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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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If Students Aren't Flailing, We're Failing...

...to maximize their learning. Why inducing the flail is an important part of learning to write.

March 6, 2019
 
 

If we want students to improve as writers and thinkers, we have to create structures inside our institutions that incentivize “the flail.”

I believe just about anyone who has ever tried to write anything has experienced “the flail” those periods where you realize you’re swinging wildly at your target, but absolutely failing to connect. I did not do a PhD or dissertation, so I can’t speak with full confidence, but from others, I’ve been led to believe that the process is like 95% flail.

My novel, The Funny Man was seven years of flail before three months of staying on target like Luke Skywalker making his run on the Death Star’s exhaust ports. Those months were exhilarating and they’re what made the book publishable, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever experience such a thing again. 

There was a moment not quite midway through Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities that I drafted an email to my Johns Hopkins UP editor telling him I didn’t think I could pull off the book. At the time of writing the email, it seemed preferable to give back the advance than to put out the book as I perceived it in that moment.

Perhaps my biggest flail was when trying to write an application letter for a tenure-track job at the institution where I’d been a visiting instructor. How do I pump myself up for a group of people who already know me? I have fourteen drafts in my files.

But it is in those flails where I learned the most. Without them, my ability as a writer, and my experience of the world would be diminished. 

Therefore, to best learn, we must induce and then allow our students to flail. Productively flail, that is. This isn’t about wild, pointless swings. It’s about setting up a worthwhile target and giving them sufficient resources to hit it, but not interceding when they’re off target.

In my view there are three questions we can ask about a writing assignment to see if it is well-positioned to induce some productive flailing.

1. Is the subject matter students will be writing about interesting to them?

2. Is what students are writing likely to be interesting to an audience?

3. Is the process students will employ in producing the piece of writing interesting and engaging for the students themselves?

If the process isn’t interesting, we are losing the opportunity to truly see what students are capable of. This is why I find tests like the Collegial Learning Assessment[1]which claim to measure students’ critical thinking abilities so lame. The exercises are capital-B Boring and capital-L Lame. I’m not sure I would trust the person who can get fired up for such artificial activities. 

It is question three which I did not properly appreciate for a long time. Even very early on, I recognized the benefit of allowing students to write on subjects of individual fascination for genuine audiences, but I also utilized a rather prescriptive method of instruction to govern that process.

My motives were good. I was trying to preventfrustration and guide students towards producing satisfactory written artifacts. Unfortunately, in privileging that end product over the process, I was short-circuiting the experience. I wasn’t letting students flail their way towards growth.

This sent mixed messages in terms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. By not embracing question three, I was allowing grades and achievement to govern the process, rather than experiences and learning.

But reflecting on my own times of flailing and what I learned from them and perhaps more importantly why I pushed past the flail, I saw that I was denying my students something important.

Pushing past the flail is empowering and it makes me know that when I flail in the future, I have the experience and wherewithal to defeat it as I have in the past.[2]

I want students to have that same depth of experience in my writing classes. That meant getting rid of my prescriptions, making sure the process is a challenge, and getting comfortable with students struggling, and perhaps even losing that struggle when judged by the written artifacts. The Writer’s Practice is designed so every experience requires some amount of flailing. I leave out lots of things I would tell students if I wanted to smooth the path to the final artifact, but I don’t want that path smoothed. I want it bumpy, difficult, challenging, hard.

Considering the incentives and motives to push through the flail is important when we think about how we can help students learn. 

The entire time I was writing The Funny ManI had no expectation that it would be published. In fact, the odds seemed against it, and yet, I kept coming back to it periodically over years. Ultimately, as I got close to 40 and looked at my goals in life, I decided one of them would be to write an entire novel that at least satisfied me. Additionally, the themes and characters I’d put in motion with the book had captured me, and I wanted to take them as far as I was able. Not once did publishing for money (Hah!) come into play.

For Why They Can’t Write, I simply knew that I had something I wanted to say to the world and even though I was struggling with how to say it, not pushing through would be a regret far greater than sending back the money. I had no academic position. There was no promotion on the line, and my financial security seemed extremely unlikely to be impacted by the book one way or another. My motivation was entirely personal and internal.

For the application letter, I knew that if I didn’t apply for what appeared to be my last, best chance at a career where my teaching and writing could be in harmony, I would regret it terribly. Not getting the job was painful. Never trying would’ve been unthinkable.

Unfortunately, the structures of school and academia do not incentivize the flail. Traditional grading only weighs the quality of final product. Teachers in the primary and secondary systems are judged against their students’ “achievement” on standardized tests. It would be foolish to allow one’s students to flail under those circumstances.

Even in higher ed, some cultures of assessment rooted in proficiency disincentivize the flail. 

If we’re going to value the flail, we need to figure out – to at least some degree – how to measure the flail. Here are some things we can ask students to make sure our assignments are not just inducing the right kind and amount of flail, but also if we’re giving them the tools and motivation to work through those moments.

1. How many times did you feel like giving up? Why did you want to give up?

2. Why didn’t you give up? What motivated you to keep going?

3. How did you break out of the flail? What was your method for getting back on track?

4. What do you think you can apply to the future that you learned during this flail?

This will be open-ended, qualitative data, but it is for sure data. It’s the kind of data that was collected in the Meaningful Writing Project which demonstrated that intrinsic motivation and student agency are key to maximizing their learning through writing. What are we afraid of? There's nothing to lose because struggling is winning.

Vive la flail!

 

 

 

[1]This is the test that underpins the analysis of Academically Adrift.

[2]Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn’t seem to make the experience of the flail any less frustrating or distressing at the time. This is simply the nature of the flail.

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