Will Richardson’s blog reminded me to share some thoughts I’ve been ruminating over for several years. Will does an outstanding job of spotting and sharing new software tools, particularly those of the Web 2.0 variety. Some of these tools demonstrate human ingenuity, many make a small improvement on existing software and one or two may even make a real splash, in either social impact or as a commercial product. Will’s recent blog posting, Mind Mapping Love, discussed new online tools for brainstorming, mapping and planning.
Upon reflection I felt compelled to ask, "After all of this mapping, brainstorming and planning, what do the students actually do? Is it better than what they wrote, filmed, acted, composed or constructed before such tools existed? What’s the point?"
I began asking such questions a few years ago when I keynoted a national educational technology conference overseas. The walls of the convention center corridors were lined with display boards containing student work. One would assume that this work exemplified the most extraordinary efforts from this nation’s classroms. However, upon further inspection I saw walls covered in three bubble Inspiration maps. Plants need… Water, Sunlight, Cool-Whip… That sort of stuff.
I was horrified. Why would we display such crap on the walls of a national conference?
This is like publishing an outline of a novel, without the novel, except it is worse than that. What I routinely see in schools is the equivalent of publishing the first three words of the outline of a novel without ever writing the novel. It’s then printed in fancy fonts and framed by brightly colored construction paper before affixing to a bulletin board. I’ve seen it a zillion times in classrooms all over the world. The pride educators gain from such incomplete work is an acute example of what Seymour Papert calls verbal inflation.
Again, what’s the point?
I have no reason to doubt that Will Richardson was an amazing teacher who inspired his students to express themselves with a clarity and fluency beyond their years. With Will’s guidance mind-mapping, brainstorming or outlining resulted in exceptional writing or journalism. But what about his protegés? Do the students of Will’s many followers produce work they can be proud of? Do their efforts justify the investment in hardware and software? Based on my observations, I fear not.
I often wonder why the package, Inspiration, has been such a runaway success. Almost every school with a computer owns a copy, while countless schools have it installed on every computer. One would think that all of this planning would lead to an explosion in creativity and dramatic improvements in student communication abilities, but aside from small anecodotal examples, no such evidence exists. Admittedly, my inner cynic gets curious whenever large numbers of educators are suddenly excited about anything. I like to know why.
Perhaps the enthusiasm for pre-writing tools, such as the Inspiration and the ones Will writes about, is based on the fact that schools hate process. Pre-writing/planning/brain-storming represents the first stage of a four or five part writing process. In order to gain benefit from this process, each stage must be completed. No step of the process is more important than another. They are equally critical. Well, at last that’s the theory.
The reality of school is that teachers routinely cherry-pick the part of the process which best suits them or fits within their time constraints. This has a lot to do with why "whole language" was vilified. Teachers embraced the invented spelling aspect of the pre-writing and writing stages, but never got around to actual editing or publishing. Putting invented spelling on the wall or in publications that leave the classroom is asking for trouble.
Some teachers focus on an essay’s cover, word count or fonts used while others brainstorm, but never get around to having the children write anything of substance.
This might be because writing is so hard and teachers are insecure about their own writing. An even more likely hypothesis for why the writing process rarely leaves the starting gate is time. It takes a wizard or decathelete to edit 150-200 pieces of student writing, so why require it? Even orchestrating effective peer-editing procedures takes time few teachers enjoy between the bells and other structural distractions of the modern school day. So, we skip a few steps. Favoring one step over the others tends to undermine the entire process.
We all had at least one teacher who required that an outline be turned in, even if it was written after the essay. Such requirements are profoundly indifferent and disrespectful to each distinct learner. With modern outlining tools the curriculum is too often on identifying the form of brainstorming or the shape of a mind-map, rather than on what should be the product resulting from the tool’s use. Too many teachers focus on the mechanics of these tools at the expense of developing articulate creative students. Not every writer requires an outline and most "real" writing results from a much more fluid process.
Another potential reason for the emphasis on brainstorming and mind-mapping is that the activity lends itself to being teacher-centric. I’ve seen countless demonstrations of pre-writing in which the teacher solicits ideas from the class (with differing degrees of coercion) and then creates the visual representation on the board or computer via projection. The locus of control shifts away from the learner to the teacher. The proliferation of expensive "interactive" white boards ensures that the teacher will never relinquish control or stop dominating the life of the classroom.
Writing is inherently learner-centered. Great writers know that writing may only really ever be taught mano a mano. Effective teachers use a bag of tricks to distract the rest of the class or create peer editing situations, but writing is a recursive process of continual writing and revision. That’s MUCH harder to do than make a diagram, print it out and stick it on a wall (or web page).
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the author of Twenty Things to Do with a Computer – Forward 50, co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.