‘Just-writing’ doesn’t help

That anyone can find themselves saying the words ‘just writing’ is a little bit of a giveaway: as if writing for its own sake was something rather frivolous and indulgent. The scary thing is that for increasing numbers of education managers, consultants and bureaucrats, that’s just what it is. Of course, the datacrat approach to teaching English loves to roll out the I’m-the-responsible-one frowns at this because, and let’s say it all together now: ‘all the research tells us that just-writing doesn’t lead to improved outcomes’.

I am always a little sceptical about ‘scientific’ research in education, but I’ll admit that the more empirical end of the research spectrum is not totally useless – it’s always worth thinking about for a little bit. So what is it that the research is getting at here? Probably, if you give a control class lots of just-writing tasks, and another class less writing, and then assess what’s happened after 6 months, you’re unlikely to see the writing-a-lot group leap ahead  – particularly if your ‘assessment’ involves one of those artificially generated targeted areas of improvement that is increasingly fashionable: ‘use of fronted adverbials’ or something suchlike. 

The dubious conclusion that is usually then made is that this means that the writing done in this kind of experiment didn’t achieve anything, when it actually achieved a huge amount. If the teacher concerned was given time to read it properly (and it’s true that this is increasingly unlikely) then the most important thing it did was give students the chance to write, and the teacher the chance to read what was written: the ‘just-writing’ task made writing a meaningful part of a meaningful relationship which, even if it wasn’t key to all real language acquisition (which it is) is an indisputable good in itself.

If you assess two infants’ speech rigorously, you will undoubtedly witness significant stretches of time when little or no difference can be found in progress between the one who talks the most the one who talks the least. It would be absurd to suggest that this means that the speaking that either child did in between times was therefore pointless (at this point the datacrats usually like to make some pretty dubious points about how writing is fundamentally different from speech – see ‘People haven’t evolved to be writers’ for more on this muddle). More importantly, there are some small children who unfortunately always struggle with speech – progress in certain areas is almost beyond them. Now, imagine that, having identified those children from the start, we decided to stop talking to them, to stop expecting speech from them, because we knew it would make no difference to their progress? Such a conclusion would be patently inhuman.

Some students dislike ‘just writing’ because they ‘don’t know what to write’. I have a sneaking suspicion that this was true of many of the ‘no just-writing’ crowd when they themselves were at school. Dealing with students who’ve had the imaginative stuffing knocked out of them is tricky, and is why some ‘just-writing’ tasks are better than others: some are rooted in personal experience in a meaningful way; some allow communication about topics that have been studied in class; some are set up to encourage practice of a particular genre that has been the object of recent practice and exposure. It’s probably unfair to frequently ask a bunch of teenagers to ‘just write about anything’ (though a wonderful task to do once in a while). In the end, though, any awkwardness that students feel about free self-expression is not a sign of teacher failure, but it does tell us something pretty depressing about the true logic of a culture that is supposedly committed to individual freedom and dignity.  

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