Voice is indispensable to learning. On April 25 and on 10 May, Jeni and I met to take stock of the first 10 years of NWP(UK). Jeni has listened to participating teachers’ ideas about the future and will publish outcomes shortly.
In the meantime, I'd like to share some thoughts about pupil voice arising from the special ‘writing’ issue of NATE’s journal, ‘English in Education’, which is now published (Volume 53 Issue 1 2019).
This collection of academic papers, co-edited by Jeni Smith and Mari Cruice, demonstrates how the teaching of writing continues to be a site of struggle. This edition defines and analyses difficulties faced by writing teachers in 2019, and provides inspiring vignettes of how, with determination and experience, teachers can enhance learning for young writers.
In their editorial, Jeni and Mari remind us that 1989 versions of the national curriculum recognised that the ‘vital qualities’ of ‘vigorous, committed, honest and interesting’ writing could not be ‘levelled’, and yet were essential to a healthy education. 30 years ago, it was expected that while tests would assess core skills, teachers would be guardians of the wider curriculum.
Sadly, the balance of that original vision has been systematically tilted out of true by high stakes testing which cramps the curriculum and saps the agency of learners and teachers alike.
Gordon Pradl’s paper charts how the WW2 military service of James Britton and David Holbrook (Flesh Wounds) informed their thinking about how post-war education might better serve – and preserve - democracy. Too many voices had been silenced forever; now all voices needed to be heard. So when, 75 years later, children are being schooled out of negotiating meaning and into regurgitating formulae, it is not just the loss of vigour in their writing that Gordon mourns for.
Simon Gibbons’s paper traces how dynamic ‘genres’ have morphed into decontextualised ‘text-types’ - at the expense of new learning and fresh thinking. He quotes a teacher’s fear that where textual scaffolding (enshrined in mnemonics such as PEEL) becomes automatic, it begins to prevent children thinking for themselves: ‘…they don’t have a voice. It’s just work.’
Myra Barr’s paper identifies the government reforms of 2010 as particularly damaging. From that point English lurched further away from studying language in current usage – and towards the acquisition of specific measurable forms of language. In her own research (2012-3), Myra found that class blogging restored pupils’ voices. But, although the teachers shared a dynamic and contextualised vision for meaningful language development, in practice, their pupils had assimilated disconcertingly different ideas about what represented ‘good writing’. From the focus of their lessons, the comments on their work and from the targets they were set – and no doubt also from the ‘backwash’ of the tests themselves – children believed that ‘good writing’ required the parade of inert features, to be included irrespective of context: ‘wow’ words … adjectives… punctuation … similes.
Myra points to wider confusion. The government said it wanted to reduce teaching to the test and broaden the curriculum, and in 2014, the DoE did indeed remove levels of attainment. However, the government simultaneously introduced a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum (inspired by Hirsch) without speaking and listening or any mention of media study, but with an additional 50-page appendix for required spelling, punctuation and grammar – all subject to summative high-stakes tests! Privileging these aspects not only narrowed the curriculum but rendered the tests invalid as checks on whole-curriculum coverage. Despite the recommendation from the House of Commons Educational Committee (2017) that KS2 tests become non-statutory, government policy remains unchanged.
Myra sees hope for reform coming from pressure from elsewhere. Not only have the CBI called for change (2018), but pupil referrals for mental health support are rising, creative teachers are leaving the profession, the campaigning organisation ‘More Than a Score’ has been formed - and the abolition of SATs has now become a party political issue.
Fortunately, reform is already happening - and being led by teachers. Theresa Gooda’s paper proves the academic and personal benefits of writing journals. In ‘Situating students as authentic writers outside the classroom’, Theresa explains how British pupils’ experience of visiting their Ugandan partner school was significantly enhanced through talk and writing. Theresa writes alongside pupils herself, to model and grow holistic behaviour within a learning community: after all, this is what reflective learners do. By extending the social and affective scope of writing, pupils are educated in collaborative, affirmative and non-judgemental practices. In contrast to individuals writing only to satisfy exam criteria, writing is used to discover thoughts and strengthen memory. Agency really matters. Knowledge deepens and multiplies when we share our different written witness. Theresa grows her practice from her own experience within NWP(UK), supported by the 2003 research of Lieberman and Wood, ‘Inside the (US)National Writing Project’:
‘Writing produces occasions to foreground and clarify thinking; to record, shape and analyse experiences; to express internal lives; to explore ideas learned from others.’
I thoroughly recommend this edition of the journal, and future blogs will no doubt return to some of the issues it raises.
NWP outreach director