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Posts Tagged ‘writing

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.


“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

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?

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