one of these I’ve heard was from a school who spent one week on the outcome in December 2022, set the bulk of the outcome as “holiday homework”, and will dedicate just one and a half weeks to the area of study in Term 1.
This approach is problematic for a number of reasons – not least of all because it flies in the face of VCAA’s advice. The main reason I take issue with this approach is because the Personal Response outcome offers a unique chance for students to really connect with their texts, setting them up for the rest of the VCE.
One of the most difficult parts of teaching English has always been getting students motivated enough to actually open their books. Because English is compulsory throughout the secondary years (in Victoria at least), there is inevitably a large chunk of students who are only there because they have to be. It’s not exactly a recipe for highly motivated teenagers.
Recently, I was reading an article in Scientific American about creativity and “genius”. Drawing on the work of psychologists, Daisy Yuhas provides three areas for improving motivation. I think that each of these is a perfect fit for the Personal Response.
Autonomy – or even the perception of autonomy – goes a long way to increasing motivation on a task. For the Personal Response, students have a broad variety of ways in which they can meet the outcome. Although many schools will have students write an essay on the set text, this is by no means the only option. In fact, “essay” is never mentioned in the study design, and most of the examples on the VCAA website’s Advice for Teachers present shorter, more discrete outcomes.
My preference is for students to complete a number of short written tasks in a writing journal as they progress through the text. They should then be allowed to select from their preferred pieces, giving them autonomy over the final submitted piece(s). here are a few examples of the types of writing students might produce:
- A personal reflection on the settings in the text compared to the settings of their lives, including places they’ve lived and visited
- A comparison of the characters and relationships in the text to the people and relationships in their lives
- A discussion of how the protagonist’s actions reflect (or otherwise) how they might have acted in the same situation
- A discussion of the author’s views and values compared to their personal world view
- An analysis of the ideas and motifs in the text, and how they relate to the reader’s own experiences or observations of the world around them
- A reflection on how the events or situations depicted in the text have affected the reader emotionally or personally
- A discussion of the cultural or historical context in which the text was written, and how it relates to their lives
- A consideration of how the text could be interpreted differently by different readers, based on their individual backgrounds and experiences
- An exploration of how the text has challenged or changed the reader’s beliefs or assumptions.
Giving students autonomy in their Personal Response to a text can increase motivation and lead to a broader range of responses, including written reflections, comparisons, and analyses. All of these are vital skills throughout senior English.
Yuhas’s second point is “value”, in the sense that working on something which aligns with your values leads to much greater motivation. A couple of the suggestions above – such as having students reflect on how the author’s views and values align with their own – can leverage this effect in the Personal Response.
Reflecting on a 2009 study, Yuhas gives this example:
…one group of high school students wrote about how science related to their lives and another group simply summarized what they had learned in science class. The most striking results came from students with low expectations of their performance. Those who described the importance of science in their lives improved their grades more and reported greater interest than similar students in the summary-writing group.https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/so-you-want-to-be-a-genius/
We frequently fall into the trap of teaching texts through summary and comprehension, requiring students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding by having them summarise or describe the text. Often, we’re disappointed when later analytical responses contain too much summary or description.
If we want students to engage with texts and write more sophisticated responses, we should present them with options which allow them to explore their values and how the texts have meaning relevant to their own lives. The Personal Response is the perfect vehicle for this.
Finally, Yuhas points out the links between motivation and competence, making the seemingly common-sense statement that people who are better at a task are more likely to attempt it. This extends, however, to how much the individual has practiced and trained for the task.
The purpose of the new Reading and Exploring Texts area of study is to provide students a way to practice and develop the skills of analytical writing. It isn’t a pared back Unit 2 response, nor is it a trial-run for Section A of the year 12 examination. The key knowledge and skills required to meet the outcome reflect a gradual development of analytical writing skills.
If we want students to stay motivated throughout the VCE study, right up to the examination, then we need to slowly and surely build their feelings of efficacy and competence. Skimming over the Personal Response in an effort to get to the “important bits” of the Study Design does the opposite, and only teaches students that their personal connections to texts are less important than the analytical outcome.
The Digital Elephant in the Room
So far, I’ve focused on students’ intrinsic motivations and how the Personal Response offers a great opportunity for students to build and develop a sense of competence that will carry them throughout the rest of their English studies.
There’s an important point to be made, however, about what can happen when students are not motivated.
Unless you’ve sworn off all forms of technology for the Christmas holidays, by now you’ve probably heard of ChatGPT and similar AI writing models. One of the biggest conversations in education about these technologies is the likelihood that students will use them to cheat. I tend to agree that many students will use AI writing to produce essays, creative pieces, and even the Personal Response. I’d like to bring the conversation back around to motivation.
Why would a student use one of these technologies to cheat? Here are a few suggestions:
- Lack of understanding: Students might not fully grasp the outcome, and might decide that using an AI assistant is better than asking for extra assistance.
- Time and competing pressures: Students have all kinds of things going on in their lives, from sports to jobs, carer’s responsibilities, and other “more important” subjects. They may feel that an AI writer is a way to save time or reduce these pressures.
- Peer influence: If every other student in the class is using ChatGPT to write their essays, then a student may feel influenced to do the same. This could be because of peer pressure, or the pressure to perform against the competition that the AI writing apps provide.
In my experience, students rarely if ever cheat “just because”. There might be the occasional student who cheats just to see if they can get away with it, but generally there is a valid and sometimes surprising reason behind breaking the rules.
In a later post I’ll discuss these ideas further, drawing on some of Phil Dawson’s research about what compels students to cheat. For now, I’d like to close on the idea that if we can help students get motivated to complete the outcome – including by giving them more autonomy, aligning texts to their values, and building their competence – then they will be much less likely to rely on AI writers to complete their writing for them.
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