Writing to Heal

In a teacher recruitment interview a few days ago, the issue of children who lack the motivation to learn writing came up. This teacher was not unusual in advocating ‘more practice’ and various process oriented responses to get the child to do more of the activities that would eventually manifest in the ability to write.

These, I find, are the typical responses – if what we’ve done with the child so far isn’t working – do more of it, push harder, take a more pro-active stance, but by hook or by crook we will make the process happen. These kinds of perspectives are inevitable in a system that sees teaching as what matters (as opposed to learning). This approach says, essentially – it’s on the syllabus, all the children will learn it. Next – if most have learned it, any who haven’t are in some way or other inconvenient misfits. Compliance, consistency and the regulated outcomes of the factory are what we appreciate and value. And so, the quality control, remediation process commences as we, the educators, seek to bend the child in to conformity and consistency.

Even if we are successful, what have we done to the child? What have we lead them to believe about themselves or about the learning process? Phrases like, “I’m not very good at this school learning stuff,” “learning for me happens when someone older and wiser makes it happen,” “learning is something that has to be done to me, for my own good, not something i do for my own good.” Should we really be surprised if these turn out to be self-fulfilling prophesies?

Barring cases of severe mental or physical retardation, did you ever see a child that failed to learn to walk? I’m guessing not. That said, you might have seen plenty of children who would have been defined as failing if they didn’t walk among the first batch of their age peer cohort. My understanding is that walking starts between 9 and 16 months from birth. If we educators got to interfere in the process I suspect that by month 14 all those children who weren’t achieving at least a B grade for walking competence would be in remedial class, being set extra practice and would get to hear themselves talked about as a ‘late developer’ and ‘low achiever’ by educators and parents in not so hushed whispers! Who knows, if we could really get our hands dirty, some of them might be inclined to give up on the whole idea of walking completely.

The same could go for speaking.

And yet, aren’t these the very responses that come from the industrialised model of education when a child is ‘late’ in developing the skills of reading or writing? Should we wonder that in countries like UK and USA where there is decent quality school education, free for all, there is 20%+ functional illiteracy in the society? Isn’t this criminal?

The first major issue, to me, is that with us staying out of the process children graduate from crawling and bottom sliding to walking when their brain has reached the development stage to have the appropriate neural network to support the sophisticated process of walking. When this happens over the extended time period mentioned above seems to make no difference whatsoever to their eventual level of competence as walkers – it’s not as though late walkers are destined to be poor ‘D’ grade walkers for the rest of their lives. So, when the network’s right, it will happen.

The second major issue, to me, is motivation. Now, to the industrialised model of education this whole matter of motivation is way too fuzzy, unmeasurable and therefore something to be squeezed out of the process and/ or ignored as much as possible.

When a child is crawling they come to realise that this is only partially effective. There are too many interesting things that arouse their curiosity that remain out of their reach. Crawling has severe speed limitations. The child has the desire to move faster, to keep up with older children, to go where the big people do, to move away from being held and to move and explore the world around independently. All of these things add up to enormous levels of motivation that spur the child through the immense learning required to master walking.

Similar can be said for oral communication. The child develops a massive desire to communicate; to express physical needs, to share feelings and emotions, to join in and feel connected to all the other people around who are using language and oral communication to share things. This all adds up to vast levels of motivation that provide the spur for the child to work through the most challenging aspects of mastering the monumental skills required for oral communication and language learning.

Then we come back to writing. My concern here is how much time teachers spend talking with children about issues of motive and motivation when it comes to writing. The expressions on some small children’s faces when you see them in class made to do endless repetition of forming a particular letter appear almost bemused – as though they are being subjected to some form of bizarre, repetitive process that seems to have little or no purpose. In such circumstances, should we wonder that so many lose their enthusiasm so quickly? Should we be surprised when we hear teachers through all the Primary school years saying of a child, “He/ she doesn’t want to write, but he/ she’s quite happy sharing his/ her ideas when speaking.”

How long could you or I sustain enthusiastic practice for some form of repetitive practice for which we didn’t believe we had any purpose, desire or wish. Worse, we can see and think of a whole variety of things we would rather be doing. Is the child to be turned in to a ‘pleaser’ by the fact that the biggest motivation they can identify for writing is it seems to keep the adults happy/ stop them getting angry at me?

There’s something else that tests a child’s motivation for writing in the early stages – what they write doesn’t look very beautiful/ perfect/ aesthetic and it certainly looks like a poor version of what they see adults and teachers producing. If we paid more attention to motivation, I think we’d pay more attention to these things. We’d be more likely to spot the signs when a child is struggling to maintain the motivation or finding it difficult to make the mental connections between the processes they’re being asked to do and the practice of capturing one’s ideas, stories, messages and feelings permanently for communication to one or many others. And, educators would focus far more on strategies to help with that motivation.

I’ve read a few times and had first hand experience of the joy a child experiences when their oral rendition of some idea or a story is captured for them by an adult (either with pen and paper or on a keyboard), then maybe decorated with a nice font, a border, maybe a relevant picture and printed off. Suddenly, the child has a full and complete mental connection with the power of the written word and the endless possibilities that lie ahead for them when they master the skills of writing.

As children get older, we need to share with them the full multitude of ways that people use the written word to communicate. We need them to know and recognise that the people who write books are not ‘gods’ or unreachable heroes on pedestals, but normal people like them with ideas they want to share and who have mastered the skills to do so in ways that reach out to others and touch something deep in them.

Even adults these days say they don’t write very often and struggle to find the motivation to do so (said I as I approach 850 articles on this blog!). Well, for any of the adult readers who need the motivation to write, here’s a nice article i came across that mirrored some of the evidence I’ve read in the books of Tal Ben-Shahar on happiness.

Mic – Science Reveals Qualities in Those Who Love to Write
(Click on the link above to read the article)

We’ll know when we’re genuinely breaking away from industrialised ‘one-size-fits-all’ models of education when children’s motivation gets respected as a critical factor in the development of writing (and reading) skills. Then, I believe more children will grow up to be far better and far happier readers and writers.


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