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In collaboration with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has just published Writing, Technology and Teens, a research report on perceptions of teens and their parents about the relationship between their frequent informal writing through digital communication media and formal writing considered to be important for success in school and work. In short, they found that, “Most teenagers spend a considerable amount of their life composing texts, but they do not think that a lot of the material they create electronically is real writing.” Perhaps if they were using electronic communication media in the classroom, as well as outside of school, they would feel differently.
Most teens felt that they could benefit from improved instruction in writing. When teens were asked about their suggestions for improvement, researchers discovered that, “Overall, 82% of teens feel that additional in-class writing time would improve their writing abilities and 78% feel the same way about their teachers using computer-based writing tools.”
Focus group teens offered this helpful advice to educators:
“…they are motivated to write when they can select topics that are relevant to their lives and interests, and report greater enjoyment of school writing when they have the opportunity to write creatively. Having teachers or other adults who challenge them, present them with interesting curricula and give them detailed feedback also serves as a motivator for teens. Teens also report writing for an audience motivates them to write and write well.”
Asking students to share their views about their own learning can be so illuminating. Students, in their infinite wisdom, have identified what makes Web 2.0 communication media so powerful: they genuinely put the act of communication back into writing. They offer a platform for students to use writing to develop their ideas and communicate those ideas to real audiences with real purpose. Isn’t that what we’re trying to prepare them to do? If we want students to learn to communicate in writing, then we should give them opportunities to do so authentically in the course of instruction.
Artificial writing exercises that ask students to tell teachers and test-makers what they already know, or prove command of rhetoric divorced of meaningful substance, do not qualify as authentic communication. Students are eager to use blogs, wikis, and threaded discussions for academic writing because they offer opportunities to interact in writing with other people around ideas. As teachers, we must find ways to engage students in writing about things that matter to them and to society and facilitate the sorts of interactions that help them sharpen the expression of their thoughts. And we are fortunate to now have such helpful tools available to help us meet those goals.
I recommend listening to TED Talks – Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? I heartily agree with Robinson that, “we are educating people out of their creative capacities.” In fact, I have preached a similar gospel, having observed that most every 4-year-old I’ve encountered exhibits great imagination, and yet we seem to systematically bury this instinct through our education system, which clearly and relentlessly privileges “right” answers and “correct” form over creative ideas and complex thought, year after year, essentially bullying students into relinquishing this precious birthright. This is not meant to suggest that we should lead kids to believe that 2 + 2 can equal anything, or that punctuating sentences is unimportant to communicating clearly in writing, but rather that we should emphatically convey through both word and deed that other more open-ended types of questions and tasks are also worth pursuing.
In my experience, most children in the primary grades are encouraged to view themselves as authors and artists, but by the later grades, kids typically have internalized a belief that imagination and authorship are the province of only a “creative” few. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by the recent obsession with high-stakes standardized tests, which now drive so much of what happens in classrooms on a day-to-day basis. Such tests go far beyond merely measuring what students know to very narrowly defining what is considered worth knowing.
In her book, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, Eleanor Duckworth argues that “Standardized tests can never, even at their best, tell us anything other than whether a given fact, notion, or ability is already within a child’s repertoire. As a result, teachers are encouraged to go for right answers, as soon and as often as possible, and whatever happens along the way is treated as incidental.” When the culture of schooling is overwhelmingly focused on demonstrating what one already knows rather than exploring what one doesn’t, children repeatedly receive the message that knowing is more important than learning. And, as Duckworth points out, “The virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that really count in the long run. What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will ultimately know.” This is not to say that knowledge is unimportant, but rather that banking inert knowledge should not take priority over building active knowledge; knowledge should be something we expect students to use and expand, not just to have.
We as educators must not acquiesce to the pressures bearing down upon us, as strong as they may be, to act against the best interests of our students. The stakes are too high – far higher than those imposed by any test. We must push back and reclaim the culture of education, and renew our commitment to cultivating creativity in students of all ages in all disciplines. The good news is that many kids are exercising their creativity all over cyberspace…outside of school. Imagine what they could do with our guidance and support…
Web 2.0 (otherwise known as the Read/Write Web) has ignited a revolution in authorship. A rapidly expanding variety of freely available web-based tools support authorship in new and transformative ways, giving rise to what I am calling Authorship 2.0. While new tools are constantly emerging, and existing tools and categories are in a constant state of flux, these are a few relatively stable recent innovations in digital communication media that have generated great interest among authors of all varieties:
Forums are online discussions organized topically and chronologically. Whether public or private, forums are open to a number of participants who need not be online simultaneously to participate, as contributions can be posted asynchronously. Threaded discussions maintain the coherence of a given conversational thread, with a hierarchical format that tracks each chain of responses and how they are linked to each other.
Chats are real-time (synchronous) conversations online via text involving two or more people, often at a distance. Chatting (or instant messaging) often involves informal rhetoric, shorthand conventions, and emoticons to convey tone. As with any digital text, chats can be saved and transfered to other media.
A blog is a public online journal managed by a primary author who posts entries that appear chronologically. Blog posts are in digital hypermedia format, which means they can include text, images, links, video, audio, or animation. Readers can comment on blog posts, and bloggers can link to each other’s blogs and to other web sites.
A wiki is a web site that is open to many contributors who share authorship. Pages can be created, edited, organized, and discussed by different authors, and all changes are tracked. Authoring permissions are managed by wiki owners and may include a range of levels.
A podcast is a digital media broadcast via the internet, in either audio or video format, often through syndication feeds, for playback on a portable media player or personal computer. Podcasts allow radio shows, television segments, or homemade productions to be distributed widely for anywhere, anytime listening and/or viewing.
Digital multimedia productions take many different forms and can be distributed through many channels. For example, a slide show with text, images, and animation can be saved as a movie. Videos can be taken with a regular digital camera, imported into editing software to create movies, and then uploaded to a blog, an online social network, or any other web site. Any digital media can be combined with any other digital media, and authors can share their digital creations with the world via the internet.
Every day makes new resources available to authors of all ages and experience levels, helping them engage in meaningful expression and interaction and make their voices heard all over the world. Though we have barely begun to explore the implications of the Web 2.0 revolution for authorship, I believe that these developments have a great deal to offer teaching and learning. That is the subject of this blog.