The New York Times had a couple of interesting articles recently about the changing needs of students in education and how education has been changing (or not) in recent years in response to those changes.
When I graduated college, I had absolutely no desire to go back to school. Now that I’ve been out of school for a while, though, I have a different attitude towards my own education and education in general. I agree with much of what Lawrence Summers says in “What You (Really) Need to Know,” and it has had an effect on my own educational choices. I also appreciated his reference to The Canterbury Tales, since as a freshman English major, I had to memorize the first 18 lines in Middle English. It was one of the more interesting (and surprisingly useful) parts of my undergraduate education, but other parts were closer to what is described in “Blogs vs. Term Papers.”
I think the reasoning behind making students write term papers is valid, but I was one of those students who hated writing papers all through college, and I chose my classes based on how many pages I would be required to write. I didn’t enjoy the in-class tests much either, although at least I could get those over with faster.
I didn’t realize until much later that while I enjoyed (and still enjoy) learning, I had a hard time seeing the point in much of what I was expected to do in college. I don’t think any of my time was wasted in college, but I think it would have been less painful had I understood how what I was doing was going to help me in the long run.
When I was in Japan, I had no trouble studying eight hours a day for the JLPT because I had a specific goal in mind–to pass the test, and more importantly, to be able to communicate with the people around me. Even now, starting my MLIS degree, I am a lot more motivated to do the work because I can see the real-life applications of my assignments. I care much more about education that is, as Dr. Summers put it, “more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.”
Now that I’m on the teaching side, I get frustrated when my students turn in organized, formulaic essays that look polished, but don’t show much thought. I can tell that they don’t enjoy writing them, and I don’t like having to read and grade them, either. I want to show them that writing is not a chore, and I don’t want them to have to wait until after graduating from college to figure that out (like I did).
They have been taught to start and end paragraphs a certain way, and the smart ones quickly figure out the most painless way to write one. Most are more concerned about how many sentences they have to have in each paragraph than about what they are actually trying to say. Their teachers at school rarely encourage them to think deeper than that; instead, the teachers praise them for being able to follow directions, so these students end up thinking that writing is about following formulas.
While I think that it is important for students to know how to write a 5-paragraph essay, I think it’s also important for them to be able to express themselves in an engaging and interesting way. As a long-time participant of Nanowrimo, I have over the years collected different ways to foster free-form writing, and I can see how writing blogs would be beneficial for students in helping them to enjoy the process of writing.
At the same time, I see how many students who have a poor grasp of basic writing skills have an even harder time writing effectively in non-traditional writing situations. For those students, having a structure to follow helps them write longer and more coherent paragraphs and essays. I believe it is the job of the teacher to provide the structure for good writing and then encourage the students to make the writing their own.
When I was in high school, I had a hard time with the SAT Writing test, so my parents sent me to the Princeton Review to help improve my writing score. I learned how to write an essay in 20 minutes that was basically all organization with very little content. Their formula did help me improve my score, and I think this kind of organization helps especially with standardized writing tests where there is a time limit. However, looking back, I think that I would have been able to get a higher score on my essay had I been encouraged to do more than just write to their formula.
I have been a long-time believer that nothing can replace reading when it comes to building vocabulary, but recently, I have come to see how reading can encourage students to write better, too. Had I realized this connection earlier, I may have had more confidence in my own writing and not depended so much on the formula that Princeton Review taught me. Reading not only expands the imagination, but it also exposes students to new words and sentence structures that they would not otherwise even think about using.
One of the best writers in my class has a hard time with grammar, but she can write vivid descriptions with varied sentence structures (two things that the CST graders value highly when scoring writing tests). My students who don’t read as much might have better grammar and spelling, but they tend to produce cookie-cutter sentences that are not nearly as interesting to read. These students would get points for organization, but may lose points for not being engaging (like I suspect happened with my own writing test).
When I was growing up, I always loved reading, but I was always content to let others struggle through the process of actually doing the writing. The idea of writing a 20-page term paper is still daunting to me, but I enjoy writing a lot more now than I ever thought I would.