Notes from Arthur Applebee’s WRAB Keynote

This morning, WRAB III kicked off with conference organizers greeted 1140 colleagues from around the world, followed by a keynote from Arthur Applebee, an academic hero for those of us interested in writing research.

Many of his ideas from this talk are also shared in his recent book, Writing Instruction That Works, looking at 20 schools, both in the classroom and with testing data from the school.

The idea was to look at ways that typical writing programs compared to highly successful ones. Here are some notes from his presentation, “What Shapes School Work? Examining Influences on School Writing Tasks over Time in U.S. Secondary Schools.” Main points from the talk:

  • Project looking at changes in writing instruction over the past 30 years
  • Looked across many states including Kentucky, Michigan, and Texas
  • Looked at successful students, as well as less successful students
  • Survey of 1500 teachers and at writing in English, History, Science, and Math
  • Compared to his 1981 study — not an exact replication of the research model, but looking at many of the same issues: assignments, requirements, instructional practices
  • Of course, some differences between then and now — more use of tech, casual atmosphere, but the practices of instruction are, sadly, mostly the same.
  • Example assignment from 1980 — writing was a response to material that was presented by the teacher and textbook, repeated in a format that was well rehearsed.
  • In 2006, the assignment required some knowledge of how to frame a response, drawing in material from class. However, still limiting in the sense that students do not develop new ideas, limited to a five-paragraph theme formulaic response.
  • In other words, students do not elaborate on understanding or construct meaning. Most writing in school is utilitarian.
  • The elephant in the room is that we have high stakes testing that is pervasive in US education. The threat to the teachers and school is what transforms instruction.
  • None of this bodes well for teaching writing. You can pass all of these exams without being able to write at all.
  • Lots of test prep reported by the teachers: Sample writing in class similar to exams, use of the test rubric, class assessments similar to tests.
  • Tests shape school work in four different ways:
    • Whether we should do writing at all?
    • How we should teach writing?
    • How to fit it in with test prep?
    • The use of word processing — most high stakes exams are being taken with handwriting, not the computer (this is changing, however!)
  • The use of writing is dictated by the requirements of the exam. For instance, in New York, the history test requires writing and so it is considered “very important” to teachers that student analyze and synthesize history ideas in writing.
  • Testing reinforces inequality by causing low-performing schools to focus on prep, which leads to inadequate curriculum and, in turn, poorer test scores. It’s a downward spiral.
  • Some good news: Good news is that students do write more to a wider variety of audiences. Teachers understand of best practice have improved.

Some final thoughts (from me):

I was hoping to hear some more of the “good news” in Applebee’s talk, thinking about the ways that we might build on the strengths of work that the National Writing Project and other professional groups have taken. However, it does seem as though there are some bright spots, just not at the moment. Off to the rest of the conference.

Arthur Applebee Keynote from WRAB III in Paris
Arthur Applebee Keynote from WRAB III in Paris

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