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Why can’t my new employees write?
I heard this question several times on my recent vacation. I go on vacation to get away from these sorts of questions, but vacation was a group biking tour of Normandy and in the downtime of meals or other socializing, when my profession came up, this is the question people wanted to ask me.
The other bikers were professionals from various walks of life – with a heavy concentration of lawyers – interesting, highly accomplished people. The new employees they’re working with often come from elite institutions (Ivy League), and even have advanced degrees.
Before giving my own answer, I ask two questions. First, I ask what they mean when they say that their new employees can’t “write.” They primarily observe a fundamental lack of clarity and perceive a gap between the purpose of the writing and the result of what’s been written, a lack of awareness of audience and occasion.
Why do they want to keep typing plethora? they ask me.
I then ask them why they think the next generation of white-collar professionals can’t write. The most common response is a belief in a lack of “rigor” in their employees’ educational pasts.
I don’t find the lack of rigor explanation persuasive. We’re talking about elite students here landing jobs in highly desirable firms.
These are Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.” We can presume that their educations have been rigorous as they’ve climbed to the top of the meritocratic heap.
If these young professionals can’t write well, who can? And if they’re not writing well, why not?
My belief is that the experience of these elite students is similar to my very accomplished, but not quite elite students, that they see writing for school not as an occasion to communicate ideas, but instead to perform a kind of intelligence that we associate with being (or appearing to be) a good “student.”
I believe that in many cases, these young professionals have never encountered a genuine and meaningful rhetorical situation in an academic or professional context. They are highly skilled at a particular kind of academic writing performance that they have been doing from a very early age, but they are largely unpracticed at that what their employers expect them to do, clearly communicate ideas to specific audiences.
My students’ chief struggle tends to be rooted in years of schooling where what they have to say doesn’t really matter, and the primary focus is on “how” you say things.
This need is driven by an overblown assessment culture, fueled by well-intentioned instructors who want to arm students with techniques that will allow them to write in ways that will score well on assessments, particularly standardized assessments, including AP exams.
I have spent a fair amount of my career being this type of instructor at the college level, the one who wants to coach his students to do well on the assessment in front of them – a fairly narrow slice of the writing pie – because I thought doing well on those assignments mattered.
If the goal is for writers to develop truly meaningful skills, I’m not convinced those efforts were well-placed.
In the past, I have given students rules and rubrics, techniques, tactics. Students are comfortable with these things because they have been seeing them for years. The top performing students learn how to employ these tactics relatively seamlessly which creates a writing simulacrum that often appears accomplished, but conveys little in terms of communicating genuine meaning.
This approach results in what high school teacher Michelle Kenney calls “good enough writing…formulaic essays devoid of creativity and well-developed critical thinking, yet proficient enough to pass a test, raise school graduation rates, or increase the number of students receiving AP credit.”
I see a lot of “good enough” writing from my entering students. They come armed with methods, but not a lot of ideas. It’s not that they don’t have ideas, it’s just that they don’t see writing for school as a place where those ideas are valued.
The argument for teaching writing through rubrics and techniques is persuasive. If we’re going to measure students according to particular metrics, we should be preparing them to succeed on those measurements, particularly when the cost of failure seems to be so high.
We have to give them training wheels, the argument goes. Later, they can learn to work without them.
But what if training wheels actually cause students harm by preventing them from practicing the most important skills when it comes to developing as writers?
As it turns out, training wheels on bicycles have that very effect, and for generations, we’ve been teaching children using an inefficient and counterproductive method. The most difficult skill in learning how to ride a bike is balance. But training wheels don’t help young riders develop balance. In fact, they have the opposite effect, allowing children to engage in a simulation of bike riding without the risk of falling, delaying the necessary practice of balance.
Years of research have now revealed that a far better approach for achieving bike riding proficiency is to start children (as young as two) on “balance” bikes, where they pedal with their own feet on the ground.
Learning balance comes organically as children learn to coast on flats, and then ride down slopes. Adding peddling in later happens almost seamlessly.
Obviously, those starting with training wheels eventually learn to ride, usually with a loved-one running alongside as the training wheels come off. But children who learn on balance bikes do better.
Giving students templates and rubrics to employ in order to pass assessments have the same effect as those training wheels, never allowing them to confront the hardest, and most vital part of learning how to write.
Writing is balancing, making choices while considering audience, purpose, occasion. The rhetorical situation has been at the core of writing instruction forever, and yet much of the writing we ask developing writers to do keeps them from fully wrestling with those choices because we strap on the training wheels and never take them off.
For me, the key to changing this is to make writing more engaging in every sense of the word, to require students to make meaning about subjects that are meaningful to them, to create stakes that go beyond assessments that mostly measure how good students are at passing an assessment.
What we do should reflect what we value. If we value writers who can communicate, we should be doing things very differently.
 I strongly recommend clicking on that link and reading Michelle Kenney’s entire essay. You won’t find a more informed or thoughtful perspective on the forces shaping K-12 writing and assessment.
 This is why I use the lens of “writing-related problems” when I consider my students’ work.