Wednesday, June 3

The Educational Ecosystem Plays A Role In Writing Challenges

Ever wonder why high school students struggle with college writing assignments and college students seem ill prepared for business writing as they enter the workforce? Me too, even if the answer turned out not to be much of a mystery. It's surprisingly simple.

Most people struggle with writing assignments during those transitional periods (between high school to college or college and careers) because they are neither prepared nor practiced for the style, form, and function they need to succeed. It's not their fault. Most are only taught how to write for one specific ecosystem.

In high school, this means sharing and supporting opinions, providing summations, and remixing content from a variety of sources. Most of it is in a short-format essay form, under five pages, sometimes conveyed in first person, and rarely seen anywhere beyond high school with the possible exception of personal blog posts.

College demands something different. Students are more often asked to define problems and propose solutions, conduct analysis and criticize arguments, and provide some evidence of original thought that is tied to quantitative and qualitative evidence. The papers they write are significantly longer.

After graduation, the specifications change again. There is greater pressure placed on writers in the workforce to write shorter format objective-oriented communication that considers industry standards, corporate filters, and greater sensitively to the needs of an audience — a consideration that is not always present in college papers. Even more challenging, for those who enter communication, recent graduates must navigate an entirely different set of organizational models, attention-grabbing introductions, and recapping conclusions that meet an objective and have a call to action.

Educational ecosystems play a role in undermining effective communication. 

Every year, I tell students who enroll in any editing or writing class I teach about the various pupfish that populate the least likely places in Nevada. One of them, the Devils Hole pupfish, for example, only lives in Devils Hole, a geothermal pool located within a limestone cavern.

It's the smallest population of desert pupfish species in the world and it is amazingly specialized to only live in this one location. As long as they are there (and there are no substantial environmental changes), they thrive. When they are removed, not surprisingly, they die.

When it comes to writing, students are very much like pupfish. We teach them to adapt to writing for  a specific educational ecosystem for four years and then marvel at their inability to conform to a new one. We don't do this one time. We do it twice or more, without ever revealing the process behind it.

If we did, then more students would be keener on the diversity of style, structure, and form while also adhering to the consistent application of editing rules and proofreading practices. By teaching students a variety of styles, structures, and formats, they will become better practiced in the presentation of the material and, in some cases, might have more fun doing it.

What do I mean by that? What if ...

1. History students had to write an infomercial on joining the Roman Empire?

2. The next report on Sylvia Plath was written in poetic form mirroring The Bell Jar?

3. Rather than an opinion essay, students wrote a short story conveying the opinion like a moral?

4. We skip the standard problem/solution paper in favor of a presentation deck that does the same?

5. Students chose two historic figures with differing viewpoints and compose dialogue between them in the form of a podcast?

My long-time friend and colleague Ike Pigott has a fondness for saying "good writing educates and great writing elevates." He's right, which is why it is so unfortunate that great writing is becoming so scarce that people don't even know to look for it anymore. They'd rather skip a sentence for the pic.

Or maybe not. Maybe writing is just like baseball in that it relies on youth sports. The more people who have had at least some play time are much more likely to appreciate it for a lifetime. I'd like to think so because pictures tend not to stick with us as much as words that ignite our imaginations.

It's one of the primary reasons that on Friday afternoon (June 12), I'll be investing a few hours to help students and working professionals brush up on some skill sets. Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a long-standing half-day program designed to help people understand the essentials of style, usage, punctuation, and other mechanics. Hope to see you.
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