Guest post: Tricia Lennie (a teacher who recently completed her Masters in Education with us at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
I’ve just seen my academic transcript online for the first time and, satisfying as the numbers are, is that really what it was all about? I don’t think so. I’ve spend the past two years completing a SUPER M.Ed, the part-time Masters course at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, designed for serving teachers and, for me, it was about something even more important than that. Apologies if this sounds pompous or self-aggrandising, but for me it was all about professional integrity.
It’s a familiar scenario: long-serving teacher, gives blood in various middle management roles but, for whatever reason, doesn’t make it to senior leadership role, becomes disenchanted with the ‘way we do things here’ but doesn’t have the decision making capacity to do anything about it. So far, so familiar and for many of us, this might be the beginning of the end. A Head teacher I once worked with used to call it, ‘the cancer in the staffroom’, where cynicism and dissatisfaction spreads like a mutant cell. This might have been my fate if it were not for the opportunity to undertake an in-service Masters course.
As an English specialist, my main interest was why current initiatives to improve student writing were not having more success and I wanted to try out approaches recommended by the National Writing Project (for more information see http://www.nwp.org.uk/ ). What I didn’t foresee were the ideological barriers I would face as I attempted to start a ‘Teachers as Writers’ group in my own school. It was a fascinating journey and, like the best quest stories, one with villains and heroes, the potential for disaster and human cost, full of twists and turns but ultimately illuminating, refreshing, even vindicating.
For my thesis abstract, key implications plus further links, see below.
This autoethnographic case study explores the apparent differences in one English Department regarding the most effective ways to improve student writing. Qualitative data is examined to reveal ideological and methodological tensions between an approach informed by National Writing Project ideals and an approach informed by the government’s current standards debate. Data was gathered over the course of one academic year and contains semi-structured interview transcripts with a wide range of staff and students, as well as exemplar material and field notes. The discussion is located in the literature of government policy contrasted with contemporary exegeses most notably by Smith and Wrigley, Locke and Myhill.
The analysis concerns English teachers’ attempts to understand the ‘field of judgement’ applied to student work by the examination board, to write a scheme of work, to mark student written work, to trial a different approach and to work within a whole school context. The study advocates a pragmatic blend of National Writing Project methods within current external constraints. It concludes that a radical change of approach to school literacy policy, teaching styles and approaches would be beneficial to improvement in student writing.
Seven key implications of my research
- National measures of writing progress suggest that Illich may have had a point in his polemic ‘Deschooling Society’ (1995), “Together we have come to realize that for most men the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school”.
- Any strategy that seeks to intervene in students’ writing needs to recognise the skills are developing throughout their life. This may have implications for liaison between co-operating schools.
- Writing pedagogy should be reframed, as far as is possible within the school context, as a process not a product. Students should feel that their development as writers is more important than the grade on a piece of work and this will involve adaptations to classroom practice.
- Keeping a personal journal, from the beginning to the end of their school career and beyond, should be encouraged. Introducing more flexible ways of responding to student writing within their journals, which empower them as writers, may encourage student motivation and self-efficacy. The use of portfolios of best work is another way of encouraging drafting skills and making progress data more reliable.
- Enhanced student motivation and self-efficacy is likely to have a beneficial effect on student behaviour.
- Writing tasks with ‘real’ audiences have been shown to improve student motivation, and this may be easier to achieve in terminally examined KS4 and KS5 courses.
- Talented and motivated student writers are currently an underused resource for promoting writing practice.
Links to the full thesis can be found on Academia.edu and Researchgate under Tricia Lennie, ‘No surrender’. A case study of how one Bedfordshire Upper School meets the challenge to improve students’ writing.
The real benefit to teachers of in-service Higher Degrees is the opportunity to reflect on practice; to fraternise with the very best scholars in your field; to learn how to investigate practice and make a scholarly case for change. For this opportunity, I would like to thank the inspiring staff in the Faculty of Education and the SUPER M.Ed cohort of 2013-15.