Amplifying Minds

Learning and Growing Together

On Pundits, Professors and Philosophers

“Pundits fret… once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame. 

Clive Thompson in Wired magazine, “Clive Thompson on the New Literacy.”  August, 2009

This article tells the story of a Stanford University professor, Andrea Lunsford, who did a study of writing in Stanford students.  While she found that students today are doing MORE writing than they used to, much of it (38%) is what she calls “life writing,” the writing that takes place out of the classroom.

Here’s part of the article:

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.

In the past 6 years I have been using wikis and blogs, I’ve known my students were doing some quite thoughtful–and thought-provoking–writing. I’ve often been impressed with their idealism, their insight and their willingness to ask questions and challenge the status quo. I’ve tried hard to give them leeway to stretch themselves and their thinking while also not going past boundaries that would get either of us (them or me) in trouble with our community (parents, teachers, admins) in any way. We’ve walked a line between oral conversations and me asking them to write online–both to each other, and to others whom I convinced to interact with them on wikis and blogs. Some of my student writers have been amazing storytellers, most of them have waxed philosophical at some point or another, and I have enjoyed reading and responding to their thinking as we learn together in our conversations, both written and verbal.

Now, there aren’t many people I don’t think, that would say Aristotle or Socrates or Plato weren’t smart  or didn’t have intelligent discourse with their students and people of their time. In their day, conversations were oral.  The time to think, reflect, ask questions, and participate in deep discourse was crucial to becoming an informed and intelligent person.

Thomas Jefferson, in designing his “academical village” at the University of Virginia, designed gardens outside of the professors’ on-grounds homes where the professor and students could meet after class to continue the discussions begun in class, or probe the thoughts shared that day. The Pavillions were created to increase the opportunities to talk…much as our online opportunities to engage each other allow us to do today–only TJ’s professors met their students face to face in the gardens behind each pavilion and our connecting with others to learn and grow, especially in recent years, has been done through various forms of writing (Twitter, chatting, Google+, and on and on).

However, when pundits (to use the authors’ word) say the writing that students are doing online isn’t helpful to them or their future, here’s another statement in the article I thought was important.

The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

So our students are learning as the “masters” taught years ago–perhaps without the questions and probing form minds like Aristotle or Socrates, but in that manner.

Kids are learning how to talk to one another, hold intellectual discussions and arguments, ask questions, research, be concise (with 140 characters , one MUST be concise), be descriptive, and most of all, assess the audience and write to persuade, engage and debate.

And the conclusion? What are students learning in all of this online writing?

 What today’s young people know is that knowing who you’re writing for and why you’re writing might be the most crucial factor of all.

That’s what I want to help my elementary kids “get”–that if you want people to listen and hear what you have to say, the message needs to be written (or spoken) in a way so as to attract and engage the audience in thoughtful reflection and/or action.  I want my kids to go back to those thinking, curious days of being 4 and 5, where every other word was “Why?” or “How does..?” or “I wonder…”

After all, if I had to listen to or read a pundit, which is defined by wikipedia as someone who “offers to mass media his or her opinion or commentary on a particular subject area … on which they are knowledgeable (or can at least appear to be knowledgeable), or a professor or a philosopher, the pundit wouldn’t be my first choice.  And, furthermore, if children had to listen to, or try to be a pundit, professor or philosopher,   I’d definitely prefer the latter, wouldn’t you?

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