JAMES THOMLINSON, aka ‘Mr T’ discusses how the way writing is assessed forces teachers to put too much emphasis on aspects like spelling and punctuation.
A friend of mine recently asked me, if there was one thing I could change about the education system, what would it be? A lot of answers rushed into my brain. The average pay of a teacher, a misinformed and ignorant society, or maybe just the general lack of government funding… After pondering over this question for a few minutes, I kept going back to the same thought. My biggest concern with our education system at the moment is the way in which student achievement is assessed. All quality teachers have a holistic understanding of what ‘student achievement’ actually means. We all know that a conclusion of a student’s success cannot come from a standardised test score. Yet, we are often forced to make meaningless judgements based around these types of irrelevant and often inaccurate sources of information. This article addresses concerns I have around the assessment of writing in the 21stcentury while slowly pecking away at the burden of misguided ‘common sense’ regarding education.
The joy we must have felt the day we picked up our first crayon and started doodling down the ideas envisioned in our minds. Our ability to communicate thoughts and feelings using simply our creative ability, and a pen or pencil, separates us from any other creature on Earth. Ancient aboriginal used pictures and symbols. Young children use scribbles and comically misshapen drawings. As we learn and practise these skills we progress to words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. It truly is an amazing accomplishment when another person understands a message you have portrayed to them through your writing.
With the advances in technology our ability to access writing of all genres, and communicate through different written forums, has never been greater. Email and text has replaced letters and phone calls. Social media has connected the world through the touch of a button. The ability to reach large audiences easily creates an environment in which written language can flourish. However, my concern is that society’s belief around the teaching of writing is not evolving with the same tenacity.
I read a quote the other day by Eric Hoffer, an American moral and social philosopher, which really resounded with this issue. He said, “In times of change, it is the learners who will inherit the earth while the merely learned will remain beautifully equipped to cope with a world that no longer exists”.
I believe our prejudice, which is based on an out-dated standard used to assess writing, is having a major effect on our students’ writing creativity. Writing creativity in general terms means a student’s ability to use writing to portray an original, imaginative, and spirited visual of their thoughts. This out-dated standard I refer to is those classic misconceptions people have about what it means to be a ‘good’ writer. Spelling, handwriting, grammar and punctuation are all ideas that we put way too much emphasis on in the classroom. The first thing I always hear when a parent looks through their child’s writing book is a passive aggressive comment about their handwriting, normally followed closely with a remark about a word they misspelt. My eye twitches every time I hear this and I have to restrain myself from throwing the large metre ruler, which I have tightly gripped in my clammy hand, in their general direction. No comment about the engaging story line, unique language, playful banter or deep underlining message. There are a lot of aspects they could comment on, yet these miniscule, irrelevant and frankly unimportant standards are always the first things to be critiqued. Even teachers, who should know better, fall into this trap. I myself have spent hours underlying and correcting spelling errors, and for what? Is our main goal really to produce a generation of good spellers? If this belief that being a ‘good’ writer somehow relates to our spelling or handwriting ability is true, then I am in serious trouble.
We now live in a world where writing in cursive and being a meticulous speller isn’t of need. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that students who leave primary school need to be able to write legibly and spell most high frequency words correctly. However, we now have a range of amazing devices and apps that not only assist us but improve our writing capability. Technology is only getting more advanced. As educators we need to embrace this change and start preparing for it. Clutching to old certainties cannot be our coping strategy anymore. The world we used to know does not exist. Asserting an old-fashioned, inadequate set of believes is not acceptable. Let us encourage and teach those important writing skills that still need to be learnt, but let’s stop creating these insignificant boxes of success. The judgement, anxiety and conformity caused by this type of thinking is absurd. Not to mention the hours wasted planning and implementing unimportant lessons or hunting through books in search of irrelevant errors. Time is gold in the classroom. Instead, why not focus on exploring their imaginations. Free write about the troll hiding underneath the principal’s desk or the dragon smoke coming from the caretaker’s chimney. Make writing fun again and inspire originality.
Educators have an obligation to adapt their pedagogy. Learning environments must promote innovative thinking and students need to feel safe to share their ideas without petite and inadequate criticism. We can’t shy away from being different. Being different is great, it reminds people that we aren’t programming robots.
Let’s be brave and only look back to see how far we’ve have come.