I love writing essays. Sometimes organizing my thoughts on paper is the only way I can actually figure out what I really think. I've had many jobs in my life, but, unfortunately, none that required writing. There are some jobs that necessitate advanced writing skills but precious few. So I'm wondering why our education system is still so heavily geared towards essay-writing. We use it as a marker of academic excellence, but perhaps that needs to change.
A while back, the Globe & Mail had an article about how schools should be accommodating difference. We were always supposed to be accommodating difference, but what's new is the increasing numbers of kids who have learning disabilities, Aspergers, and other challenges to their academic achievement. We're looking at 1 in 84 with Aspergers now (even though it no longer technically exists). There could be many reasons why: increased air and water pollution, increased life-saving technologies that help infants live that formerly would have perished, or even an increased level of diagnosis due to an increased level of concern for these kids' rights. Whatever the reason, I think that last consideration is most important. If we're concerned and we want to insist that everyone has the same rights to an education, then we have to make it possible for everyone to succeed to the best of their abilities.
Many kids that struggle in school - many in the G&M article, and many in my own school - struggle because they can't easily decode writing. The article discusses a bright young girl who never learned to read, and a dyslexic dentist who couldn't pass the final exam (but might have if it could be done orally); both are bright and capable but struggle with one specific skill that is a barrier to all of education. And it makes me wonder, what if we took the focus off writing?
Essay-writing is important not just to teach the skill of putting words together beautifully, but for the skill of organizing thoughts in a clear and coherent manner. I think it's useful and necessary to teach kids to structure their thoughts in some way in order to facilitate better communication. We hope kids will learn to "collect their thoughts" before they blurt out some stream-of-consciousness diatribe, so we make them practice it over and over for at least four years of high school. But is it necessary that it be done in writing?
Technology has changed how we get information. Many people get the news through YouTube snippets, and, as long as they're well-chosen, that can provide an excellent, well-rounded education. But beyond that, students now can make films to display their learning. It's no longer necessary for a teacher to mark students one-on-one in order to mark their ability to present information verbally if they can film themselves and submit a vimeo link.
But if we want to make this change to how we teach, it can't just be a shift in elementary schools and high-schools. It has to be a shift in our colleges, university, and our culture. For many of the courses I teach, I offer a plethora of ways students can display their knowledge of the content and their skills at organizing and editing their thoughts. They can make a podcast, film, cartoon strip, flipbook, song, prezi, present it orally, perform a play, or make a series of diaramas out of cake! All of these can make it clear that students understand the information, can organize their thoughts in a logical sequence, and can revise from one draft to the next. And I can allow students to write tests orally with two recording devises (one for questions, the other for answers) and a quiet space. But, in a 4U course, it's all about essays. I could have the brightest mind in the world in my class, but if s/he can't put ideas down on paper, then s/he'll fail. And if s/he can't write an essay quickly on the exam, s/he will fail. And that's entirely because 4U is a training ground for university. And university is one of the few places in the world where essay-writing is pivotally important.
Universities will accommodate students to a limited degree. Students can have more time on assignments and tests, but they have to do the same assignment as everyone else. If a student needs a computer to work, they often provide that resource. But if the student can't work on a computer because s/he struggles to filter out extraneous visuals on the prof's website for instance, then s/he's shit out of luck.
Either we need to make high schools less accommodating in the U-streams in order to weed people out before they hit university and find it impossible to succeed, or we need to make universities more accommodating. It sounds, at first blush, that the latter option is a dumbing-down of society, that it's a slippery slope to giving PhDs to imbeciles. But it's quite the opposite. We can have rigorously high standards in each field without writing being the one factor that marks ability and weeds out inability. And the result could be that we find some very strong critical thinkers, and innovative designers, and creative writers who just can't manage pen on paper. That one thing - that one of many means to communicate knowledge - should not be the stopper to their academic achievement.
We have a mythology in our culture that one day there will be a teacher who can save the day. To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me.... If we could just get teachers to really get to these kids, then we can save the day. But I think a more realistic depiction is Detachment. Adrian Brody helps a few kids here and there, but others wander off. He does his best, but he can't reach everybody. That's as good as it gets. We can aim to be their inspiration, to change their lives for the better, but we can't beat ourselves up if we don't make that goal because it's largely unattainable.
We're worried about the drop-out rate, and the pedagogy of the day suggests that if kids hate school, it's because teachers aren't inspiring enough. If that's the case, then I just don't know how to be entertaining enough. Maybe teacher colleges should have mandatory classes in stand-up comedy. Barring that, I can desert the curriculum and show action movies. It works for some teachers. But maybe we're just looking at the problem from the wrong angle.
Do we want kids in school to 18 to better educate them or just to keep them off the streets? If it's the former, then three years of going to classes that interest them will help them learn not just the content, but, for no additional fee, we'll teach them basic manners, promptness, civility, and work ethics. Four years in courses they hate teaches them to abhor education and to hone their skills at escaping what they perceive as a punishment.
If it's the latter we're going for, a means to keep young, potential ruffians off the streets, then if they're only attending sporadically and not actually learning much anyway, can't we give them credits for watching movies and playing video games all day in classes with long attendance lists but few actual bodies. Maybe they can learn conflict resolution as they beat levels. And maybe they'll show up enough to get the credits. I'm being facetious, but really, students who refuse to attend or refuse to work need to be segregated somehow in order for the teacher to be able to focus on the rest who are trying to learn. Or just let them leave school - and maybe they'll manage without a diploma. If they don't, they might come back with a different mind set.