“Can you write ‘Happy Birthday, Mum’ for me”, is a request that I frequently get and one that I love to receive. I dutifully write the words on the card that the child has carefully created from the spare materials and resources that are placed strategically around the room. Or, I will be asked to write it on the board for the child to copy. Sometimes I will endeavour to remind the child of the correct way to hold a pen. It depends on how busy I am at the time. Regardless of how busy I am, I always make myself available to respond and acknowledge these kinds of wonderful examples of learning taking place.
If I was thinking narrowly, I would only view this as an academic exercise in writing. But of course it is much more than that. This 5 year old understands the concept of birthdays and celebrations and feels compelled to embrace this cultural phenomenon. This child is thinking of life outside the classroom. The connections to be made are unlimited. These are some of the many insights it gives me into this child. And I use to think naively that the classroom was where all the learning took place. Not any more. Context is everything.
Inevitably, the child’s writing, the letters that make the words that convey the birthday message, will be a combination of capitals, lower case and some strange mixture of hieroglyphics. I rarely correct that. The recipient of the birthday wish will understand immediately the intent of the message, even if the words are not entirely legible. These children have only just turned 5, after all. That’s early to be starting formalised education. But if we must start them that early, the least we can do is soften the blow; ease them in, so to speak. This child understands that words convey messages and those messages can be spoken or written down. That’s something to celebrate.
Compare and contrast.
I ask this same child and all of his or her 5 year old colleagues to sit down at their tables. I give them each a blank piece of paper and a pencil. I ask them to write. Now, that child with so much to say, all of a sudden becomes ‘mute’. That blank page remains blank. Or it is covered in what appear to be random squiggles. What’s going on here? And it isn’t only this child. There are other blank pages too. But not only that. There are tears. Requests to have a drink, to go to the toilet. ‘Behaviour management’, instead of teaching writing, becomes my top priority. “What’s going on here?”, I ask myself. These typically vibrant, eloquent children are acting out of character. Or are they? Are they simply reacting appropriately to what is a very complex task?
Is it possible that the way we currently approach writing instruction,
1. underestimates the complexity of writing?
2. overestimates the relevance that this type of writing instruction has on the children?
When you break it down, writing is a complex business – pencil grip, letter formation, writing direction, staying within the lines, leaving a finger space, legibility, spelling, word recognition… and those are just the surface features – the mechanical process of writing.
Then you also have to have something to say – ideas. And you need to hold those ideas in your head for more than a minute. I love writing my ideas down. Well actually, typing them and increasingly, just speaking them into very clever technical devices with the help of Google and Siri. What next? Who would have thought? etc. When I write, most of my time and energy goes into thinking and bouncing ideas off people – in real life and via social media. I spend time seeking inspiration and ideas from other writers and thinkers. A lot of time goes into crafting and editing my ideas in the hope that they will make sense. And who is my audience? What is my purpose? I experience quite a lot of anxiety around writing. How will my audience react? So as you can see, there’s a lot of energy expended to be able to
write convert the ideas in your head into a written form. Context is everything.
Yes, I love writing. And I encourage all the children in my class to love writing too. That’s why we are always reading and talking and sharing ideas. I regularly show them direct examples of how the process of writing works – in the form of co-constructed class stories – recounts of shared experiences: throwing boomerangs, flying kites, chasing cats, having water fun, swimming in the school pool, walking to the local park with parents. They tolerate my efforts. I keep them short. They enjoy reading the end product though. Especially if they are somehow featured in the story. Relevance is everything.
I can foretell the criticisms that this approach to teaching writing will attract. It will focus on the quality of the explicit instruction provided. Are enough opportunities being provided for modelled writing sessions? Are the modelled writing sessions sufficiently pitched, paced and explained? Maybe the time should be more serious and stern? Or then again, maybe it should be more relaxed and funny? Would wearing a silly hat during instructional time help?
Another form of criticism will be centred around the idea that “life is tough” and the “take this medicine” approach. “If you don’t make them sit down and write, you will encourage laziness, a dislike of writing….” The problem is, that by employing the ‘blank paper’ approach, the focus shifts from learning, to that of ensuring compliance. While this may be achievable when the child is still young, it becomes increasingly difficult as the child moves into teenage years and adulthood. And of course achievable should not be interpreted as desirable or as promoting effective learning.
Child psychologist, Louise Porter provides a helpful example to rationalise this.
Consider when we are supporting a child in learning to walk. We don’t scold or feel angry when the child falls over. Instead we lovingly help them up and support them in trying again. If we think of behaviour (and learning) as development, then we can shift our thinking to being more like supporting a child in learning to walk.
I also realise that there are quite likely to be 5 year olds who can complete the complex task of writing independently. It’s just that I have not met one yet. It’s that teaching children the complex task of writing is an adult’s priority, not a child’s. If you utilise the provoke-listen-respond model, you will notice that children move at a different pace and they will surprise you with their insight and understanding of the world. And it’s not to say that you actively discourage children from writing. ‘Horses for courses’ is the expression, I think. The best learning is the one that is not forced. Of course a 5 year old can be taught to play the violin. But is it desirable? Adulthood lasts a lifetime.
Nor is this critique of the way writing is taught focused solely on 5 year olds. It is applicable to all ages. It is applicable to all subjects. Context and relevance is everything. Learning in the classroom needs to replicate the realities of the outside world as much as possible. Writing words on a page is not an accurate reflection of the modern world. An essential skill to have – sure, but not a substitute for all those other essential skills like thinking and creating and…
In a future blog post I am going to describe a writing activity that I did with a bunch of 5 year olds that achieved, what I believe to be, the essence of what I have described here. At least a step in the right direction.
Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.