What’s This Digital Writing Stuff, Anyway?

It is better to prevent evil, when can, than to attempt to cure it.I’m speaking tomorrow with my wife’s college course for preservice teachers on the teaching of writing. I’m the featured expert on “digital writing.”

Whatever that is.

Over the last week, the students in the course have been jotting some questions and thoughts down on a Google doc in preparation for the session. I basically asked what it was they wanted to know about, because we have an hour to talk about what I’ve spent an awful lot of the last ten years of my live worrying and working on.

And as I’m prepping for just what I want to leave them with in the fifty five minutes, minus announcements and time for whatever else will come up tomorrow, I’m thinking hard about just what it is about “digital writing” that’s worth wondering and worrying about amidst the eight hundred thousand other odd things rolling around in a teacher’s mind as they begin a career of working with young people.

As I sketched out some ideas and a plan of action on a pad of paper with a freshly inked fountain pen, I was reminded that someone’s new toy is always someone else’s essential tool. And vice versa.

It’s not the digital of digital writing that matters. It’s the writing.

We’ve1 always been fumbling with whatever we’ve had available to us to use to communicate with each other, and to leave a mark beyond ourselves. The exploration of tools for communication beyond our voices in a crowded room is a five thousand year old pursuit. Paint. Sticks. Pencils. Cursors. Whatever we can get our hands on – we’ll write with it.

It’s rather silly sometimes to pretend that it’s only in the last five years or so any of that fumbling and reaching has actually changed the nature of the game. But that’s what we do. Every five years or so.

The nature of the game is that it’s always been changing, and teachers have always been fighting to make sure that we all use the same tools the right way, or that we only use the tools in the ways that the folks who teach the tools are comfortable with. Today’s “digital” is yesterday’s “ink” is tomorrow’s “3d2”.

William Alcott was a teacher in the 1840s who I often point people to when they get stuck on how different right now is from any other time in human history3. He wrote an engaging book on the integration into instruction of a new and modern technology of his time – the blackboard.  It’s worth your time.

He opens the book with fine advice for anyone seeking the answers to how best to teach digital writing today:

Should the teacher who takes up these “Exercises,” attend to the suggestions I have made both in this preface, and in several of the chapters, and instead of following, mechanically, the methods which are pointed out, attend rather to the principles of which these exercises are intended as illustrations, and thus be led to form his own plans and methods, my object will be far more perfectly accomplished than if he should transfer its scanty exercises to the black board, and there let the matter end. . . . Hardly any mistake could be greater than for the teacher, who should take up a book like this, to adopt its various methods without reference to existing circumstances.

Our contexts matter, folks. The why and what and whom we are writing for. That doesn’t change when there’s a tablet, a stylus, a camera, a keyboard or a piece of chalk in play as the primary writing tool. The differences with those tools are matters of technique. Matters we’d all be better off taking up once we’ve actually gotten serious about making sure our classrooms are places of deep creation, revision, and sharing.

So write on, with whatever you’ve got, is what I’ll say to those preservice teachers. Write and explore writing environments with your students. Play with lots of tools and toys and make the one that work for you your own. But try hard to figure out why the others don’t work for you – and who they might work for. And don’t bother teaching students how to write unless you’re writing yourself.

Maybe it’d be easier to just tell them to get to work on their Twitter accounts instead.

  1. The collective, societal we of all the people, ever. []
  2. Maybe. But probably something else. We are bad at predictions, too. []
  3. All the times have been more different than any other time in human history. Ours is a rich and fascinating tapestry, made no less extraordinary or fascinating by the fact that our shared sameness is actually the change we swear is different. []
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Investing Meaning, Clarifying Objectives, and Remembering Care

No one has come out openly for the smashing of television receivers, teaching machines, or even computers, but there is an uneasy feeling among some educators that technology is dehumanizing education.  There is conversion that the student is becoming a programmed robot; that decision making in matters of school management, methodology, and even curriculum, is slipping into the hands in impersonalized computer-programmers; and that the ever-widening, ever more rapid flood of electronic, photography, magnetic, automated instructional systems is turning the teacher into a button pusher.  

The business of education is to invest experience with meaning and organize it in a way which will expand the individual’s capacity for further learning.  Developments in educational technology are amplifying and accelerating this process.  

The significant effect has been to force both teachers and learners to clarify their objectives and methods, and assume more, not less, responsibility in the search for leaning in a world of ambiguity, change and stress.  

The sophistication and proliferation of machines, and more carefully designed media programs offer no hope at all to those who believe that someday man’s thinking will be done for him.  

“Machines, Media, and Learning,” Robert W. Wagner, Educational Leadership, March 1966

I came across the above passage while I was searching through some old EL back issues this weekend.  My original quest was to find older articles on writing instruction.  Then I slipped into looking for past articles about technological developments.1 I love the two purposes for education and teachers therein – the business of education being to invest experience with meaning and the idea that teachers and learners should clarify their objectives and methods.

Let’s be intentional.  Good reminder, and one I incorporated into a talk I gave today to my colleagues regarding what we should be focusing on now that we’ve distributed iPads to our middle school students.  The tablets by themselves won’t change a thing about instruction.  But they’ll give us some new opportunities and options.  Let’s be intentional about what we do with them.2

Tonight, as I reviewed Audrey’s keynote on “Ed Tech’s Monsters,” I found a third purpose that seems connected to the first two.  Or I liked it because Audrey and I share a fascination with the revolutions of the past and how similar they are to the revolutions of today, particularly in the “there’s never been anything like this”-ness of them that turns out to be repeated over and over and over.

Her added purpose was, and I’m taking this a bit out of context – you should really read her entire talk:

To be clear, my nod to the Luddites or to Frankenstein isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation. It is about rejecting an uncritical and unexamined belief in progress. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that we have pretended like it is truth and divorced from responsibility, from love, from politics, from care. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that it does not, despite its insistence, give us “the answer.” 

And that is problem with ed-tech’s monsters. That is the problem with teaching machines.

In order to automate education, must we see knowledge in a certain way, as certain: atomistic, programmable, deliverable, hierarchical, fixed, measurable, non-negotiable? In order to automate that knowledge, what happens to care?

I wonder about love and care and their place in teaching and learning.  I wonder about how we make sure to invest experiences with meaning and create capacity for further learning.  I want teachers and students both to think hard – very, very hard – about their objectives and the way they approach them.

As I’m beginning a new school year with plenty of new challenges, one of which is my struggle of late to document and reflect upon my experiences, I feel like these are worthy purposes to ponder a bit right now.

So that’s what I’m doing.

  1. Found some fascinating pieces on the need for audio-visual staff in schools in the 1940s. []
  2. We’ve, of course, been down the “this new thing will change everything” rhetoric before.  And before.  But nothing much changes.  We incorporate the new technology into some old (often bad, but sometimes good) habits.  Then hope for the next thing. Let’s stop hoping and start doing. []
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