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Thompson: Beware The Writing Panacea

Hot-DeskDan Willingham's recent Atlantic Magazine post, What Does Science Tell Us About Teaching Kids to Think?, explains that better writing and reading "will probably not accrue if most writing assignments consist of answering short questions, writing in journals, and completing worksheets -- exactly the writing tasks on which elementary school kids spend most of their time." 

Willingham further explains, "A writing assignment may guide student thinking toward substantive issues in, say, history, or it may guide students down a mental primrose path."  

He then explains why potentially valuable assignments such as, "Consider how World War II might have ended differently if the plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded," often degenerate into fluff. "Unless my students already have some solid background knowledge about the War, about German history and culture," Willingham explains, "I shouldn't be surprised if the essays I get in response aren't much good."

Within the first weeks of my teaching career, I recognized how a neglect of background information, as well as the impulse to deride teacher-directed instruction, was undermining efforts to educate students from extreme poverty.  After a decade of learning from Dan Willingham's research, I still have no easy answers for helping students who often are five to six years behind grade level.  Perhaps we can now get back to common sense and science, and heed the "good evidence that explicit teaching of writing makes kids better writers" and, perhaps, better thinkers. (emphasis is Willingham's)-JT(@drjohnthompson) 


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