Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What are you writing for?

We ask students to write all the time but rarely ask why. The Ken Robinson enthusiasts among you will claim there's an outdated Victorian model in place; other liberals will argue it's all about teacher accountability and not quality. System technocrats, especially in English and Maths, will claim it embeds and proves attainment of learning objectives for e.g. Assessing Pupil Progress, while traditionalists will argue that it's all about the (lost?) basics we need to go back to; with raised eyebrow a few cynics will tartly observe that it's to keep students quiet for a certain proportion of the lesson and force some individual thinking in a generation that talks well but lacks attention span.

All have some truth to them. But try this: it has two wildly different and conflicting purposes. What if we needed students to write for a limited, very traditional and strict purpose - because exams are written and so will very many decent jobs be - and separately, for a wider, more idealistic purpose: because it's the ultimate method of exchange of ideas in depth, of skilled argument and reflection, condensed to a tight form? If they were true, we'd do two different kinds of writing, and neither of them might look that much like the broken-down spoon-fed short written exercises now so common across all subjects: first, we'd much more commonly use formal test papers to acclimatise students to (and quite insistently use well-supervised peer marking to measure progress on) exams - slightly dull but precise and necessarily regular - perhaps even weekly. And beyond that, we'd let written tasks have pretty free rein, and encourage students to be as ambitious, free-thinking and wide-ranging as possible in writing. What that would mean is freeing up most classroom time outside of the revise / test / peer-mark cycle to be about group project work, self-directed learning (flip the classroom here if you like), talk and flexible deadlines; and we'd make the recording of this learning in written form a highly flexible range of outcome options - for students to write what, and when, they like, to show the world what they have learnt and now understand or can do. In other words, we'd do more exam work, and almost all writing beyond that would be on student blogs. Because a blog isn't telling your teacher or your parents you are ticking boxes in the subject: it's showing the world you get it, and want in on the global discussions about it. So I've spent the past few months with GCSE and A-level classes doing absolutely no writing at all beyond sample tests and student blogs.

What I've found is that the most powerful and compelling reason for asking students to write for an entirely public audience is this: they realise how high that bar is, and can be initially intimidated about the prospect. But that removes all apathy or sense that the writing is a humdrum task - that perennial cry of "What's the point?" disappears at a stroke. Asking all students to write their own blogs as their learning unfolds and interlinks empowers the teacher to be more supportive because they're less tied to the bureaucratic side of the process; it raises the challenge level; it enables IT-skilling though confirming the message that "content is king"; it enables good differentiation; students can easily personalise their work; it lets them see their own progress; it promotes limited and purposeful writing and means more productive and accelerating talk time in learning rather than rote writing tasks.

The breadth of results has impressed me. Students have collated and commented on topical news, explained practical implications and real-world examples of syllabus phenomena, made "Comment is free" type posts detailing their views on issues, written up experiments in thorough detail, published data they have either researched or sourced elsewhere and linked it to other topics, and commented skillfully on one another's work. And if, as the best have done, they write professionally in the public domain already as teenagers - which top university Admissions Director wouldn't offer them a place on a degree course of their choice?

There are a powerful range of practical advantages to student blogging over other written forms. Composing complex written arguments with IT is better than on paper - you can adjust planning as you go, cut-and-paste as your argument develops; add in the online capacity to link-reference other webpages (the teacher's or peers' blogs, news stories, resource pages) as you construct the argument and you have a really punchy way to create a detailed and well-argued viewpoint. The range of interfaces, appearances, skins etc associated with public tools like Blogger and Wordpress professionalises the appearance of students' work and they rise to that implicit reward with serious attempts to write in depth: seeing your work given impressive profile and knowing the world is only a click away from reading what you think is considerably more motivating than continuing to write longhand in that dog-eared exercise book.

Feedback, groupwork and a visible papertrail are all effortless gains in this model. Display student work for class discussion, comment in reply to students' posts to give feedback; set homework for them to make short comment critiques on one another's blogposts; give project tasks requiring them to read multiple peers' work and synthesise an overview post with linked references. No hassle passing exercise books around / taking other students' work home to peer-comment on (and losing it); all their blogs are linked to from my own as class teacher. They can review across classes and year groups. They can also find resources on my blog or by following a dedicated Twitter feed. Line managers wishing to check my classes' work can trace to the minute what tasks were set, what resources provided, what reminders given; to the minute they know the time students posted their work in reply, commented on or fed back to one another, and can see if and in what way I've provided further feedback; an email papertrail confirms further support where needed - all without leaving their desk. (By the way, I'm not intimidated by this intrusive rise in monitoring capability. I do my job well and want my students to feel that accountability isn't something to be scared of either. In return, I give students, and expect from my SLT, considerable flexibility in using this powerful system: don't be bureaucratically nit-picking about timescales or exact procedures; stick to the big picture of whether the student is engaging and developing.) This is all massively more powerful, and infinitely easier, than collecting exercise books for monitoring and restricting peer-feedback to within the classroom, and a source of far less hassle and conflict than fixed small-scale written homeworks with exact deadlines. Furthermore, parents can easily be directed both to any information they need to help and (should they complain) to the evidence of what their child has both received and achieved - and to comparative students' work from within the same class. This forcefully and positively shifts the onus back onto the student to self-manage and the parent to monitor - where it ought to be - so I can remain a lead learner on tap as a resource for the motivated, and an aid to the struggling, more than a policeman of small-scale paper-based tasks.

Of course, there are a number of "I wouldn't risk that" concerns with student blogging, but none justify avoiding it: my aim is not to tell you that it is problem-free, but that its problems are essentially no different to any conventional learning medium. Most terrifyingly for the luddites and senior leaders, the risk of defamatory or provocative remarks exists; but this is a behavioural issue, not a technological one. It's no different to the risk of a student in uniform mouthing off at the local shopkeeper, or a student on stage in the school play "going off on one" - we fear these things, but they rarely ever happen, and are behaviour issues to be addressed like any other, not technological issues. Don't deprive all of an exciting outlet because of fear of a remote possibility of misuse by a tiny few. (In fact, the very public exposure of allowing students to blog about classroom activity is a sign of trust to which students rise admirably. And I advise a common sense approach to online courtesy and standards, not another wordy policy with fixed rules. Like most issues of morality / community consensus, discussing them if problems arise is a good opportunity, not a delay, and enriches understanding. I've had no problem all year with this.) And anyone who's ever managed a Facebook-centred incident in school will know the useful incontrovertability of screenshots as proof. Policing this kind of misbehaviour, if it does occur, isn't so hard. And if you really want you can require them to give you editing rights on their blog (I don't want to, but it's easy if you insist.)

Others worry that some student work is too weak for this medium and will make the school look bad or the student feel demoralised. But we put all our students' work on display boards, don't we? And we claim to care about the progress each makes over time - where better than a blog to show that flow of development? Student bloggers are not meant to be the finished article as writers (I'm not sure most professional bloggers are...) and what we're looking for is for them to strive to emulate, and participate in, a global community of discussion, however fledgling their efforts. Support the weakest closely but don't hold back for that reason: all should be told they're worthy and able to attempt it, that they have a right to their views - and that they too must try to meet a standard of excellence if they're to draw readership.

Plagiarism is also a problem, but surprisingly less online than offline. I've had one incidence of this all year (that I know of!) - a direct lift from the textbook. A discreet, firmly-worded private email explaining copyright law to the student (copied to the parental email) and a brief non-naming public reiteration to the whole class of how this was both a legal problem, a disciplinary issue and (worst of all) just poor character, effort and engagement - the post swiftly disappeared and the problem never occurred again. In group work, groups can share and co-write sections and use them across multiple blogs - they're just asked to make clear when they do this.

Use of strong language (to make a point, rather than directed use designed purely to offend) is a moot point. I have a philosophical position that this should not be stonewalled in public discussion, and it is not the place of a school to ban it. I allowed A2 Sociology students this year to use it in political posts; tellingly, they did so freely in early posts, but then its use fell away - strong language sometimes has a place that cannot be replaced (often it is critical in satire, for example) - but its casual use disempowers it and makes the writing appear lazy and ill-thought-out. The students themselves ended up reflecting that they should choose words better and not so easily. "You don't hear Polly Toynbee saying 'What a dick' in her articles, even though she clearly thinks David Cameron is one," asserted one perceptive wit, to general agreement. This is not a conversation teacher training prepared me for, but I'm glad it happened; and I think those students are better writers now for learning, with freedom to choose, how to make words have their most powerful effect. Of course, language is a thorny issue, so I share this story without wanting to impose the advice.

The last major concern is Child Protection but this ought to be shrugged off. Certainly older students are far more risk-savvy online than the press moral panic would have us believe; they all use Facebook all the time so telling them blogging isn't safe is laughable to them; and a glance at educators' Twitter accounts would reveal numerous links to excellent webpages, class blogs, and Twitter accounts being run for / by / with students down to primary age. Teach e-safety once and well, and take firm action in the rare occasions there is a genuine problem - but don't lock your kids away from the world. My students were delightfully amazed and excited to discover postgrads in Germany, travel writers in South-East Asia and Occupy activists in the US liking, commenting on and following their blogs. There is a world of engagement out there - let's get in touch!

None of this is a unique experiment. It's part of a broader, slow, piecemeal colonisation of this new frontier of IT-led learning. I see strong similarities of aim and approach with excellent initiatives like inter-school Quad Blogging, class blogs with multiple student authors, forum debate pages, increasingly commonplace teacher-written content blogs (please get off VLEs, they're depressingly clumsy and archaic alongside a blogging / tweeting class system), and the habit of using class tweets to see if the world responds. These great initiatives all share the same aim - to get students facing out to the world of interaction - and I'm heartened but (as a secondary specialist) faintly embarrassed that so many are primary-led. The system I describe is one I use with year 10 through 13, and hopefully provides a complement to primary excellence of blogging use; adapt and use as you see fit. Or contact me to discuss it via Skype - how's that for useful CPD!

So where now? Our first year of use has been rewarding and engaging for students and myself, relatively problem-free, an example which other subjects in the school have now started to follow, and intriguing. I am genuinely confident it has enhanced students' enjoyment, their writing skill, and their university prospects. Our use has been a bit hit-and-miss - but that's what a trial is for, and I go into year two with a clearer idea of the advantages, limitations and required timely guidance in asking students to write for the public forum. Next year I'll provide even more exemplars, flowcharts of thinking-to-writing processes, more emphasis on image and use of video, perhaps some spoof too, instead of all serious (to satirise something you have first, by definition, to understand it); and I may use more written feedback on blogs, as well as oral formative comment and discussion in class. I've not come across other KS4/5 student blogging programmes but I'd welcome the chance to collaborate and I'd encourage others to try this. Remember what learning is for - to enrich and connect our understanding of things. Remember what writing is for - to share what we see, think and believe, and invite response. Remember what schools are for - preparation to enter a wide world of possibility. And as Durrenmatt said: "A writer doesn't solve problems. He allows them to emerge." Who wouldn't want their exploratory classroom to look like that, and their students to live and learn that way? Get all your students blogging and you will see how exciting exploration can be.