The Two-Faced Coin (Part 2 of 2): Education’s Two-Face–Time

Flip a Coin

What do you think? Is it going to be heads or tails? At this moment, can you tell? What will determine on which side it will drop? A gust of wind? The momentum of the roll? (Someone with a physics degree chime in with a comment. I am sure we’d all love to know the actual factors that will contribute to the outcome.)

When it comes to the educational development/deficit coin though, we have only one factor to consider: Time. “Oh, no, no,” you might be saying, “it’s the quality of the product that determines whether a writer is developed or not.” Or you might argue that it’s the sophistication of the writer’s composing processes. You may even ask us to consider the resources he/she consider and draw from or the repertoire of genres with which he/she has facility.

I’d agree with you that each of these dimensions of a writer are important, but these characteristics aren’t what determine development in education. Let’s take a look at a piece of writing to see what we find.

How would you determine whether the writer is developed, developing or in deficit? Of course, as indicated above, you might ask if it is a draft or if it is considered good “for a poem.” But then let me ask you: What if I told you it was written by a second grader? Would your judgement change? What if I told you it was a college student? What if I told you it was the first time the person had tried this genre or if it was after five years of participating in a community of poets? At the heart of any of these approaches to deciding whether writing or a writer is developed are questions of time: how long? how old? what grade?

We should then ask: Where do we get those ideas of what is expected at certain ages and after certain lengths of time and at certain grades? One such source is a study by Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod and Rosen conducted in 1976. They studied the audiences and functions (to persuade, to entertain, to tell) of the written products and writing tasks from classes of students ages 11-17 from across the UK. From their results, they suggested a curriculum of increasing cognitive abstraction in written products from personal experiences, to argument, to tautological statements. This suggestion has been taken up and is pervasive in the educational field in both curricula (e.g. in the first version of the National Curriculum in England in English) and research studies (e.g. McKeough & Genereux, 2003).

Buried in their study report was the statement that the audiences and functions of students’ written products aligned closely with the writing tasks assigned to them in school. From this the researchers reasoned that the range of written products in schools was the result of teaching curriculum and methodology rather than students’ independent writing development or even current skill sets:

We are clear about one thing: the work we have classified cannot be taken as a sample of what young writers can do. It is a sample of what they have done under the constraints of a school situation, a curriculum, a teacher’s expectations, and a system of public examinations which itself may constrain both teacher and writer. (p. 108)

In essence, then, the developmental model offered by Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod and Rosen (1976) is a model of the development of school curriculum—how to characterize the sequence of tasks assigned to students in first, third, fifth and seventh years of secondary school in the UK. The implication is that writing development is intricately tied to the writing experiences that have been afforded; and a common denominator to young persons’ development is the experiences required in school. Britton et al.’s (1976) developmental scheme, however, is not an indication of students’ cognitive or writing capacity, nor reflective of the entire range of audiences of functions of students’ writing.

The point here is simply this:

Chronological time is the ultimate determiner of development in writing. Our benchmarks on this linear scale of time have been based on studies and curricula that are not based on how youth actually develop as writers, but rather how we organize the products, practices and participation across a linear scale. 

When schools determine one child is developed and another is at deficit, we are just at the mercy of units of time we have segmented and decided should correlate to a set of practices. We aren’t actually saying anything about the child’s abilities or capacities. Yet the consequences of being thus labeled are left to the child, and deficit always leaves a mark.

I know. Ouch.

[Flip a Coin by The Bartender 007 / © Some rights reserved. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license]
Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A. & Rosen, H. (1976). The development of writing abilities (11-18). London: Schools Council Publication.
McKeough, A., & Genereux, R. (2003). Transformation in narrative thought during adolescence: The structure and content of story compositions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 537-552.
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