Why Students Can’t Write — And Why Tech Is Part of the Problem
Writing is more important than ever, but many of today’s students are lousy at it. John Warner has some ideas about why that is, and how to fix it.
Warner has been teaching writing at colleges for more than 20 years. And he’s written two books on the topic, including his most recent, called “Why They Can’t Write.”
Part of the problem, he says, is technology. In some cases the very technologies that were intended to improve writing, like automatic-essay grading software, have backfired by encouraging a kind of paint-by-numbers approach to writing.
But Warner is not anti-tech. In fact, for years he edited one of the most popular humor magazines on the Internet, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency — a more literary version of the The Onion. And he thinks that the writing students do for their Instagram accounts and social media is actually great.
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The problem, he says, is what kids are asked to write in schools, like those five-paragraph essays, which emphasize following arbitrary rules instead of finding the most effective ways to communicate their ideas. And he has some ideas about how to make things better.
EdSurge talked with Warner recently about his sometimes surprising ideas about the crisis in writing instruction, including why he thinks FitBits are part of the problem.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: I’ve certainly heard professors grumble that their students are bad at writing. But in your latest book, “Why Can’t They Write,” you say that students are surprisingly confident about their writing abilities, even though you see them as poor. How do you explain this disconnect?
Warner: Students may have gotten good grades on the kinds of writing they’ve been asked to do, either in school or on a standardized assessment. They know they’ve performed well on what I call “in the book writing related simulations,” which is mostly what I think they’re asked to do in school. The purpose is to sort of prove that they can demonstrate a limited set of moves that make it look like you know how to write.
You’re saying they’ve been trained to essentially act like a writer, and behave how they think a writer would?
That’s exactly it. In the book I say the equivalent would be if in an acting class we taught exclusively through asking students to do specific imitations of actors in specific roles. We’d have like De Niro 101 or Streep 413. And they wouldn’t even be acting like them, they would just be imitating a particular performance.
So to get a good grade, they’d have to nail a De Niro impression?
Yeah. It comes from this sort of highly prescriptive practice that’s privileged because they’re going to be assessed on a very narrow range of abilities. That’s why the subtitle of my book is “killing the five-paragraph essay and other necessities.” A lot of my students arrive having written exclusively five-paragraph essays. And they’ve been told things like never use I, never write with contractions, every sentence must be between five and seven sentences. And then another student will argue and say, “No, no, no. It’s seven to nine sentences, that’s what I was told.”
But then they get to college, in a first-year writing class like I’ve spent many years teaching, and I pull the rug out from under them and say, “Every piece of writing is a custom job. There are no rules. We have to think through these problems.” And they feel bummed or betrayed or frustrated that I’ve changed the game on them. They understood the game and were doing well at the game, and now the game’s different. What I’m saying is, it’s not a game, it’s actually something substantive and real that we want to ask them to do.
What would you have students and teachers do before they get to you, instead of a paint-by-numbers approach that you say the five-paragraph represents?
A lot of that is wrapped up in my other book, “The Writers Practice.” I think they should be building their practice. And I define that as the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits-of-mind of writers. We develop those things primarily by writing—writing to audiences, writing with purpose, writing from things we are passionate about, writing about things we are interested but don’t know a lot about, which requires research and all of the sorts of things we want students doing. A lot of it is based on my reflection of my experience learning to write as a young person sort of before the era of standardized assessments and accountability.
But unlike when we went to school, don’t kids today today actually write a lot? Even if it’s just a caption on their Instagram photo, aren’t they constantly writing for an audience?
They are. They’re not practicing in school but they’re writing in the world all the time. And they’re doing the kinds of things that we ask of the writers practice all the time, they’re thinking about audience. An example I use in first year writing, I’ll say, “You guys will text your parents that you’re going out. You guys will text your friends that you’re going out. What is the difference between the message you text to your parents and the message you text to your friends?” And they understand instantly that they’re tailoring a message to audience for radically different purposes.
And it’s a relatively small matter to get them to start translating that in academic or scholarly contexts. Once you give them an audience, often they’ve not been writing for an audience. They’ve been writing for a teacher in the generic sense, or an assessment which really is entirely disembodied, where they’re following the moves because those are the moves that they know the invisible assessor is going to like. So as soon as I give them audience and purpose they’re often off and running. And it’s not a difficult or painful switch at that point.
In your book you criticize many technology innovations around the teaching of writing. Could you talk about that?
There’s Edison’s quote about how the moving picture is going to replace the classroom, or the hype around MOOCs when we still thought those were going to be innovative… I think that is incorrect and it’s particularly incorrect for writing. Because there’s no information I can give students about writing that will help them write better. I am of the belief that writing can’t be taught, but it can be a learned school of thought. I can create the conditions and experiences under which writing can be engaged with, and challenges that are interesting and get students to want to do it more. But ultimately that’s going to happen within the student.
I’m thinking about your piece on being John McPhee’s student. And it’s a great example of that process. The teacher brings you into his world, and says this is how writers act, how they behave, how they think, what they do. And it’s great to be exposed to that, but ultimately you have to go put that into your practice. So I spent a lot of time just setting the terms of the action: Here’s what we’re going to try to do, here are the parameters under which I want us to do it, and I then provide a soundboard and feedback.
It’s easy to describe what a good piece of writing looks like, but the process to produce that writing is incredibly complicated and hugely variable depending on who’s doing it, and why they’re doing it and what they’re doing. Which I love. That’s the fascinating part of the job for me. That’s why I love teaching writing. But it does not lend itself to prescription, and it particularly is not something where the kinds of technologies that are injecting themselves into the space are helpful.
People argue essay grading software can make things more efficient, and help bring down the high cost of education. So what’s not to like about this idea of automated grading?
The big problem is that efficiency is not a value when it comes to learning to write. Learning to write is a process that requires failure, that requires trying things over again. That requires taking a big swing and missing. And a lot of that has to happen internally to the writer themselves. So when these algorithms intervene, they can really only score an essay. To give it, say, a four out of five. That feedback by itself is not helpful.
[People tout that software gives instant feedback.] Instant feedback can be horrible for a piece of writing. It can be much much better to let the writer sit with having written for a period of time to let that filter through. I’m sure any writer has experienced this, where you wrote a draft of something, you let it sit there, you went and did something else, maybe you went to sleep or you walked the dog or you took a shower, or you did your yoga or whatever your thing is. And you came back to it, and you look at it again, and something that was stuck in your craw, all the sudden you have a solution for it.
In the book you also mention that even other technologies outside of the classroom are hurting student writing. Even Fitbits?
Fitbit’s as a kind of experience of quantification and surveillance. [It sets the expectation that we’ll be monitored.] Surveillance ruins the atmosphere for writing, and learning in general, I think. I talk about an app called Class Dojo that I think is potentially doing great harm to students because it’s making them hyper aware of being watched in school. And the class portals where they’re getting notifications of their grades in real time. A huge part of learning to write is failing, is trying to do something and not succeeding at it.
How would you boil that down to a TED talk?
Well, my Ted Talk would be very short. And it would be “fund public higher education.” [So that colleges can pay professors to grade student writing instead of using software.]