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Posts Tagged ‘writing

Most semesters I comment on examples of awkward or otherwise poor examples of essay writing.

This semester I do not share examples of writing faux pas. Instead I share a photo I took to illustrate nuance.
 

The photo is a screenshot of a Pokémon Go stop that someone labelled “hook up point”.

If you are an old school local, you might understand that this place is for hanging bird cages in a community space.

However, “hook up” has a broader use. When one refers to people hooking up, they are, um, managing the birds and the bees. A hook up point would then have a bad reputation.

My message to essay and paper writers is simple: Do not write for yourself, write for your reader. If you do the former, you are satisfied with what your words mean to you. If you do on the latter, you focus on communicating with readers by embracing the nuance of meaning and taking their points of view.

I appreciate the efforts of the Greens and one of their YouTube shows, Mental Floss. The latest episode was about schooling in the USA.


Video source

Part of the video was a segment on whether students tested better if they hand-wrote notes or if they typed them.

The research they cited revealed that students who hand-wrote notes did better on a test. I recall this research making its way around the Twitterverse and the blogosphere, so it was not news.

However, you should not take the results at face value.

First there is the question of what medium the test was taken on, and if it was paper whether that favoured writers over typers. There was also no mention of the quality and design of the questions to determine if they favoured one strategy over another.

Next is the issue of pitting one medium over another without considering learner preferences and strategies. Consider what might happen if you forced a typer to write or a writer to type.

The video also highlighted how writers might process what they hear more deeply and summarise by note-taking, while typers might resort to recording or transcribing. What was not clear was whether there were typers who summarised and writers who just recorded.

 

Writers Typers
Recorders   X
Summarisers X  

 
In the 2×2 matrix of note-taking method and note medium, only two options were mentioned in the video. How is this rigorous?

If you think about it, the matrix is far more complicated. There are more contributing and influencing factors on note-writing and test-taking. Over simplifying provides easy answers. Easy answers are not nuanced and not always right. Take note of that!

It took a few semesters of sensing and planning, but I eventually implemented something that helps future faculty write better.

Every semester I provide feedback and grade electronically-processed assignments. Every semester I am reminded how brilliant graduate students do not necessarily know how to communicate properly in writing.

I have suggested to administrators that a writing course be a prerequisite to the one I am involved in. But this doing this is neither easy nor a priority.

What is a priority is graduate students reading a resource and taking an automated quiz on plagiarism. This is important and it is easy to do in an institutional learning management system (LMS). But an LMS, no matter how advanced, cannot show graduate students how to write better and provide timely feedback on authentic writing.

Knowing that institutional change takes an inordinately long time, I provided a series of tips in my blog. I reminded my classes to refer to them before writing and embedded URLs to the same in my online feedback.

I also made a concerted effort this semester to highlight the resources in class and set aside time to talk about the importance of writing ability.

The ability to write clearly, logically, and critically is vital to future academics. They might not only need to prepare teaching philosophies and curricula, they also need to write reports and apply for grants.

The future faculty I have met seem to forced to play writing gambling game. If they get a supervisor who is nurturing and cares about how they write, they hit the jackpot. If not, they struggle from course to course or they reinforce bad writing habits because no one tells them otherwise.

Studying at the doctoral level requires an immense effort and truly independent work. However, this does not mean that graduate students should do work blindly or without scaffolding.

I have already discovered how effective my simple resources are. I have not torn out as much hair this semester as previously. Many of my learners have followed basic reminders like shaping a premise and writing in paragraphs.

I did this without doing anything contrary or disruptive to the course I facilitate. If anything, the tips add value to it. This could be an example of how not asking for permission first is a good thing.

Change is not about asking for permission first. It is about asking for forgiveness later.

 
I only have myself to blame…

I wrote “10 tips for crafting a teaching philosophy” a year ago with the intent to share it with new batches of learners. I forgot and have to deal with poorly organised statements.

It is not that the tips would guarantee good writing. They would have simply provided a scaffold for inexperienced writers to craft a challenging piece of writing.

I am not forgetting this time around. The pain of providing repetitive feedback on disorganised essays has reminded me to create a link in the Google Site that is my workshop resource.

I have two more tips for future faculty or anyone who has to write academically.

One, avoid passive voice. This tweet might help you spot passive voice:

So write “Students perform task X” instead of writing “Task X was performed… by zombies”.

Two, when learning to prepare lesson plans, write for someone else to teach it. This means stepping outside yourself to see what someone else might not understand about your learners, intent, content, strategies, assessment, etc.

Just as you try to teach in a student-centred way, you should write in a reader-centred manner. Aim for clarity, not complexity. You must convince, not confuse.

It is that time of the year when I deal with the haze.

A photo I took of the haze in 2013.

Not the literal and annual haze that has plagued Singapore. It mercifully gave us a miss this year.
 

 
Neither was it the burning, smoke, smells, and extra dust that accompanies the month-long hungry ghost festival.

I am referring to the haze of written assignments that I grade and provide formative feedback on.

The assignments are cumulative. This means that the first one sets a foundation for the second, and the second is the basis for the third. This makes the writing (by learners) and the evaluating (by facilitators) of the assignment challenging.

I could simply focus on the grading criteria and content of the assignments. That would be challenging enough. However, I do not think that this is logical or ethical.

I also focus on various aspects of writing as a form of communication. I provide feedback on spelling, grammar, organisation and structure, logical flow, presentation, use of white space, and more.

Example of what I provide feedback on that has nothing to do with content.

Doing these might seem like doing extra work. To use the haze analogy, it is like smoking while burning incense paper during the haziest time of year.

It is not.

I know that good writing is not just about WHAT my learners say, but also HOW they say it. It is about their attitudes and mindsets — whether they show care, sincerity, and effort as they write — that also matter.

Here is a general example of the persuasive writing that is expected in some parts of the assignments. A good structure of three arguments (1, 2, 3) is to have three parts to each argument (A, B, C).

An organised person who takes care to communicate clearly would write in this pattern: 1A-1B-1C; 2A-2B-2C, 3A-3B-3C. This is critical thought that flows logically.

A writer that does not care or is not aware of such structure might write like this: 1A-2A-3A, 1B-2B-3B, 1C-2C-3C. This makes it very hard to follow arguments because the elements are out of place.

If I focused just on my learners’ understanding of content and their application of concepts, I could ignore structure and just look for mention of the content and concepts. However, this would be like singing parts of a song out of sequence. All the parts are present, but it does not make sense.

While I am not teaching a writing class, my learners are writing purposefully. The best way to learn how to write is to write, get critiqued, reflect, and revise.
 

 
Learners who pick up good writing habits break through the haze of ignorance or stubbornness. It takes effort to do this, but the sunlight and fresh air when you rise above the smog is worth it. So is the effort to help my learners get there.

 
The biggest barrier to writing is not inertia. It is procrastination.

Inertia is ignoring the writing process. It is a relatively passive process because all you have to is not write.

Procrastination is actively putting off writing. This might mean looking for alternatives to writing that seem easier or are more pleasurable. This is like cleaning your room instead of studying.

But this is all in your head. When you actually start writing, you might develop a momentum that is hard to stop.

I reflect on at least one thing every day and blog about it. That is the momentum. But I also know how easy it is to put writing off.

I have ideas and notes in Evernote and MacOS Notes that are YEARS old. As I draft this in Evernote, I can scroll down to things I put off sharing when I was head of a centre several years ago. I can click on links in my notes that lead to pages that no longer exist.

So believe me when I say that the biggest barrier to writing is not inertia; it is procrastination.

Yesterday was Labour Day, a public holiday here to acknowledge the efforts of workers everywhere. Unfortunately, everyone could not take a day off or the place would shut down.

Some people have to work hard for others. Some people are hardly working. I might have discovered an example of the latter.

Thanks to this tweet, I read this Quartz article, Asians spend seven times as much as Americans on tutoring to give their kids an edge.

As it turned out, the “Asians” were not all those living in continental Asia, but those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. America referred to the US of A. (Edit to add-it: Why “America” is not synonymous with the “USA”.)

You might say I am nitpicking; I say we should be precise. Such precision is important because a) you should not assume everyone understands things the way you do, and b) if you have a poor understanding, you should not perpetuate inaccuracies.

In another example of lazy writing, the same article dated 27 April 2017, concluded with a paragraph chunk copied from an article dated 14 September 2016.

2017:

“There is nothing wrong with parents trying to do the best for their children,” Manu Kapur, a professor of psychological studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, and former head of curriculum, teaching, and learning at the National Institute of Education of Singapore told Quartz. “It’s what they value as being good. That has to change.”

2016:

Kapur and other Singaporean policymakers recognize these challenges. “There is nothing wrong with parents trying to do the best for their children,” Kapur says. “It’s what they value as being good. That has to change.”

It is an excellent quote for the 2017 conclusion, but I wonder if:

  • it is ethical and logical to transfer a quote from one context and article to another.
  • a professor who lives and works overseas can be considered a Singaporean policymaker.
  • the author of the 2017 article bothered to check Kapur’s status (he is now Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, source).

It is lazy writing to not update old information or to check facts.

Just as disturbing was reusing the same image for two different articles: One about Singapore and another about China. The 2016 article was about Singapore, but it featured a photo of students from China taking an exam from a different article six months earlier.

Screenshot of article about Singapore:

Article about Singapore with same image as the next one.

Screenshot of article about China:

Article about China with same image as the one above.

Visuals communicate powerfully and in ways that words cannot. The leading photo sets a tone and draws the eye to the article. Is one insidious message that China and Singapore are the same? Do we have the same mindset and behaviours?

An observant educator in Singapore would probably suspect the authenticity of the leading photo. I noticed the students were wearing the same jackets, were racially less varied, and in a hall likely larger than largest examination room we have.

How did I do my homework? I relied on the grapevine and an online search about Kapur, and I used TinEye reverse image search to investigate the leading photos.

A writer is also a fact-checker, particularly one who is doing investigative work. Did the Quartz writers and editors fact check? Do we teach our students adequately to do the same?

Ultimately, rigorous fact-checking and precise writing build trust. This trust erodes if these basics are not done right. Now I will think twice before tweeting about or recommending a Quartz article.


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