So here is the money quote from “Turn Teen Texting Toward Better Writing” from the Christian Science Monitor last week:
Our student bloggers and digital writers of all backgrounds are part of a journaling culture which America has not seen since the great age of diarists during the Transcendental movement, when Thoreau and Emerson recorded their daily lives for eventual public consumption. Failure to harness that potential energy would prove a terrible misstep at this junction in American education.
The author of the essay, Justin Reich, a Ph.D. student at Harvard, makes the case in a pretty interesting way, weaving in research, classroom observations and personal experience in a way that I find pretty compelling. Especially because he seems to really understand the “connective” or network aspect of the writing process.
Or, we can embrace the writing that students do every day, help them learn to use their social networking tools to create learning networks, and ultimately show them how the best elements of their informal communication can lead them to success in their formal writing.
I agree that that is the choice. No one is denying that much of what students (and adults for that matter) are writing wouldn’t be worthy of publishing under traditional standards. But the fact that kids are writing and publishing in a variety of texts, traditional or not, is, I think, a wonderful reality, one that if we know how to leverage it gives us great opportunities to help kids get better at all types of writing.
Meryn Stol says
“help kids get better at all types of writing.”
Maybe their writing is the only kind of writing needed?
Has it ever been proven that we need to write long pieces of text? We all do it, but is it necessary?
On the web, at least, I see a trend to ever shorter articles. Short blog posts have replaced essays, and twitter (microblogging) is replacing traditional blogging in some ways.
Could it be that one day all our knowledge becomes tacit, and people learn purely from observing and participating in the flow of conversation, rather than read large, prepared pieces?
Jason Priem says
Meryn, I agree with your observation that the web in some ways seems to be trending toward smaller articles. I’m not sure that I reach the same conclusion as you, though; I think that “big” writing still has a vital place in the curriculum.
First, I think you may overstate the extent to which shorter writing is displacing longer writing; I haven’t heard many bloggers share that they used to write “longer essays,” but then quit when they took up blogging. I think that, to a large extent, smaller chunks of writing are augmenting, rather than simply replacing, the larger ones. When we have big ideas to share–whether string theories or quarterly reports–we still share them in relatively big formats. So while I think there’s some truth to your observation, I’d argue the trend is more complicated than “then: books, now:Twitter.”
Second, while your idea of learning without reading “large, prepared pieces” is an interesting one, I’m not sure that says much about the importance of continuing to write these kinds of pieces for learning. And I think that there’s a reason why writing–“long,” cohesive, thoughtful writing–has long been and remains a centerpiece of primary through post-doctoral education: good, thorough writing teaches good, thorough thinking. I’m skeptical that a thousand tweets is as valuable for developing a mind as a thousand-line research paper (whether that “paper” is actually on paper or in a wiki or part of a multimedia presentation).
So I think, yeah, let a thousand txts bloom. I think that another medium always has promise for education, and I agree that there is exciting potential in “small writing.” But I think we do students a disservice if we don’t give them opportunities to catalog, synthesize, and organize on a large scale, too.
Thanks, Will and Meryn, for the good post and comment!
Meryn Stol says
Jason, you have delivered a very good critique on my post. I was deliberately a little extreme. Let me continue in that sense.
“I havenâ€™t heard many bloggers share that they used to write â€œlonger essays,â€ but then quit when they took up blogging.”
What I meant was not that “old school” writers are switching to new writing style, but rather that consumption of the written word is moving towards an ever larger amount of ever smaller pieces.
Regarding quarterly reports: The rules of finance are boring, but someone interested could learn them ofcourse.
Re string theory: I can imagine Einstein in modern times just post “New thought: Could E=MC^2? What do you think?” on Twitter. Others go “Hmmm, @einstein got something interesting today: E=MC^2? Can those two actually be related?” etc. Short writing doesn’t mean there’s not much thinking involved, and many short pieces at up to a whole lot of text. Are you following developments in “Science 2.0”?
It’s not â€œthen: books, now:Twitter.â€ but rather “we: books, them:twitter.” But they might very well manage without using our preferred methods. I – being 24 – fall a little in between I think, but I’m still a heavy book reader.
“good, thorough writing teaches good, thorough thinking. ”
The same can be said for debating classes. And those could go online, or over SMS.
Will Richardson says
I tend to agree with this Jason, but I do feel the pull toward shorter pieces because, not surprisingly, they are easier. As someone who has written all of his life (and by and large loved it) the longer stuff isn’t something I avoid. I share your concern that students writing in these spaces are getting used to the shorter, less complex bursts and that longer pieces will be seen as even more difficult.
Jason Priem says
@Meryn: well replied. I didn’t mean to imply, though, that short means there’s “not much thinking involved;” indeed, I think that, given equally complex topics, clear, forceful writing grows more difficult as space shrinks. That’s why few of us will ever write haiku like BashÅ, for instance.
The problem, though, is the “equal complexity” bit. As Will notes, shorter writing tends to be less ambitious, less nuanced and, often, ultimately less informative. Consider the parallels between writing and speaking. Unlike with writing, real-time spoken conversations about ideas has been around for ages. Nevertheless, we still see situations (say, an conference) where someone gets up and delivers a Long Talk. Why? Because some ideas are complicated, and it’s important for everyone to understand before the conversation can begin.
I agree with you that Sci2.0 is relevant. But although this style of research definitely involves more Short Writing, this writing isn’t the end product; rather, it’s the same sort of communication always shared between collaborators, just made public and open to anyone. The end result still tends to be a full length article, perhaps in a wiki format. (I’m generalizing a lot here, of course) Again, that’s because big ideas benefit from a single, organized treatment.
The example of debate you bring up is a good one. Debaters (as opposed to just two folks having a discussion) must be experts and Long Writing; they have to gather all the data on a the issue and write out both their and their opponents’ arguments before they even begin the actual debate.
My argument, then, is not that books or any other information technology is the ultimate way of expression–it’s that anyone who wants to think about big things has to be able to organize them in one place before (or, perhaps, as) they get anywhere. Writing isn’t the only way to do this; I think it may even decline in importance as bandwidth allows audio and video to be more effortless on the web. But the important thing is that, for now, writing trains this skill of synthesis as well as anything else we’ve found.
Justin Reich says
Quite a thoughtful discussion!
I’m not sure that anyone has (or could) prove that we need longer pieces of text, but my guess is that one of the most spirited defenses might come from Howard Gardner.
Some folks took his Multiple Intelligences work to mean that people could deepen their understanding of the world from widely diverse study, which he rejects. Instead, he thinks that to really think well, you need to have a mastery of a discipline, which takes about 10 years at about 3 hours a day (Interdisciplinary thinking therefore- 20+years).
I doubt he’d give anyone credit for disciplinary mastery after 10 years of tweeting.
It might be a logical extension of that argument to say that short bits are only useful when you know what to do with them, and to build that foundation of understanding requires longer work.
9wo references to read more would be Gardner’s new Five Minds for the Future or his article Teaching for Understanding in the Disciplines—and Beyond.)
Personally, I have no settled opinion on this debate. It strikes me that the discipline and their habits of mind have served us pretty well for centuries, but as my editorial suggests, I don’t think we should be afraid of experimenting with teaching and learning in new media. Will new media help us find a better structure for learning how to learn? Or does new media offer ways to extend tried and true techniques?
Meryn Stol says
Aside from that, it’s an excellent pedagogical approach.
Just wanted to make you think…
I think it’s also a great way to help kids think critically about what is “formal” vs. “informal” writing… and when to use which. My writing teachers always encouraged journaling! This is just another avenue for teaching students to think differently (as well as teaching teachers to teach differently).
George Briggs says
An M.Ed. student presented her thesis at a curriculum conference I ran in May (Literacy for 21st Century Learners)- the title of her presentation was “IM Learning 2 Write? A Study on how Instant Messaging Shapes Student Writing.”
Julia presents a reasoned argument for the use of IM as a starting point in developing literacy skills and Julia states that students â€œâ€¦ use it [instant messaging] every day, and it may be a tool that they will be using in the work force in the future.â€
She goes on to say “In general, IM provides these students with a new purpose for language, which they perceive as disconnected from school literacy. The findings suggest that IM language is a hybrid of speech and writing, and connecting IM with school writing (both literally and figuratively) may help teachers be more effective in making school writing processes more relevant to studentsâ€™ lives. While making this connection, it is important for teachers to emphasize the plurality of literacies and the importance of revising and editing â€œfinishedâ€ writingâ€¦ â€œ
Julia has given me permission to share with folks. You can access her thesis, written in a blog format at: http://imdeb8.wordpress.com – username: imdeb8visitor, password imdeb8. Have a look – it’s very interesting with lots of research links.
Will Richardson says
@meryn You bring up a side of this that isn’t mentioned but needs to be and that’s the effect on reading with shorter pieces. To be honest, that’s where I have found the most profound effect; I find it more difficult to stay with longer posts/essays/articles. I wonder what the effect is for kids…might not be as pronounced since they work their way into longer pieces anyway.
Thanks for the comments.
I read this article after seeing your tweet and greatly enjoyed it. It struck a chord with me, but in the midst of the chaos of a school day I couldn’t put my finger on why. I’m grateful for this post because it did that for me. The idea that we should be using the writing students are doing independently to help them write in new ways seems to be common sense and leaves me wondering why it hadn’t yet occurred to me. So much of the writing they are choosing to do is very focused on the audience. That idea alone could be immensely helpful in their thinking about other types of writing.
Will writes that he feels the pull â€œtoward shorter pieces because, not surprisingly, they are easierâ€, but I doubt that they really are. Quotes abound attesting to the fact that creating a short piece of writing is more time consuming than writing something lengthy. Thoreau, for instance, is reported to have said: â€œNot that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it shortâ€, and Mark Twain is credited with the comment: â€œIf you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepareâ€. (Blaise Pascal was apparently the first to write something along these lines, but my French isnâ€™t good enough to really know.)
As much as Iâ€™d like to simply click on â€œpostâ€ and be done with a quick draft of something Iâ€™ve prepared for my blog, Iâ€™ve learned that rereading and editing clarify my thinking for myself. I chop out whole sentences that arenâ€™t really important to my argument. I restructure my paragraphs so that the point I want to make becomes much clearer. I assume that other people donâ€™t want to devote too much time to reading a wandering argument. If theyâ€™re going to read what I write, they deserve that I make it as clear and concise as possible. Making something short is far from easy â€“ and even when Iâ€™ve shortened something Iâ€™ve written, Iâ€™m sure that itâ€™s still too long.
Bill Gaskins says
I feel like blogs are sometimes drafts of our thoughts and nothing to do with being formal or not formal. My twits may turn into blogs. I may use a voice recorder to capture my thought in the day or my writing in my day journal captures thoughts, actions, ideas throughout the day. Many times my source of a blog comes from that journal or my voice recorder. I think of my blog whether short or long as draft writing. Many times I want to test my ideas to a much larger audience and keep a history of it.
Wow, every where I turn to promote a site on our Wetpaint Network, there you are writing about something similar.
On this note, have you heard of the Warrior Cats series? They’re not as popular as Harry Potter, but it’s up there! And their fans have taken it one step further. They’ve used wikis and message boards to put the story into their hands.
They’re developing characters and storylines in a collaborative manner. And… get this… these 13-16 year olds are using correct grammar!