The phrase “First, do no harm” is often (incorrectly) attributed to the Hippocratic Oath, but I have often thought, as someone who has never wanted to work in the medical profession, that this is a pretty solid guiding statement for any profession (or human). Certainly, it is one that educators should adopt. While I continue to be a huge supporter of American public education, as an insider I freely admit it has many fatal flaws and often does harm (with all good intentions – at least publicly) to its two primary constituencies: students and teachers. However, today I want to focus on one specific area: writing instruction.
Writing instruction is an area of K-16 education where great harm has been done to both students and teachers – some of it well meaning, some through ignorance (although that is difficult to defend today), and some malicious intent – often a toxic mix of all three. This education malpractice has warped the instruction of writing at every level and destroyed generations of writers much like similar destruction we see in the teaching of reading (which is worse because it also impacts writers and can destroy a life trajectory even more than writing failures).
Writing is one of the essential keys to human success in the modern world. Writing is thinking. Writing is learning. Writing is doing. Writing is power. Writing helps us understand ourselves and our minds. Writing helps us process and synthesize knowledge. Writing influences others to act upon our ideas. Yet most K-16 educators receive little or no training in the teaching of writing. Yet the federal government and many state governments also fail to fund the single most effective professional development program focused on the teaching of writing, the National Writing Project. Yet most students (K-16) spend little of their classroom time writing. Yet many persistent myths about learning to write continue to prevent any change even though decades of research have established the best practices for teaching writing.
I set out to write a very different blog post reflecting about the changes I am making in my own teaching priorities and why, but this is where I ended up. See what I mean about writing being a way to help us understand ourselves and process that information? Clearly this is a topic that has been weighing on my mind and my heart as I go about the business of being a writing teacher and supporting other teachers of writing. What do you think? Do you agree that K-16 writing instruction in America is education malpractice? Maybe you are not willing to call the way we teach writing and train teachers (or not) to teach writing education malpractice, but you must agree that we have not lived up to the call to “First, do no harm.”