Posts Tagged Andrew Pudewa
By Andrew Pudewa, Inst. for Excellence in Writing, http://www.excellenceinwriting.com/
MORTIMER ADLER, IN HIS PAIDEIA PROPOSAL calling for a return to a classical curriculum, points out one of the major problems of modern education: the confusion of Information, Ideas, and Skills. While Information (facts) is primarily learned through memorization and can be assessed on a percentage-success basis, Ideas are different—they are infinite and can’t be easily assessed with the same mechanical right-or-wrong method. “What percentage of the concept of inflation do you understand?” is a nonsensical question, since the concept of inflation could be studied for a lifetime. Discussion is essential for the development of understanding of ideas and concepts.
He goes on to point out that learning a skill is even more different; it can’t be developed either by memorization or by discussion. It must be practiced. And the modern problem is that we often try, especially in schools, to teach everything like it’s Information, since that’s what’s easiest to assess, and then we end up teaching to the test. The skill of teaching concepts through discussion and the art of teaching skills through coaching can both be easily lost somewhere between the Scantron® form and the PowerPoint file.
My professional training and background is in music. I spent the first half of my adult life as a full-time teacher of violin and young children’s music classes, so I am acutely aware that coached practice is the key to developing the skill of playing an instrument. Others may have experience in dance or sports, cooking or fine arts—things that humans do, and can only learn by doing. Often we link the idea of artistic activity with creativity and self-expression, but here again we are infected with a modernism that actually impedes the development of skills. “If it’s creative, it’s good; if it’s good, it has to be creative,” is the dominant mantra so evident today—a tragedy so often outplayed in the fine arts departments of most universities, where the way to an A is not to draw or paint or sculpt something beautiful, but to do something that no one else has ever done before, no matter how ugly or grotesque.
This, of course, won’t work too well in music. Imagine a method of teaching where we give the student a violin and with cursory directions on how to make a sound, encourage him to “be creative” and “express himself.” The result won’t much resemble music. Twenty years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Why Music May Save the World,” explaining that we music teachers were holding the line, defending the bastion of common sense against the onslaught of deconstructionist modernism attacking the arts.
When teaching music, we prescribe a graded repertoire for the student, and model for him exactly the way to play the pieces. We do this for years, gradually increasing the technical complexity of the material until the student has a solid foundation of basic skills. Then it is appropriate and effective to introduce creative ideas such as interpretation, improvisation, and composition. This should also be the basis for the teaching of writing, a similar artistic skill.
I often hear a well-meaning parent or teacher say to me, “I just want my kids to be able to express themselves in writing.” However, the truth is different: Writing is not so much about expressing oneself as it is about expressing ideas. Possibly, we may someday be fortunate enough to have an original idea worth expressing (It hasn’t happened to me yet, since I’m pretty sure every idea I’ve ever had came from somewhere else.), but until then we should practice the skill of writing the way we practice and become excellent in many skills—through imitation and repetition.
Throughout most of history, the arts of language have been taught through memorization and recitation, reading and copywork. Imitation is critical. Even well-known authors like Benjamin Franklin, Jack London, and Somerset Maugham recorded the benefits they obtained through the practice of trying to imitate existing good writing and re-present already-well-organized ideas.
So I welcome you to our institute, where we provide materials to assist parents and teachers in helping their students develop an excellent foundation of skills by using models, methods, and checklists. Our approach to teaching composition is not only very old (Think ancient rhetoric.), but is more effective than most anything you will find today. We have received literally thousands of letters and messages from parents of students who have used the IEW system for a few years. They usually score well above their peers on standardized assessments, enjoy writing much more than they used to, win essay contests and scholarships, head into the SAT or ACT with confidence, and write papers which win the acclaim of their university professors. These stories are as common among those who struggled as they are from others.
The irony is both sad and beautiful. When originality and creativity are esteemed above all else, basic skills decrease and true artistic expression becomes impossible; however, when basic skills are taught in an appropriate and effective way, creativity flourishes. We at IEW are working hard to restore the lost art of teaching composition, providing tools and techniques you can give to your children so that they will indeed be able to speak and write clearly and confidently in a world that so desperately needs them to do so.
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By Andrew Pudewa
Today, as perhaps never before, our society purports to value creativity in education. Touted as the solution to economic, social, and environmental problems, creative thinking has become a primary objective for many educational institutions and homeschool families. Especially in the area of writing, creativity seems to be both the key and the goal. “Be unique! Be creative! Be original! Just make it up!” That which appears to engender creativity is considered good; that which fails to do so, is bad. Therefore, activities which promote basic skills (such as copywork, memorization, rote learning, drill) are often put aside in favor of activities which appear more spontaneous (story starters, free writing, journaling, etc.).
I’ve heard parents and teachers say things to children like, “First, just get your thoughts down…” or “Write whatever comes into your mind…you can edit later.” Unfortunately there are two fundamental problems with this approach: 1) It promotes undisciplined thinking and therefore bad writing; and 2) It misrepresents the activity of thinking and writing.
First, consider this: To do anything with excellence, we need two things — a plan and sufficient practice. Very few people ever stumble into doing anything well. This is particularly true in writing, because good writing is organized. Good writers learn to structure and order their thoughts, which means they must think before they write. Generally, human thought is broad and global; we make intuitive associations and logical leaps, which is good because it allows for the formation of new ideas, mainly through the combination and permutation of previously-existing concepts. But then, the logical connections and supporting details must be added, often painstakingly, to help the reader share the understanding of the writer as fully as possible. Without a plan, the writer’s task is exponentially harder. Reorganizing huge chunks of stream-of-consciousness prose into something structured is much more difficult than organizing ideas into an outline; it’s hard for most adults, nigh impossible for children.
So our question becomes: How can we teach children to outline and plan what they intend to write? The answer, somewhat obvious, is novel to many of us today, since it requires an antiquated discipline — imitation. If students practice making outlines from existing materials (source texts that can include facts, opinions, stories, descriptions),
they will learn how to create outlines by taking key words from sentences, facts, elements of an original story, etc. They then can practice reconstructing those ideas from their outline, much the way Benjamin Franklin described in his Autobiography. While some teachers or parents may view this process (of taking notes and rewriting already-existing
content and stories from notes) to be a type of glorified plagiarism, what they fail to understand is that this process is the best possible training for the more “creative” activity of taking “notes from the brain.” To read a statement and choose key words to copy into an outline is essentially the same cognitive activity as hearing one’s own thought and choosing key words to put in an outline. In other words, this sort of imitation is the best possible way to develop the essential skill of “think first, then write.”
The second issue is content. Where do ideas come from? A simple, self-evident truth illuminates the problem: Inspiration of the Holy Spirit notwithstanding, the output of a human mind is generally limited to what’s in it to begin with. We don’t get Chinese out of a brain that doesn’t have Chinese; we don’t get physics out of brain that doesn’t have any physics. Output is limited by input. Things don’t “come to you” so much as they “come out of you.” Ideas don’t appear from nowhere; they are the result of the combination and permutation of previously-existing ideas. Stephen King, certainly
one of the most wildly imaginative writers of our time, explained this in his autobiography, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, wherein he gives examples how all of his ideas came from somewhere — things he had read, heard, experienced –
and then combined and morphed into a new, seemingly unique (and often horrific) idea. So children — and all of us, in fact — are limited in our imagination to our experience. A creative mind is a full mind because it has more “stuff” with which to work. In the terminology of classical rhetoric, the “coming up with something to say” is the canon of Invention. What’s so interesting about that word is another word that shares the same root, “inventory”. To invent something, you have to have some material with which to invent! Therefore, building the database of the mind with ideas and experiences through extensive reading and relevant, interesting activity is the best way to stock up the inventory that will allow for the greatest creativity later on. This fact helps us understand what Einstein meant when he said, “If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be even more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Stories that stretch what’s possible also stretch the imagination and fill the mind with new ideas that can then become seeds for other new, even more original imaginings. And what’s true for fairy tales is also true for art and poetry, science and law.
Sadly, many modernists, in their elevation of creativity to godlike status, allow their pursuit of that end to displace the development of basic skills, which in writing, as in most arts, requires a foundation built upon imitation. So, let us remember the need to build that foundation, and proceed without anxiety that somehow we will fail our children’s creativity. By following the traditional path that we know works, we will more effectively reach our goal of skilled, creative thinkers. A.P.
This article first appeared in IEW’s September 2011 e-Newsletter. firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 by The Institute for Excellence in Writing. It is available at www.excellenceinwriting.com for your personal use or for distribution. Permission given to duplicate complete & unaltered.
by Andrew Pudewa
As in many areas of education, the “skill” of writing has been elevated to the status of “art,” which it rightfully should be. However, this has often been to the detriment of children. Equating “good” with “creative” and “creative” with “good,” many teachers, schools and curriculum publishers have taken an approach to teaching which more or less follows a “hands off” method of instruction. They seek to allow children to “express” themselves on paper without interfering with their freedom and creativity. Although well-intentioned, the “non-instruction” which results from this approach has little chance of helping the child develop confidence and competence in writing, proving particularly unhelpful for the reluctant writer, who most desperately needs to learn basic skills.
In a typical junior high school classroom, it is not uncommon to see students writing in their “journals,” with teachers obediently respecting their “right” to write whatever they wish without criticism or correction; but what is the result of this? Arguably, it is a valuable activity to “freely” express ideas in words on paper, but one must again ask, what are the students really learning? Is this truly the best use of their time during those important formative years?
And what of the child who doesn’t have the maturity to reflect on his experiences, feelings and thoughts about the events of life: Must his opportunity to learn to write become dependent on his ability to think of ideas? How do we teach thinking? How should we teach writing?
Actually, how do we learn to think? Often thought comes to us through “inner speech,” as we hear ourselves “talking” in our head. Very young children will talk to themselves to make sense of the things they see and do. Our thoughts mature as the language patterns we learn as toddlers expand to encompass more complex concepts and their relationships. Without question, some people think more abstractly (thus the existence of the “right-brain” stereotype), but logical reasoning generally evolves from “thinking it through” with inner speech.
The storage of solid language patterns in the brain is of utmost importance for the development of excellent speaking and writing skills. How is this done? Obviously, by imitation! In the same way that as young children, we say what we hear, as young students, we should write what we read.
This idea is not new. From the old-school “copybooks” to the increasingly popular “Benjamin Franklin” method, imitation has been a common sense approach to teaching for centuries. Memorizing great chunks of Latin oratory, students in ancient Rome used imitation to master the skill of rhetoric. Only in the last 20-30 years has the great god of “creativity” in art upstaged the tradition of imitation in building a foundation of skills. Did Leonardo da Vinci advise his students to “express themselves” on canvas? No, he had them copy his Mona Lisa, and there are dozens of Mona Lisa imitations today to prove it. Did the great ‘cellist Pablo Casals suggest that his students choose their own bowings, fingerings and dynamics in the Bach partitas they played? No, Casals had them imitate his style with absolute precision, and only when every nuance of their performance was absolutely identical to his, did he say, “Now you know enough to do it differently than me.” Why teach writing any differently?
Throughout the U.S. and Canada, schools and administrators, parents and legislatures are concerned about the poor showing of students on writing assessments. They are perplexed. New curriculums, revised textbooks and increased classroom technology have not improved results over the past two decades. It seems confusing, but why should we be surprised?
Being so much a product of their environment, the children themselves will prove the efficacy of the teaching method they have endured. Recently, education and language arts experts have been scrambling to devise rubrics, models and processes, strategies and applications to help children quickly develop the abilities they currently seem to lack. Although these various state standards have been moderately successful in helping teachers specify the capabilities children should have, they have done little to assist the teachers in nurturing these skills in their students. Perhaps a look to compare the methods of the present with those of past is in order.
The State of California Language Arts Content Standards, Grade 4, Section 2.0, which is termed Writing Applications (genres & their characteristics), suggests that by the end of fourth grade, students should be able to: 2.1. – write narratives on incidents that: (1) relate ideas, observations, and/or memories (2) provide a context to enable the reader to imagine the world of the event or experience. (3) use concrete sensory details (4) provide insight into why this incident is memorable.
How many adults could do that, let alone teach a child to do so? Very few. The only method of effectively teaching this would be by example. Reading a sample or two would not be enough. For almost all ten year old children, it would be best for them to first practice on someone else’s narrative (preferably a well done autobiographical excerpt), taking key words from key ideas and re-writing that person’s experience (perhaps several times with several samples), before they would even begin to internalize the nature of “concrete sensory details,” or intuitively know how to “provide a context to enable the reader to imagine the world of the event.” Very, very few children could meet this “writing standard” using one of their own memories or experiences without having had the opportunity to first read and write about incidents in the lives of others which already fulfill these requirements.
Perhaps it will take another decade of frustration with assessments and standards until we realize that what is now being done in schools does not work as well as the common sense methods that were used centuries ago. Writing is indeed an “art,” and should be taught as art has classically been taught, with step-by-step guidance, continuous practice, and plenty of opportunity for imitation.
Andrew Pudewa is the director of The Institute for Excellence in Writing, which offers live courses and videotaped seminars on writing for children, teachers and teaching parents. More information about Mr. Pudewa’s teaching schedule and products are available at: www.writing-edu.com or by calling 800/856-5815.
Copyright 2013 by Andrew Pudewa. All rights reserved.
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