Recent innovations in teaching give students the opportunity to think and explore.
This is Part 3 of our Shaping the Future of Learning series, in which we explore how various innovations and trends have shaped, and will continue to shape, the educational landscape. Part 2 explored the role of data in learning.
Do you know the history of the five-paragraph essay? It all began at Harvard University in 1884. The professors felt that incoming students were woefully unprepared for the demands of university writing and instituted a required course with one main objective: to teach students how to write “properly.” The course was rooted in the educational philosophy of current-traditionalism, which was defined by three core reading and writing practices:
How the Past Shapes our Future
Nearly 150 years later, popular writing support tools still scan documents for this format, and digitally-immersive CliffsNotes and SparkNotes are telling a new generation of students what they should take away from a reading. These practices and tools aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they continue to scaffold student learning in the same way they did back at Harvard.
As a former composition teacher for incoming college freshmen, I’ve seen firsthand how these same scaffolds can also be paralyzing. Many students get so caught up in writing “correctly,” trying to avoid the use of the word “I” in their writing, or trying to figure out what they are “supposed” to think and write, rather than engaging in the actual original thinking we want from them.
Present-Day Best Practice
For many of my students, college was their first exposure to more contemporary theories of composition, including social constructivism. Using a social constructivist lens, texts and knowledge are understood as products of society and meaning as contingent on community standards. In other words, what is appropriate, what is “correct,” varies based on the rhetorical situation: the writer, the audience, and the context for communicating.
For example, how perturbed were you by my use of the word “but” above as both a complete sentence and a paragraph? Grammarly, an advanced writing assistant software, wasn’t thrilled about it. My guess is that you gave me a pass on this technically incorrect use of syntax for one or more of three reasons:
In other words, you gave me a pass because of the context, because of who I am as a writer, or because of who you are as my audience. In this case, the rhetorical situation made my one-paragraph “but” acceptable.
I confidently rejected Grammarly’s suggestion to replace “but” with a full sentence as a result of the metacognition I’ve developed over decades of writing experience. I knew my goal here was to emphasize a problem and to help transition readers into the solution. Many of our students don’t have the luxury of this kind of metacognition. Helping students develop it requires us to constantly explore the rhetorical situation of a given writing occasion. That we constantly give them an opportunity to see “correctness” as socially-constructed rather than prescribed.
Shaping the Future
Our Mirrors and Windows language arts curriculum is designed to do just that. In addition to supporting students to derive their own meaning from text, it harnesses the power of technology to showcase the social nature of knowledge in action.
For example, our eReaders include “socialize” and “class mode” features, so students can see each other’s annotations, ask questions in real time, and generate a “heat map” showing areas of the text that were most highlighted and commented on. Rather than emphasizing correctness, our eReaders emphasize critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication—four essential 21st century skills.
Twenty-first century skills are the antithesis of “correctness,” and they’re meant to empower students to be game changers, entrepreneurs, and outside-the-box thinkers. Those Harvard scaffolds support students in their entry to literary thinking, but we have to exercise caution that they don’t stunt that thinking in the process. If we scaffold while still encouraging them to question and experiment, then today’s students will continue to move the concept of “correctness” forward in a positive and productive way.
Dr. Barrie Olson ensures that the design and delivery of Carnegie Learning’s ELA resources support our vision of equity for all students and support for all educators. Prior to joining Carnegie Learning, Barrie was the Chief Academic Officer at the Literacy Design Collaborative, an educational non-profit dedicated to eliminating opportunity gaps by ensuring that every student is able to engage in rigorous and authentic-to-the-discipline standards-driven reading and writing assignments.Explore more related to this author
What is appropriate, what is “correct,” varies based on the rhetorical situation: the writer, the audience, and the context for communicating.
Dr. Barrie Olson