Dec. 9, 1995
For a number of years now, teachers and administrators have been identifying problems with the teaching of writing in today's educational institutions. NAEP researchers (1) illustrate with supporting statistics the sad fact that 'most U.S. children cannot adequately express their ideas and emotions in writing.' faced with the fact that so many students are coming out of schools without adequate writing skills, it is obvious that somewhere along the line, writing is not getting learned. Why? A simple enough question but in this case, one that receives a variety of confusing answers. Authors have identified so many valid problems with the teaching of writing that it is no longer possible to identify the most important problem - - a problem which, if solved, will clear up most of the other problems. One of the problems that very few authors address is that of poor teacher-student communication. Without effective communication between students and teachers, a lot of the material being taught is lost. Archie Lapointe (2) points out that while half of the fourth grade teachers surveyed thought that outlining was important, only 20% of their students felt the same way, and while 90% of the teachers felt that the quality of the students' ideas were important only half the students reported receiving comments in this area.
Student-Teacher Communication in Literacy Studies
Lapointe's statistics clearly indicate that poor communication is a problem that affects the teaching of writing, but how important is this problem when compared to problems like the use of poor writing models? Consider the problem with poor writing models, a problem that is presented by authors such as Rose(3), Connors(4) and Flower and Hayes(5). These authors present solutions to this problem that eradicate models that have excessive grammar, models that use incorrect metaphors to describe writing or models that misrepresent writing. The ultimate model would be one that presents writing as an essential creative process. But how is the student to infer this if the teacher cannot communicate the model? The solution to the models problem does not do much to solve the communication problem. However a solution to the communication problem, will make the solution to the models problem easier to implement. To further illustrate the importance of the communication problem, consider the case where a surgeon is performing an operation with the aid of an intern and the intern is the one who will be doing all the cutting and stitching, on the surgeons directions. If the surgeon speaks a different language and cannot communicate with the intern, then the intern will unable to perform the operation. No matter how good the surgeon is or how much he knows, none of his knowledge can be communicated to the intern. Similarly, a lack of communication between students and teachers (in this case of course the causes are more elaborate), can prevent students from learning writing.
Many authors and administrators find problems with the way in which teachers teach their courses. Authors like Ephron(6) feel that writing instructors do not focus enough on the concept of revision and fail to impress its importance on students. Authors like Hashimoto(7) state that teachers employ their teaching methods in ways that mislead and confuse students. Specifically, Hashimoto feels that teachers use heuristics(a heuristic is a procedure that helps students explore creative problems and enhances their interpretive powers) in ways that exceed their limits. Another view that authors like Barth(8) take is to assume that there are very few good teachers of writing. They feel that students need to search until they find good teachers and good programs. All these authors present problems associated with teachers but overlook the major problem that teachers need to correct-- the communication gap between them and their students. Consider Ephron's problem first. If teachers were to communicate what they valued most in a clear, effective way then they will be able to show their students the importance of revision in a manner that would ensure that the message got across. The same is true in Hashimoto's case. If the communication issue is resolved, then teachers will be able to communicate the limitations of their teaching methods to their students. The major problem that Barth feels students might find in their teachers is that the teacher might not be 'right' for them. One of the criteria for a 'right' teacher is that the student should be able to communicate easily with the teacher and vice-versa. If teachers did not have a communication problem, then students would not have to hunt through schools and colleges for good teachers. In a nutshell, most problems with teachers would be reduced if teachers and students could resolve this problem of communication.
The main cause for the persistence of the teacher-student communication problem the fact that very few people recognize that the problem exists. Authors like Rose and Connors(8) who advocate new models do not see poor communication as a problem that might prevent the implementation of their models. Authors like Flower and Hayes who advocate new research into creative thought do not see that any new information gained through research may never reach students due to poor student-teacher communication. Authors like Hashimoto and Barth pay very little attention to this problem even though it is a problem that is fundamental to the problems that they discuss. Most of these authors seem to take student-teacher communication for granted and this is a major cause for the communication problem. When authors and administrators do not recognize that such a problem exists, then no steps are taken to eliminate it. Communication is a difficult thing to check and this might be one of the reasons why very few people have identified a problem with it. It is almost impossible for teachers to check whether students have understood the importance of things like revision and outlining. It takes surveys like those conducted by the NAEP and Lapointe to indicate that there is in fact a problem with teacher-student communication.
Other factors also contribute to the student-teacher communication problem. These factors can be grouped into three categories: student related causes, teacher related causes and model related causes.
Student Related Causes: Many students are uncomfortable when their work is evaluated or commented upon. These students prefer to remain anonymous under-achievers instead of approaching their teachers for help. Students also lose interest in writing very easily. When confronted with a task that demands concentration and creative thought, most students find it all to easy to give up and accept whatever grade they might receive, instead of making a conscious effort to write. These students fail to realize the importance of being able to write well. The amount of attention each student receives from the teacher also contributes towards the amount of student- teacher communication that takes place. If class are large, then teachers are forced to divide their attention and cannot focus on the problems of individual students. As a result, students do not receive adequate feedback concerning their writing or help regarding problems that are specific to themselves. (Connors)
Teacher Related Causes: Lapointe's statistics and the NAEP surveys show that quite a few schools employ part-time or underqualified teachers to teach writing. This naturally, leads to poor student-teacher communication since teachers may never been trained to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively. In addition, time constraints and work overloads prevent teachers from putting all their effort into teaching students to write well. There is also an obvious lack of motivation among teachers. They are not compensated enough for the work they do presently and have no desire to put in more work for the same pay. After a while, teachers fail to see students as individuals and class them together into general categories (Rose(3)). This kind of categorization prevents teachers from communicating with each student and helping each student with his/her difficulties. Instead, teachers tend to deal with whole groups of students at a time and therefore 'dilute' whatever information they are trying to communicate.
Model Related Causes: Both teachers and students are affected by problems that result from the model of writing that is being conveyed. Writing models that incorporate large amounts of grammar increase the communication problem because they seem to convey the message that writing is mainly a mechanical process and that grammatically correct writing is good writing. Students are confused by such models because teachers obviously want writing that is creative as well as grammatically correct but students only catch the grammatically correct part (Connors). Inappropriate models also suppress the importance of writing. For example treating writing as a skill and not a discipline tends to place writing one step below everything else in students' minds. Thus, students do not pay much attention to writing classes and fail to understand the importance of writing from their teachers. This lack of interest on the part of the student aggravates the student-teacher communication problem (Rose).
The above list of causes serves to illustrate the wide range of factors that contribute to the communication issue. The ideal solution to this problem will ensure that teachers communicate in a clear and effective manner. As much ambiguity as possible should be eliminated from teaching methods and writing courses. Students should perceive clearly the model that is being conveyed and understand the goals of their writing courses.
The first step towards the solution of the communication problem is to impress upon teachers and academicians the need for effective communication between students and teachers. This can be done by conducting detailed surveys that are aimed at identifying poor student-teacher communication in schools and colleges. These surveys should be conducted by an educational agency that can make the results of these surveys known to the right people (example the NAEP). If teachers and educators begin to see that a problem exists with communication and if they understand the importance of resolving such a problem, the educational system will be more inclined to change. It is important to realize that this solution is not limited to writing classes. Teachers of science or math courses can employ similar methods to find out what their students learn. For example, a Physics professor would be able to ascertain whether students are learning concepts or just memorizing formulae that solve problems.
Once teachers associate students' learning problems with a possible problem in communications, they will be on the lookout for ways in which to check and correct such communications problems. One way in which student-teacher communication can be monitored is for teachers to construct questionnaires for their student. These questionnaires will attempt to find out what the students think the teacher is saying and what students think is important to their teachers. If there is a discrepancy between what students think and what teachers think, then there is a definite communication problem. These questionairres will help teachers find out what students think of parts of the writing process that teachers don't usually see, for example the concepts of revision and outlining. A question like 'Do you think revision is important?' or 'Do you think your teacher thinks revision is important?' will show exactly what students have learned about the importance of revision in contrast to what the teacher thinks they should have learned.
If teachers' surveys indicate that there is a problem with teacher- student communication, then teachers should analyze the possible causes for such a problem and try and isolate the most likely one. A major cause might be that students show an apathy towards writing and are essentially 'turned off' during their writing classes. To combat this, teachers could re-iterate the importance of writing by illustrating its use in fields as divergent as advertising and philosophy. They could also assign more interesting writing tasks and involve students more in the class by encouraging discussions. Another major cause, writing anxiety might be combated by increasing the availability of teachers. Teachers could have special office hours where students could meet them in private and discuss their writing problems. Reduced class sizes would also help in making the teacher more accessible to students. If students are introduced to writing early and made to write on a regular basis, then much of the current fear of writing would be eliminated.
Finally, teachers with communication problems should investigate the model of writing that they employ. Poor models are a major contributor to the communication problem. The model should present writing as an important discipline or at least as a necessary skill. The model should also portray writing as being a creative process and not a mechanical one (Rose). To ensure that teachers eventually follow good models, premier educational institutions should incorporate writing courses with approved models in their curriculum. Most other institutions will automatically follow these examples and bad models would be phased out (Rose). But altering the model does not ensure that students are learning the correct model since a possible communication problem might still exist. Teachers need to monitor their students' work constantly to see whether their students are absorbing the right concepts.
Though helpful, these solutions are not problem free. The major problem with them is that they will take time to implement. The key to this solution is that the problem must be recognized and that itself will take a lot of time. After that, teaching methods and models that have been used for years will have to be changed and teachers familiarized with new ones. Even coping with required changes in class sizes will take time. Lastly, it will take time to perfect a method of monitoring student-teacher communication. Researchers will have to experiment on many classes before they come up with an effective survey. Another major problem with these solutions is that they demand a lot of work from teachers but promise very little in return. Teachers will still be paid the same in spite of the increased amount of work they will have to put in. There is no proverbial carrot luring teachers to implement these solutions. Unless administrators realize that it is unreasonable to ask so much of teachers without rewarding them suitably, the present state of affairs will persist.
Despite the above problems, I think that these solutions are good ones because they almost guarantee success. Firstly, most of these solutions deal directly with teachers. In this way, much of the bureaucratic delays that occur when solutions depend upon layers of management to implement them is avoided. Beginning teachers can be trained to detect and correct any communication problems before they ever step into a classroom. Secondly, much can be learned from experience. In the process of implementing these solutions, teachers will learn a lot about communicating with their students and about those parts of writing that are most difficult to communicate and understand. They might use such information to restructure their courses. In conclusion, I would like to state that given enough time and reasonably motivated teachers, these solutions can almost eradicate the communication problem, or at the very least remove most of its harmful effects.
Terri Palmer is a PhD student at CMU, in the school of H&SS.
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Contribution Example 3