At my school, we’ve started talking about writing a great deal. Not writing about writing, but it’s a start. Ha ha. It’s not before time – we have a large bottom end of students who are below national minimum standards for persuasive writing in the NAPLAN tests, so it’s important that we address these issues at school. We’ve decided that the best way to do this is through a consistent approach to writing in all KLA subjects. Hooray, I cried! We are no longer talking about writing as if it’s solely the responsibility of English teachers, but instead addressing it as a whole school imperative, which of course the acquisition of literacy should be.
I think teachers 20 years ago were familiar with this concept. I think that primary school teachers probably still are. But in high schools, we seem to have moved away from this understanding and instead become ‘siloed’ into content heavy courses, where literacy is less important than the ability to spit out points about a particular topic. There are still elements of literacy, of course, involved in this, but they are at a higher level – critically interrogating a question, for example, and identifying the difference between analyse and evaluate is a good example of this approach, but it is not often taught as of equal importance to the content.
But where we’ve really lost our way is in our approach to journaling. I think journaling is a good idea, and fits in with what we know about learning and teaching. It provides a metacognitive ‘end’ to the lesson, where the content in working and short term memory can hopefully be transferred into long-term memory. But that only occurs if it is done properly. Journaling shouldn’t be about a desperate effort to write as much as possible in 10 minutes. The quantity of our students answers is an issue, but it’s only an issue because our students don’t know what to write well enough. Some people would argue that they can explain what they should write, but they can’t write it; that is, they are verbally capable of answering the question, but incapable of writing it. I call bullshit on two counts. Firstly, if they can talk about it, they can write about it in all but the most extreme cases. Two, they clearly haven’t learnt it well enough if they can’t write about it.
Writing is part of the vital exercise of learning, but I believe that it needs to be mindful writing. Let me explain what I mean by that. Writing is not developed simply by repetition. You don’t become a better writing by just writing over and over again. Instead, you become a better writer by consciously examining, developing and employing skills and techniques. This is what the focus of journals should be.