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Posts Tagged ‘writing

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.


“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.”


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.

Yesterday I shared some advice on how novice facilitators might put more thought into cooperative group work.

Today I focus on how they might write better lesson plans.

Lesson planning is not a chore, it is a discipline. With practice, it becomes a habit that gets internalised.

Even faculty members in institutes of higher education (IHLs) need to lesson plan. Especially faculty members need to lesson plan because they might not have had teacher preparation.

Novice facilitators should not simply walk into tutorial rooms or laboratories and try to repeat what they experienced as undergraduates and graduate students. The didactic pedagogy they perpetuate is based on the transmission of information.

While information might be transferable, knowledge is not. Such meaning is negotiated cognitively and socially. Facilitating such negotiation first takes the knowledge and skills of writing learning outcomes, designing learner-centred activities, and providing feedback on performance. All these should be developed in a lesson plan.

Lesson planning is essentially a writing process. Like any writing process, there is drafting and revising. Novices should not expect to get a plan right on the first attempt. The process can be painful, but as the adage goes: No pain, no gain.

The programme I am involved in requires future faculty to write course descriptions, lesson plans, and personal teaching philosophies.

No matter the academic subject, there are disciplines to hone when writing. One is chunking thoughts in paragraphs. Each paragraph should contain one main idea. Ideally, one chunk should link to another in a logical series.

Write tight
Another discipline of writing is not to write the way you speak. A conversation between two people can meander and even get lost. It is informal and interaction is immediate. Elements of a lesson plan need to be written clearly and concisely.

I find that it helps to imagine that you are planning a lesson just in case someone else needs to take over your class in your absence. You need to write simply and directly so that another facilitator might read your plan and lead the class almost like you would.

Do not be lazy
When writing, use the autocorrect tools in word processing programs. They help you avoid spelling and grammatical errors. However, they cannot correct lazy or ill-disciplined writing.

The screen capture above shows how I highlighted and corrected a lesson plan element. The lesson plan was about bits and bytes, hence the tongue-in-cheek comment about ones and zeroes.

My comment might come across as mean. It is not. Being a disciplined writer means not taking the reader for granted. What you say is not necessarily what someone else will hear. It is about taking another’s perspective.

Disciplined writing is also about caring for the small things that matter. If you cannot get these details right, how can you be trusted with the larger picture?

Autocorrect tools do not understand context or detect all errors. So another aspect of disciplined writing is proofreading. Such reading is not just for spotting and correcting spelling and grammatical errors, but also for addressing flaws in logic and bumps in flow.

I find that it helps to walk away from a piece of writing and return to it with a fresh perspective.

Practise and transfer
Like most skills that are developed over time, writing takes practice. Future faculty who wish to be good facilitators should invest time in writing good lesson plans because this is a skill that transfers. Disciplined writing can help with the composition of dissertations, grant proposals, conference submissions, research papers, etc.

But the most important purpose of disciplined writing by novice faculty is lesson planning. Such writing might seem burdensome initially, but when practiced iteratively and reflectively, it becomes a habit. This habit pays off when students benefit from learner-centred design that is held together by disciplined writing.

If I mention “writing copy”, you might think of one or more people creating persuasive content for marketing or advertising. However, this form of writing is important for anyone who uses social media.

On Twitter, in particular, the copy must grab eyeballs and encourage click-throughs. Bloggers, newspapers, and anyone promoting anything in 140 characters needs the message to be juicy and concise.

Googling “writing good copy” will return almost countless writing tips. Good examples are important; bad examples even more so. Here is a screenshot of a bad tweet by TODAYonline.

Why is #IKEA causing children to fall down stairs? #ambiguous #english

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

The tweet means that IKEA caused some children to fall down stairs and then recalled a product. It meant to say that IKEA recalled faulty product for a lapse in safety. So why did it not just say that?

There does not seem to be anything grammatically wrong with the tweet. Some might not even see the problem with the tweet. So why make a mountain out of a molehill?

That is the wrong question and perspective. Why ignore the mountain and play it down as a molehill?

Cast a more critical eye on most public notices and you will see what I mean. The gaffes are a dime a dozen. For example:

Bad #English, cannot stand. Was #Yoda his/her English teacher?

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

A new death penalty in #Singapore? #BirdHangingCorner for terrorist fowl that "bomb" our cars?

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

Examine the next email you receive from an administrator, preferably one from the public sector, and you will might get “revert back”, “gentle reminder”, “kindly reply”, and other unquestioned but questionable use of the language.

When some people talk about communication being a 21st century skill, what they might mean is that the learner and worker of today needs to leverage on technology not just to exchange information, but also to do it well. This could mean reducing noise, making compelling arguments, and rallying people around a cause.

Are we teaching the learner of today and showing the worker of tomorrow how to do this?

If a local use-of-English book promotes “revert” in place of “reply”, I cannot blame the users and learners of the language. They were not taught or mentored any other way.

So why are we not teaching our children to write good copy?

By this I do not mean learning only the rules of grammar and syntax, filling in blanks, writing out of context, or answering questions based on experiences that you cannot relate to.

Instead, I am referring to writing for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter. I am talking about scripting for YouTube, Vine, or Periscope. I am even referring to the now “old school” forms of digital writing like email and blogging.

I do not mean using old rules and strategies like writing email on paper. I do not mean replacing writing with keyboarding (although that has its merits).

I mean first being immersed in the writing that happens today, embracing its use, identifying its problems, and offering solutions. By learning language this way, I also mean going beyond the rules of communicating and factoring in social, ethical, and other values.

I can already hear the objections of teachers who depend on centralised curricula and localised planning. It takes too long. It is too difficult. The contexts are too varied.

The same could be said for values-based education, but we now have CCE, Character and Citizenship Education [PDF].

Learning to write copy and for current contexts should not take more effort than reading one’s social media feed and sharing some thoughts. Imagine a teacher starting every language class with a few examples fresh from her Twitter stream. Better still, imagine students curating these resources. Now imagine designing and writing around these lesson seeds.

If we do not teach our kids how to write meaningfully, we risk more than unintentionally funny tweets. We risk becoming bad communicators. Do we take that risk or do we shoulder that responsibility?

It is not very often that I use epic and awesome. The video below is both.

Video source

The video below provides a glimpse into why and how it was done.

Video source

These videos are much more than elaborate advertisements.

I like using videos like these to illustrate the importance of reflecting on processes that lead to a product. Such reflections can become part of one’s portfolio of study and work.

These videos also illustrate some of the best uses of technology: To tell a story, to generate emotion, and most of all, to connect people.

Those three things are what make the videos work. These same three things are what can make technology integration work in education.

I had a conversation with an English teacher recently. When I asked her to describe her students (all boys in a local Primary school), she mentioned something I hear all the time: They will not sit and listen; they would rather be learning actively.

Video source

She also mentioned two more things. The boys loved playing Minecraft (hence the embedded video above) and the older ones (11 to 12 year-olds) liked creating YouTube videos.

The teacher also described her students as being able to speak English well, but not write it well. Given how most schools require students to write, I am not surprised.

For example, my son is still given dead tree instructions to write an essay about an incident among kids playing hopscotch. How many kids actually play hopscotch? What could be more relevant to learners?

If teachers are to answer these questions and change the way they teach, they must reach out to kids and start from where the kids are.

How might teachers be more relevant while meeting curricular and assessment targets?

They could leverage on what the kids are interested in or passionate about. The teacher I spoke to could ask her students to write about Minecraft or to draft scripts for a video.

Such writing is not designed for a bubble like the classroom. The write up could be a walkthrough to be shared in a blog or a gaming forum. The script could be for a YouTube video to be put online.

These are examples of authentic learning. The task is real in the world of the learner and the learners have real audiences who will invariably give them really honest feedback.

This approach creates the need to learn. An audience of many (video game players and video watchers) instead of just one (the teacher) creates the need to learn how to write clearly and concisely. Novice writers will want to learn how to structure their sentences properly and to use appropriate vocabulary.

For teaching to be relevant and learning to be meaningful, teachers must first reach out and understand their learners. Then only can they create that yearning for learning.

Video source

This is the fifth and final part of my series on informal and emergent learning with Minecraft.

It is not obvious in the video, but writing with Minecraft is not limited to preparing signs for others in the virtual world or messaging collaborators.

Outside that system are Minecraft wikis, blogs, discussion groups, Google+ circles, and other communities that write about Minecraft. Learners have rich opportunities to mine and create the resources here.

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