22 January 2005

It's the Context, Stupid!

Getting completely away for a moment… Philip Pullman has an interesting piece that reaches part of the problem with teaching writing in today's Guardian. (Even if you don't like its politics—which have moved considerably toward the centre since its days as the Manchester Guardian, and even since the early 1990s—you should be reading the Guardian's materials on books and the arts if you're at all interested in a broader perspective than the captured "publishing press" in this country.) He concludes that:

What does work, the York study maintains, is writing in a meaningful context: writing as a practical hands-on craft activity. One of the implications of this is that teachers have to be confident about writing - about play, about delight. Too many are not, because they haven't had to be; and the result is the dismal misery of the "creative writing" drills tested in the Sats, where children are instructed to plan, draft, edit, revise, rewrite, always in the same order, always in the same proportions, always in the same way. If teachers knew something about the joy of fooling about with words, their pupils would write with much greater fluency and effectiveness. Teachers and pupils alike would see that the only reason for writing is to produce something true and beautiful; that they were on the same side, with the teacher as mentor, as editor, not as instructor and measurer, critic and judge.

And they'd see when they looked at a piece of work together that some passages were so good already that they didn't need rewriting, that some parts needed clarifying, others needed to be cut down, others would be more effective in a different order, and so on. They'd see the point of the proofreading, at last; and they'd be ready, because they were interested, to know about subordinate clauses and conjunctions and the rest. The study of grammar is intensely fascinating: but only when we're ready for it.

"Common Sense Has Much to Learn From Moonshine" (22 Jan 2005). Even as badly as math and foreign languages are generally taught in this country, those curricula do not make the same errors. Sure, there's a lot of drill in both of them; but, on the other hand, there is constant reference to real (or at least quasireal) contexts in other problems introduced at the same time as drill. Similarly, a chemist must do more than memorize the periodic table. What too many instructors fail to realize is that the written version of a language, with its greater formality and fewer opportunities for corrective feedback cycles, can be almost as foreign as a different oral language. Law school is a sad demonstration of this; it's not "learning to think like a lawyer" that is the barrier, but "learning to talk like a lawyer."

Whether one accepts a strong or weak version of semiotics, or even no semiotics at all, it is fairly apparent that one uses different tools to manipulate the symbols, words, sounds, etc. of a language orally than one does on paper (or papyrus, stone tablet, whatever). We should stop pretending that an "English class" is talking about only one subject, one language.