WHY THE INSTRUCTIONAL SHIFT IN WRITING IS WRONG
The Common Core “Instructional Shifts” insist that students should focus on “Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational,” and that this shift is “a significant shift from current practice.” The document offers no “evidence” that it has any hard data on what “current practice” consists of. But aside from that, this Shift to “evidence based,” writing-to-text writing, has a number of destructive repercussions on students. We’ll be exploring them more indepth later, but I wanted to start with an overview.
Here then, are the problems with the Common Core Instructional Shift for writing instruction:
1. Many administrators, both district and school-level, assume the shift means students no longer write narratives, fiction, or poetry – even though both the shifts document itself, and the standards, include narrative writing (though not poetry).
2. Because “evidence based writing” is the focus of all common core literacy tests, the curriculum narrows around this one type of writing and which becomes the only kind of writing taught in many schools.
3. To do well on the new writing tests, students must write to a rubric that demands certain things, like formal language, arguments and counter-arguments, and a focus on text evidence rather than on personal experience. Instruction based on this rubric leads students to have a distorted view of what writing is…
4. Students think all writing is formal, and that the personal pronoun “I” is forbidden in all writing, even personal narrative.
5. Students think that formal writing is the only way to write, and that it consists of using large words and fancy constructions that obscure meaning rather than revealing it. It may also mean following artificial rules like “don’t use contractions,” which are disastrous when applied to non-formal writing situations.
6. Teachers and students know they have to have at least two arguments and one counterargument in essays on the test, so students learn to write an introduction, two arguments, a counter argument, and a conclusion. We are back to the five paragraph formula essay. That’s not progress.
7. Students are forced to write about subjects they don’t know much about, or, if they happen to know something about them, to not use their own knowledge in their essays. As Penny Kittle points out, writing about unfamiliar topics does not allow you to develop either engagement or confidence as a writer. You only develop a confident, clear writerly voice when you are writing in familiar territory.
8. Students are taught by implication that their own views, opinions, stories, and interests don’t matter. Writing is something you do for someone else, not something you do for your own purposes. According to standards, students are supposed to engage in short research projects, yet they are seldom if ever given the chance to research topics of interest to them. Instead, they are given generic topics, many of them dull, that disengage them.
9. Students think they are learning research skills, when in fact they are only learning to plug quotes and paraphrases into an argument that was pre-packaged and pre-framed by the test-makers, an argument designed to be read by robots. Which brings us to our next point…
10. The type of writing they are doing for these tests and to meet this instructional shift can not only be graded by robots – it could be written by robots. Writing of this sort has already been automated in a number of contexts (news stories about sporting events can be authored by algorithm, for instance.). This type of writing task will be obsolete in the very near future.
11. Focusing all our writing instruction on meeting the demands of the test undermines democratic society. Students are not asked to, or allowed to, question things, or to feel like they have a voice or anything to say. They may not even realize that writing can be an outlet for personal expression and for speaking up in a democracy.
12. Our students may reach their senior year and not know how to write a personal college essay. (I have seen this first hand.)
13. College professors do not find their student more “college ready” because of this instructional shift; they find they have to make their students unlearn bad writing and thinking habits.
14. This focus on evidence based writing kills off the teaching of more creative kinds of thinking and writing. Creativity is one of the only skills that can’t be automated. Creative training may the best “career readiness” training there is. We are neglecting it completely.
We need a writing rebellion. Teachers do not need to shift their instruction to be more “evidence based.” They don’t teach to the test. They need to teach writing for real. Suggestions for doing so are next.