School boys’ writing standards have slipped again - Year Nine boys now write on average at a Year Seven level (AFR, April 2019).
It’s looking like an Australian education crisis, though not a new one. It is worth noting, girls’ writing has been slipping as well, though not to the same extent.
There is lots of concern, but little ‘why’ available.
“It's very hard to get any visibility into how writing is taught in classrooms. What we have here are some alarm bells ringing but no visibility through the smoke to understand what's causing the problem."
- Dr Peter Goss, Grattan Institute
Far from the blame of a writing-standards-crisis resting on a classroom teacher, there are social and economic tsunamis that are still crashing in, that teachers have done well to try to navigate.
Some 'whys': Tech and stress exacerbated by a broken system
1. Technology rewards also come with a cost, in the form of changes to how our brains are wired to be motivated, to seek validation, to be focused. There is correlation between increased online behaviour and writing standards. According to teachers, increased time online makes students’ work more informal, more prone to plagiarism, prone to poor ‘voice and audience consideration’ and results in poor decisions around structure and organisation of writing assignments.
2. Schools are under-resourced, parents are working longer hours, students are anxious and busy. “Being busy” is not trivial, it impacts the well-being of all involved in a family. It is especially worrying for children’s writing skills, when you consider that the art of writing requires both time, attention, and the feedback of a more skilled authority person (usually a parent), who needs to donate their scarce time and attention. Seven days a week and during holidays, students are writing at home, and parents live in fear of the late night arguments, or the spotlight it puts on their own poor skills. For teachers, nights, weekends, and holidays are already spent marking and designing the delivery of an increasingly full curriculum.
3. The school system is still broken. Despite efforts, institutionalised school learning is old, and not good enough (it wasn't even good enough for industrialising societies and supporting factory workers). It remains at odds with what educators know are the best ways for students to learn - one-to-one, personalised, with dialogue and feedback. Australia doesn’t have the economy, industry, or workforce structure to cope with the ideal of personalised learning, so we settle for an old method, so students sit in classrooms, submit papers to ‘wait and see,’ while teachers everywhere remain overworked and under-resourced.
The how: Leveraging “I smashed your high score"
“Can we turn gamers into writers?” This question was posed to delegates at the 2017 National Boys’ Education Conference, by Studiosity’s Chair and Founder Jack Goodman.
Ironically, the clever, profit-seeking gaming and social tools, which may have decreased interest and ability in writing, may also have something to teach us about how to fix those same writing standards. Not by making writing more of a competition amongst students, not even necessary by asking students to write about gaming as a personal interest area, something more fundamental: progression and personalisation.
Writing a draft and playing an online game both require hard work, thought, strategy, and both offer a score at the end.
Gaming, however, offer short term wins. It's a journey (sometimes a literal character journey), that brings the gamer along with small progressive rewards, feedback, and customisation or personal choices. For example, Fortnite, if you've seen it even briefly you'll know is both progressive and highly personalised.
Sometimes the character dies, but the gamer can always start again.
In an assignment, sometimes the student gets a poor mark. They can't start again.
What would happen if we all had the chance to fix mistakes, when we're making them?
To start to improve writing standards:
1. Students need the chance to fix their work. They need personalised feedback from a better writer throughout their draft process. Feedback isn't enough without it being timely and personal, that's the chance to make a difference on outcomes and confidence; a chance to lift writing standards. A chance to go back and try again for the high score.
2. Families need to be supported. Schools can't adjust parents' workload and commitments, but they can remove the expectation and pressure on parents to be teachers. It's unrealistic to expect parents to apply the socratic method to help their child learn for themselves and become passionate, enquiring writers. It's unrealistic for parents to be editors, every day, for every draft, with the progression and personalisation that writing needs.
3. As a society, we need to stop expecting teachers to be available 24/7. Despite many exceptional teachers, students face tens of thousands of personal learning moments, some visible, most invisible. James needs help with sentence structure on Tuesday evening, Mia is stuck and needs referencing help on Sunday afternoon, Michael never learned how to construct an argument last year and has an exam next week. Teachers are leaders and charged with building learning outcomes, and they need tools to get there - books, blackboards, tablets, apps, and after-hours writing feedback with Studiosity. And when a learning tool is easy to use, timely, and offers personalised attention, kids will engage.
And to compete globally: Australia needs to start personalising learning at scale, with equity across public schools, in all states and territories.
Schools with Studiosity are led by those principals and teachers who want to improve writing, who want the next generations to be passionate, interested learners. The one-to-one, anytime, anywhere writing feedback means that every Australian student gets to fix their mistakes, while they're making them - and not shrug after the assignment comes back.
It is one tool - one piece of technology - one step toward making our children better writers, but it's one that addresses the needs of personalisation, the burden of time and equity for families, respects the teacher's role as educator, not editor, and offers equitable access to every single Australian student.