Students in face masks attend a class, in Ahmedabad, January 11, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave/File Photo
“We are barely keeping up during this pandemic, writing is a luxury we can’t afford,” the school principal said to me with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. I had asked him about writing, that is, if he, his teachers, and his students had focused on writing about and during the pandemic. In his reply, he listed all the difficulties in keeping a school running and balancing the needs of teachers, parents, students and the government. Writing, unless mandated, was not on his things-to-do list. He took a deep breath and heaved a sigh as if to blow away my question. But then, was he right to dismiss writing as a ‘luxury’?
As a teacher, university faculty, and researcher, I find writing as a pillar of teaching-learning and to dismiss it as a luxury is like removing the column that will crash the structure of instruction. But the principal is not entirely wrong either because writing is often perceived in limited ways in instruction- teachers writing on the blackboard and the students copying these words and drawings to aid memory. Or, the use of writing in homework and exams to show what has been understood.
In contrast, imagine entering a classroom where the only sound is the scribbling of pens on paper. You walk around and ‘see’ the thinking as it emerges in student notebooks. No longer restrained to copying words from a blackboard or regurgitating facts on an exam paper, writing becomes thinking and meaning making in action. Therein lies a glimpse of the immense power of writing, and if we want, it can harness this power tomorrow.
Let us explore what research reveals about writing, then consider how educators can benefit, and finally what we can and must do to remedy the writing famine.
First, studies have shown that as you write, you change what you are thinking, which changes what you write, and the cycle goes on. When you scribble down the bubbling streams of thoughts, forming into words on the page, you begin to change these thought streams, allow new pathways to emerge and cleanse the rutted paths of repetitive thought. You may try this now by writing down your favourite childhood memory. As you write, you may start creating a narrative that simply thinking is unlikely to have yielded. You transform your thinking as you write.
But there is little transformation when we ask students to note down exactly what is written on the blackboard or presentation slide to keep a record of what is told or, worse, to prove that teaching happened. This writing is the opposite of educate which comes from the word educe, or to draw out. Such writing dulls and demotivates because there is no inducement, no kindling of the child’s desire, or building on her latent knowledge. No wonder many teachers find their students scoring low in exams even though the student notebooks have all the knowledge titbits copied down faithfully from the blackboard. Writing in such cases was never conceived and used for discovery and understanding.
The discovery and understanding from writing also heals emotional wounds. During the pandemic, writing has kept people mentally healthy because it gave their feelings an expression, their minds a focus, and their lives a cohesive narrative. We, as humans, create stories of our life’s journey and writing helps navigate the rough patches. James Pennebaker’s research, which has been replicated in many other studies, proves that simply writing about your trauma can heal them.
Second, writing distributes and deepens cognition. When the server at a bustling restaurant takes your customized order (less oil, more chillies, no garlic, replace meat with eggs) in a mini notepad and then tears the page off to hang it in the kitchen- writing allows cognition to be distributed seamlessly across the whole restaurant including the cook, the person serving the order, and the cashier. The simple scribbles have amplified discernment, analysis, and synthesis of information.
But that is not how we treat writing when we focus exclusively on aspects such as how cursive the letters are, how pretty the chartwork looks, or whether the math equation is written legibly. Useful aspects, but to focus exclusively on them and fill the student notebook with red (look-here’s-a-mistake) circles is to miss the underlying beauty of writing. Worse, those red circles teach us to hate writing and haunt us in adulthood where we rationalize to do as little writing as possible because of the pain of criticism it evokes. Ironically, it is the insistence on beautiful handwriting that schools might develop a revulsion to write.
How is writing beneficial for educators? Writing supports reflection-on-action and is an analytical tool to assess teaching. Soon after implementing a lesson plan, writing can create space to reflect on which teaching decisions were taken and how they shaped the instruction. Writing allows aha! moments about teaching assumptions because it forces us to pause.
Writing also reveals the inside story of teaching. For example, if you see that students have written down varying- but equally correct, understandable definitions and examples of the same concept and the teacher has written detailed observations in their notebooks, then teaching is sincere, creative, and meaningful. If all the notebooks are replicas of the same content or are dominated only by red circles showcasing errors, then classroom instruction must change.
For schools that believe that you ‘need’ the latest tech gizmo – here is the final clincher: writing costs less than a packet of potato chips, requires no setup and can be done almost anywhere.
So, why don’t educators write more? Besides the pain of being criticized or discovering that our grand ideas in the head are not that coherent or practical, the biggest challenges to writing are waiting for inspiration or calling writing an elite art form. But inspiration usually comes ‘after’ you begin writing, not before. Plus, the myth of writing as an elite activity reserved for the ‘writers’ is like reserving art only for artists. According to Brenda Ueland, “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”
To get happily absorbed in stringing the beads of writing, I offer three ideas:
1. Do low-stakes freewriting – writing without judgement just to experience the joy of writing and get into the flow. This writing is only for you, but you have to write without pausing- write the same word if you feel stuck. I have found that children would often continue such writing even after the designated 40 minute periods were over.
2. Try reflection-on-action. On the left page of your notebook write something which happened and the right page reflects on each action. Make time for this as you are sipping your tea in the staff room or before the morning meetings hit you as a principal.
3. Create collaborative writing time. Mandate a 20-minute slot when everyone writes. The silence and focus will be educational.
Writing, if used authentically, is an educational powerhouse. It is not a luxury; it is necessary to help live a more meaningful personal and professional life- which is a key objective of good education. And since education is not limited to schools, may I urge you to write because writing is a necessity, almost like sleeping. If you don’t do it, sooner or later, it will make you weary and foggy. There used to be a time when being gifted a fountain pen made us happy. Let us rediscover why.
Gopal Midha holds a PhD in educational leadership from the University of Virginia. He is currently setting up a Center for Research on School Leadership in Goa.