Back Friday 12 Nov 2021 9:09 am

Inducting students into the guild of writing

EMC's director, Andrew McCallum, introduces a writing project that draws on EMC's Just Write publication and probes important questions about how to teach writing.
main image for blog post 'Inducting students into the guild of writing'

… the complexity of any given piece of writing means it is hard to itemise or predict in advance the features that might make it good except in the most general terms. Any attempt at being more precise runs the risk of missing an essential ingredient.

From Bethan Marshall + Dylan Wiliam. (2006).English Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the English Classroom. Granada Learning.

Teaching the component parts of writing explicitly can only get you so far. Writing is too complex and contains too many variables to focus constantly on the small stuff to the detriment of the whole. 

We need sometimes to use an approach that starts with – to draw on a phrase that we’ve used many times before – the big picture. Students need opportunities to take charge of the writing process from the very start, drawing on their existing language resources and exercising an element of choice in what they do, with light-touch intervention and guidance from the teacher along the way. Choice might relate to the form in which they decide to write, their particular focus based on the knowledge and experience they bring to the task, the tone of voice they adopt, their perceived audience, and so on.

Once they have completed a draft – and while producing one – students can work with their classmates and teacher to reflect on their work and to identify elements of their writing – big and small – that they need to develop further. 

It’s not an easy thing to do. Students can and do get stuck at the very start of writing activities. Without clear direction, they can go off at a tangent, failing to identify exactly what is required of a particular task. They can also find themselves in a rut, writing repeatedly in only one or two forms.

How, then, can we help students to get the most out of a big picture writing approach? This is something we’re exploring further at EMC in a project that draws on our Just Write publication for Y7 and Y8 students. We’ve written a short sequence of lessons to go with the publication that teachers in three schools are trialling. We’ll review the sequence at the end of the project and make adjustments as necessary. If it seems to have worked, then we’ll make it generally available.

The project takes as inspiration the idea of inducting students into a ‘guild of writing’. We’ve borrowed the term from  English inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the English classroom, by Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam. They, in turn, credit the phrase to Royce Sadler’s paper, ‘Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems’. 

Guild knowledge is specialist knowledge held by experts in a particular field. English teachers, for example, hold specialist knowledge about how to teach and assess writing. This knowledge is so absorbed into their thinking in relation to writing that they can draw on it to judge a piece of work in its entirety without having to break it down into component parts. Somehow they just know its worth.

This might also be referred to as ‘tacit’ knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to express and is held as a kind of feeling or instinct, based on one’s own experience, wisdom, insight and intuition. It is often placed in opposition to explicit knowledge, which is easier to codify and pass on to others.

If entry into the ‘guild of writing’ is based on developing intuition and instinct, though, surely it is anathema to current teaching orthodoxy which places a lot of emphasis on the explicit? Such an orthodoxy has an obvious logic: you can’t teach tacit knowledge because it is intangible. So you teach (and measure) what you can teach – the explicit. 

What such logic doesn’t perhaps recognise sufficiently is that all knowledge is built on existing knowledge and that much of that knowledge is held tacitly. This is particularly the case with language, which we all acquire in one form or another at a young age without any explicit instruction, and which we can instinctively use and understand. For example, from a young age, we use language differently in different contexts, we recognise that how we speak affects how we are perceived by others and we take delight in wordplay. We can do all of these things without necessarily being able to articulate how we do them.

A big picture writing approach taps into the tacit knowledge about language that students already possess (often in abundance by secondary age) and helps them to develop it further. This can’t happen in a vacuum. It requires students to do more than just write. (The title of our book was never intended as an absolute instruction.) Instead, it requires them to reflect on what they have written, both on their own and in collaboration with classmates, as well as in conversation with their teacher. It treats them as apprentices on their way to joining the guild of writing. They do not sit outside that guild, ignorant of all aspects of language, but are instead placed within it, learning their trade alongside fully-fledged members.

The collaborative element is crucial. Full membership of the guild requires multiple exposures to writing in as many forms as possible. Teachers are experts at providing writing models, either ones they have crafted themselves, or that they have found in published material. But there is real value for students in reading and reflecting on each other’s work as well. Over time, it helps students evaluate work in all kinds of different ways. Is it a good example of this kind of writing? Is it something that I enjoyed reading? What did it do that was different to other writing that really made me interested in it? What tweaks could make it better? What form has it drawn on? What genre does it belong to? 

Obviously, we don’t want students to judge in the sense of offering criticism of their classmate’s work. Rather, we want them to judge in terms of providing helpful feedback. I really liked it when you ...  I wonder what would happen if you ... Have you thought about ... This reminds me of ... I was puzzled by … and so on. We also don’t see peer assessment as a one-way process, with one student offering advice to another. Instead, we see it as a process through which students discuss each other’s work in ways that produce new ideas and help to cement existing understanding, without always having to result in targets and points for development. Assessment might not even be the best term to use. Perhaps ‘workshopping’ would be more apposite.

Such peer discussions will help students to identify specific aspects of writing that they might want to work on further, but they will also help them to build their instinctive understanding of how writing works. It is a process that immerses them in practising, discussing and reflecting on writing. 

Our project doesn’t do away with some fairly conventional ways of working. For example, we’ve designed a simple self-assessment grid that encourages students to think about broad areas of writing such as generating ideas, planning, audience and structure (itemisation ‘in the most general terms’ to draw on the quotation that heads this blog). We’re slightly wary of doing this. Focusing even on such general areas discretely can take away from deep thinking about what’s really significant in any given piece of writing – something that is impossible to quantify exactly in any grid. However, we also think that to develop guild knowledge, students need the chance to grapple with some key generalities in order to develop their own instinctual understanding – and, in time, to move beyond them. The practice of generating ideas, for example, is foundational to any writing. If students aren’t sufficiently confident about this, then they’ll struggle to get a decent amount of writing done. That’s why we’ve covered it in the first two lessons and made it one of the key areas in the self-assessment grid.

Because the statements we use in the grid have been kept deliberately broad, students have to draw on existing tacit knowledge to think about exactly how they can apply a particular concept to their own work. And, crucially, they have to talk – talk a lot – about the statement or statements they’ve selected, so that they can come to an understanding of what it means for them in relation to a piece of work. The short statement then takes on much larger significance, generates much more thinking, than a much longer statement that tries to do the impossible – to codify exactly what goes into a particular aspect of writing.

A general statement like ‘I’m good at holding my audience’s attention’, for example, requires students to consider exactly how they will do this themselves. They can look through their work on their own, or preferably with others, and identify what they have done in relation to their desired reader, what works well, what doesn’t, and so on. They might use technical language to do this, they might simply reflect on the impact of particular words or phrases, the movement of their work, or any changes in direction. They can also reflect on what they could have done differently, what they might do to improve, and so on. All this discussion can take place within the general banner of ‘audience’, without the need to codify it precisely. All that students need when working like this is a workable sense of the word. 

Explicit and detailed examples about how to write for different audiences are definitely helpful in some contexts. But to develop guild knowledge, students need some opportunities to experience and feel how writing works. In secondary school, the vast majority of students will already have some sense of audience. They will also get the chance to hear their teacher and classmates talking about it during the course of the lessons and to use the term themselves. Consequently, they will have the chance to develop further the tacit understanding they start with in all kinds of ways.

The approach touched upon here, and expanded on in the work being trialled and in the suggested reading at the end of this blog, is one among many that students will need to experience if they are to become fully-fledged members of the guild of writing. We think it’s particularly important to flag up such an approach at the moment given that the discourse around explicit instruction is so dominant that it can make people wary of trying anything else.

Explicit instruction is often presented as a matter of social justice. Disadvantaged students, the argument goes, are less likely than others to possess the tacit knowledge required to succeed in a particular subject area. Consequently, they need lots of explicit instruction – often presented as ‘pre-learning’ – in order even to access a task. No assumptions can be made about what they already know. 

There’s lots to value in this approach. It challenges some of our underlying assumptions about what young people do and do not know; and it makes us think carefully about how to stage learning. However, if applied too rigidly to an area like writing, it risks widening rather than addressing social injustices. It presents particular groups of students as lacking knowledge almost entirely. Consequently, it ignores the existing knowledge – their rich language resources - that such students do bring to classrooms. Not only is this culturally alienating and offensive for the students, it is also educationally limiting. It reduces opportunities for their learning to develop, side-lining the very real, often very sophisticated tacit knowledge about language that they already possess and that they can only develop further if given the chance to draw on it when getting stuck into some writing of their own.

The 10-lesson sequence that we’ve put together for this project will, undoubtedly, be flawed in some ways. Trying to give form to the implicit and intangible is a process racked with its own internal contradictions. The sequence is an attempt to recognise that not everything about writing can be pinned down and codified, and to incorporate this into practical teaching strategies. We hope that this then helps to transform young apprentices into fully-fledged members of the guild of writing. 

[Thanks to several EMC colleagues for reading a draft of this blog and pushing it in different directions – an example, I think, of the kind of collaborative practices that the blog itself promotes!] 

Futher reading

Barbara Bleiman, Global moves and local operations - big picture thinking in English [blog]

Bethan Marshall + Dylan Wiliam. (2006). English Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the English Classroom. Granada Learning. [You can access a significant portion of this pamphlet in Google Books.]

Andrew McCallum, Developing one student's writing using EMC's Just Write [blog]

Andrew McCallum, Writing and the importance of self-regulation [blog]

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