Helping children to plan their writing- 35 years of getting it wrong

Blake’s Newton, measuring the Universe

For much of my career I was a moderator for one of the big exam boards for GCSE English and part of the job every October was to chair a regional meeting of schools to go through a variety of agenda items to help schools to prepare their students to successfully navigate the exams and coursework (or controlled assessments) in the coming year. They were to learn the lessons of the cohort just gone and a key weapon in the battle to teach them those lessons was the Chief Examiner’s report, which distilled the main messages from the national data. It was a hugely useful process and was largely responsible for the year on year improvement in outcomes achieved by students. (I’ll draw a tactful veil over the canny manipulation of the marking tolerances and the blancmange-like rigour of the Speaking and Listening moderation that also played a part. That is, perhaps, for another blog, when I’m feeling stronger.)

Year after year the Chief Examiner banged on about the same issues. Every year he identified what he saw as the game changer as far as English Language results were concerned. Every year I reinforced this message in the regional meeting. Every year I strove to enact this pearl of wisdom in my own classroom. What was it, this Holy Grail of GCSE English teaching, this elusive crock of gold at the end of the rainbow?

Planning writing.

They look so simple, those two little words written down in black and white. Simplistic, even, as a panacea for underachievement in GCSE English. But behind those two little words lies struggle, pain, resistance, frustration, anger, resentment, incomprehension, stretching back years. If you are an English teacher who has ever tried to prepare a class for an upcoming English Language examination, you will surely recognise the following scenarios.

Put simply, I have never, in any of the last 35 years, introduced the concept of planning writing as a step to writing better, without it being greeted by students in the same way that every group of teachers in a training session respond to the prospect of Role Play. With horror. Without fail, the following questions are asked and points raised:

  • I can’t plan. I don’t know how to.
  • I never follow the plan, Miss, so what’s the point?
  • Do you get marks for the plan?

Of course, as a fully paid up member of the liberal metropolitan elite, I have consistently delivered the standard, honest answer to this last question. That is, I have explained in painstaking detail that no, actually, no marks are awarded for the plan, but that writing that has been planned is always better than writing that has not. I’ve supplemented this with reference to the Chief Examiner’s report, sometimes going to the trouble of distributing copies of it, or in latter years, displaying the relevant section on the Whiteboard. This often leads to classic teacher sarcasm: “Of course, (insert student’s name), if you think that you know better than both myself and the actual Chief Examiner, who have been doing this stuff for over thirty years whereas you are barely out of nappies and have done the GCSE , let me see how many times is it? Oh yes, you’ve never done it have you?  Then by all means go ahead and completely ignore our professional advice and just make it up as you go along and see what happens. This produces the following response, brutal in its logic:

So, I don’t really have to plan then?

On a couple of occasions, unable to bear this ridiculous exchange another time, I just lied, and said, without skipping a beat, “Oh Yes, of course you get marks for writing a plan.” Then I would put up with the liberal guilt about ethical behaviour as a teacher before eventually going back the original approach the following year, shamefaced.

Early doors, I used to be moved by the first of the examples above, the idea that no-one had taught them to plan, so of course they would be resistant. In this scenario, I could cast myself as the hero, who could save the disadvantaged from their own lack of cultural capital by actually opening the gate to the secret garden of middle-class academic knowledge and take them through the basic steps of planning. This would inevitably furnish them with the transferable skills that allowed them to structure their thinking and their writing in English and every other academic discipline. And so, I devised over time a series of imaginative approaches to planning, which resulted in this terrible and embarrassing flowchart of the planning sequence:

  • Spider diagrams.
  • Amending
  • Deleting
  • Synthesising
  • Sequencing
  • Numbering
  • Ticking off

It was surely only a matter of time before a lucrative book contract landed on my hallway floorboards to be followed by a regular series of training events based on a whizzy powerpoint presentation and a glossy ringbinder. Fame and fortune awaited.

I would spend a few lessons on this, only to find when I received the exam papers, that out of a class of thirty students, only three had written a plan. Did I dream that sequence of lessons? Was I actually in the room? Or was I just a shit teacher?

This pantomime carried on for years, surviving a range of different approaches, none of which had any discernible impact on the students’ practice. In the end, it was one of the many things that had ossified in my teaching, into another example of stuff that could be categorised as, “Oh well, that’s just the way it is in reality.” I kept on doing the same stuff, even though I knew it didn’t work. It was a tired recognition that teaching is a difficult process of alchemy, and that sometimes we have to acknowledge the limits of our influence. The best laid plans (no pun intended) and all of that.

And then, eventually, I retired, satisfied that, all things considered, I had done a pretty good job over the previous thirty-five years. Early in my retirement, I started to dabble with creative writing: short stories, poems, novels. I reasoned that the excuse of being too busy just didn’t hold water anymore, so I did a bit of internet research (a classic delaying tactic this) and then sat in front of my laptop staring at the screen, not allowing myself to get up and walk away until I had produced some writing. A paragraph or two, at least.

What did I have in my locker that persuaded me I might be able to write creatively? I had not joined a writers’ group, I had not done any kind of creative writing course. No, I was convinced by my thirty-five years of teaching children to write, my three years of studying English Literature at University and a lifetime of reading books of every type and genre. The craft of writing? Pah! Either you’re touched by the muse, or you’re not. Ah, the arrogance! I sat, staring at the laptop for a very long time.

Then it came to me. Of course! A plan! I had to write a plan before I could come up with anything even vaguely coherent. Wasn’t that what I’d been boring young people to death with for all those years? And if it was good practice for them as writers, then surely it would be good practice for me. I had read in the weekend papers many times, interviews with authors promoting their latest book who talked about their meticulous approach to planning. Index cards. Exercise books, colour coded for plot, character, theme. Every last thread spun and tied up neatly by the end. And it was clear that their planning process must work because they were proper writers, with books on the shelves and everything. And once this intense planning had been completed, with eyes closed and chin on finger tips, Sherlock Holmes style, then the writing could begin. And now, it would be a doddle, simply a matter of splurging all those great thoughts onto the paper, ticking off each subsequent element of the plan as it was completed, just like I advised my students to do.

And then, with the wet slap across the face of epiphany, I realised.

Planning doesn’t work. At least not the kind of planning I had been teaching for years.

Obviously, it didn’t work. Leaving aside for the moment the idiocy of testing creative writing via a 45 minute slot in an exam hall, even with unlimited thinking time you couldn’t easily plan every detail of, say, a short story. Or if you did, you would be planning out the magic that is produced by the act of writing itself. Functional, sequential planning has its place in producing transactional writing, when it is simply a matter of ordering and clarifying one’s thoughts, but creative writing is a very different process and does not bend to the same rules and regulations.

I’m with Philip Pulman on this. In a recent interview in The Guardian to promote his latest book, The Secret Commonwealth, he pleasingly berates the functionalists who are currently having a moment in the sun at the expense of school children across the UK. Their niggardly focus on the naming of parts and their slavish insistence that the main function of a piece of writing is to show off the writer’s grasp of the full range of punctuation is rightly blasted. But he is also very interesting on the notion of planning. It’s right at the end of the interview (link below). Have a look.

What I’ve discovered over the past nearly three years is that the planning process for fiction does exist, but that it is bespoke to the writer. I’ll tell you what works for me. It might work for some kids and some other adults, but there’s no guarantee.

The impulse to write comes, for me, from a very strong image of a situation. It could be anything – an atmosphere, a dilemma, a relationship, a texture. From that a story emerges. First the characters and their relationships. Then the skeleton of the plot. Then the next layer of characters. In the course of that process, the story and the subplot start to take roots, but as gardeners everywhere will know, plants are unruly beasts and go where they want. So the vivid image of the starting point, (which may not end up as the start of the story at all) is accompanied by a strong sense of the end point. As a writer, I know where the thing is headed, I’m just open to the route we take. There may be a couple of other definite waypoints (or Vias as the SATNav would have it). Other vivid scenes that have to be navigated around. And no, despite the scornful reaction of some of my friends when discussing this, this is not just a pretentious version of making it up as you go along. It’s surrendering yourself to the process. The act of writing generates ideas that are generally better than those produced by the act of thinking.

When I started the process of trying to write fiction, I read a piece by D B C Pierre, the Canadian author, on starting to write. It was extremely helpful, particularly his metaphor of compost, of all things. Just write, he advised. Enjoy the sense of your growing wordcount. At some stage you will hit a critical point where, like compost heap, you will have accumulated enough copy for it to start to react, to spontaneously breakdown in a process of decomposition, producing something entirely other than that which you started with. And then eventually, when it seems as if you have written something that you are pleased with, that means something to you, that you would like to read, you can begin the real work, the hard work of turning all of that compost into something that somebody else might conceivably want to read as well.

And so it has proved. From a strong image, a sense of the resolution, and a couple more luminous scenes en route, fiction has emerged, almost without my agency, and certainly without detailed planning. And how I wish I could go back and rethink all of those well-meaning lessons on students  planning their writing. Because, unfortunately, they are still saddled with the insanity of having to produce some piece of “Creative” writing in about 45 minutes of exam silence. And that means English teachers have a moral responsibility to prepare them to do it as well they can.

So what practical lessons do I glean from this revelation? I still teach English, as well as writing myself, and I still desperately want my students to do well. I keep it much simpler now and focus on those key elements:

  • An arresting scene, full of texture and atmosphere. Often the opening paragraph.
  • Two or three characters, their relationships and potential conflict
  • A final resolution. Even a last paragraph to work towards, a pole star to help them steer the ship
  • A balance between description and dialogue.
  • Avoid back story
  • Show not Tell

And then, the last piece of advice to be ringing in their ears as they enter the exam hall: Let the writing take you where it will, as long as you reach that last paragraph. And it’s still a nonsense, to ask children to write creatively in these conditions, as a means of ranking them. It will produce a lot of stuff that wasn’t worth their bother: formulaic, trite, cliched. Perfectly suited to an exam devised on exactly the same lines. But at least they might enjoy it a little more and not be too worried about synthesis and sequencing.

And some of them might, just might, want to keep writing.

Research, Rhetoric and The Two Tribes

When you’re a relative newcomer to Edutwitter, one of the things that first strikes you is the starkly polarised positions taken on a series of crucial issues. The second thing is the absolute sense of certainty that often accompanies these positions. Even down to the Middle Way Tribe, the natural Liberal Democrats of policy discussion, who insist, with a near religious fervour, that things are not as simple as the progressives versus the traditionalists, but that the only thing that matters is what works. For the purposes of this article (and as a handy guide to how to live your life honestly), I’m going to acknowledge only the existence of the two tribes. They are the only ones that matter. The Lib Dems have an inadequate ideological analysis and really should just make their minds up and stop splitting the left vote.

Frankly, I think that, actually, it is that simple, but that is a subject for a future blog all on its own. For the moment I’ll confine myself  to looking at one particular topic: Research. In the last few months, I’ve read industrial quantities of effluent written on this topic. Apparently, research into teaching techniques, strategies and approaches that are effective is going to save the world. Also apparently, this is a new thing, instigated by the intellectually rigorous proponents of the new brutalism. You know the kind of thing: Direct instruction. Zero Tolerance. Flattening the Grass. Knowledge rich curricula. (To be clear, I can accept the relevance of Direct Instruction and Knowledge Rich curricula, but not the idea they didn’t happen before and that other approaches can’t coexist with them)

The New Brutalists are very clear about what used to happen in the olden days. In the old days, teachers, who saw themselves as “Facilitators”, didn’t teach facts or knowledge of any kind because it was “oppressive”. Students (oops, that’s a give away to the brutalist thought police), sorry, I mean pupils, were just sat randomly in groups spreading their ignorance thinly, through unguided aimless chat, that might have been in informal language, liberally sprinkled with “like”s and “innit”s and “Y’knowwhatimean”s.

These practices were pursued at the behest of a Marxist teacher training programme, propagated by bearded lecturers who had drank their fill of Paulo Freire and Paul Willis and were readying for the imminent overthrow of society and to hell with grammar and the Oxford Comma. Now, thank the lord, teachers, parents and students have been rescued from this knowledge -free hell because modern teachers who have read Daisy Christodolou and admire Katherine Birbalsingh, realise that there is research- based evidence that validates back to basics practice instead. There was a tweet from one of them the other day (can’t remember which, sorry) along these lines that made me think that they were once asked by their teacher training mentor to do some role play in the classroom and they have never recovered from the trauma of the experience. Rather than pay for therapy they are working through their trauma by inflicting more of it on the students and staff they come across in their day jobs. And let me get my apology in now to save time in the long run. That’s to therapists, people in therapy, and Daisy and Katherine themselves. I’m sure they are wonderful human beings and they are clearly committed educationalists, it’s just their ideas I object to.

I read one tweet the other day that suggested that there is no excuse any more for persisting with outdated strategies in the classroom when there is a wealth of evidence about what works in terms of maximising learning. It went on to characterise the previous twenty years (probably about 1990 – 2010) as a quicksand of myth and progressive sleight of hand. What utter nonsense. People who promulgate this view generally fall into one of two camps. Either they are hopelessly naïve and gullible, and genuinely believe that they are the chosen people who have been shown the true way. The metaphor is deliberately chosen because they do tend to have the certainty of the religious convert. It baffles me what they think was going on in classrooms back in the day and why adults in their late twenties/early thirties aren’t wandering around bumping into walls, slack jawed and knuckle dragging, like the zombie apocalypse, so inadequate was their education.

The other group are evangelists for basic skills, standards and tradition. This is packaged as concern for the education of the working classes, who, they say with great certainty, have been let down by trendy, progressive teachers because they don’t confidently use Standard English, don’t have any familiarity with classical music, and haven’t read Milton. They name drop Hirsch, as if this is the clincher in their argument. Anything that might be cited as evidence of growing levels of achievement of this group is dismissed as being actually only evidence of the grade inflation and dumbing down that Michael Gove, God bless his sainted soul, so heroically rescued us all from.

I don’t mind this cultural war. You can’t take the victories of the past for granted and the tide of ideas will always ebb and flow. I actually prefer it to the dishonesty of how the war is actually presented, that is, as proven methods of teaching versus ideologically- inspired incompetence. A more honest approach recognises that it is a conflict between two ideologies.

And the key weapon in this war is research. I was going to say phony war, but that would be wrong. The war is real, but the key weapon is phony. And many of us have used it ourselves, as an invaluable tool in justifying changes to practice.

I’ve done loads of staff training events in various incarnations in the past: Advanced Skills Teacher, Senior GCSE English examination/Coursework Advisor, Deputy Headteacher, Teacher Trainer. I’ve lost count of the number of times, particularly when launching a new whole school change to classroom practice, that I have used the phrase, “The research comprehensively shows…” or “The research is absolutely clear on this”. I’ve heard it used for the same purpose by many presenters much more august and skilled than me.

And it’s purpose is plainly rhetorical. It’s a device. A flourish. A swagger. It’s signalling to the doubters in the audience that they should hold their tongue, review their opposition to this mad new whole school idea, and listen. Why? Because there is, apparently, a wealth of evidence available, generated by very clever academics, that proves beyond doubt that this particular approach works. It raises achievement, the holy grail for all teachers and senior leaders. And evidence is the hallmark of rational beings, isn’t it?

The trouble is that research evidence has never comprehensively proven anything. A research project helps us make informed decisions, along with all the other research projects on the same or related topics, many of which will contradict the first one. Of course, one should review research evidence and measure it against your own practice and practice you have observed in other settings, and use that process to come to a decision, but don’t fool yourself that that decision is neutral, objective and factual.

Research is very often commissioned to “prove” a classroom approach that someone has already decided is the right way to do things. Research findings are always open to interpretation. What does this mean in terms of classroom practice? What do we have to do differently? And those questions always give rise to ideology. And because of both the way research originates and the way it is interpreted, it’s obvious that research, far from providing unchallengeable answers, is by definition, contested.

And you can see this all over twitter and the blog posts of the influencers in education. People highlight the research they approve of and bury the research they disagree with. Or, they rubbish it: the sample size, the methodology, the people who commissioned it, the interpretation, the premise, anything as long as they have thrown doubt on its findings. Now “Research” is available that rubbishes even Carol Dweck’s (@caroldweck) work.

Scorn is poured these days on some of the practices of yesterday: things like Learning Styles, Brain Gym, Accelerated Learning, Group discussion etc. People are incredulous that teachers of yesteryear implemented all of that with no research to back it up, and they smugly position themselves as wise people who would never make the same mistake again. The inconvenient fact is though, that there was a mass of research evidence cited for these things. Just look at the reference lists in Alastair Smith’s books. (@alatalite) The thing was that the research was not questioned rigorously enough and that it has since been superceded. Who’s to say that the same thing will not happen to the research so confidently championed today?

I’m pretty sure that those people who champion Direct Instruction, Knowledge Rich Curricula, Mastery Assessment, Zero Tolerance Behaviour regimes etc are also largely the people who are in favour of uniform, or setting, despite the fact that there is next to no research evidence that proves that they impact positively on achievement. I’m also pretty sure that as I’m writing this, there are people also typing away, desperately commissioning research to do just that.

So, I’d really like the Education community to move to a position where we are much more balanced about practice and its evidence base. To be more inclusive of a range of approaches that the classroom teacher can select from and combine appropriately. To be less welcoming of yet more articles complaining about practice in the past and about being told what to do, when they are doing exactly the same thing themselves. They are just setting up other, new approaches to practice that will become the new orthodoxy which a new set of gurus will rubbish in ten year’s time. And, when we’re talking about research ”evidence” in particular, we will bear in mind Dylan Wiliam’s (@dylan wiliam) article on Education and research.

The classroom is far too complicated a place for simple solutions.