Some thoughts on impact

By Lucy Oliver, Research Fellow, University of Exeter

As we write up our findings from the Teachers as Writers (TaW) project, it’s hard to avoid a creeping sense of déjà vu. After all, the idea that students gain when teachers of writing write themselves is hardly new. Nor are the strategies that TaW project teachers and writers have found most helpful in the classroom. Wasn’t freewriting advocated by Peter Elbow in the 70s? And the emphasis on drafting-revising a defining feature of the so-called ‘process movement’ of the 80s? Even the assumption that teachers should write alongside their students was once enshrined in the National Curriculum: ‘Pupils should see adults writing. Teachers should write alongside pupils, sharing and talking about their writing’ (National Curriculum Council, 1990).

Some readers might also remember the UK National Writing Project 1985-1989 (not to be confused with the US version, now in its 44th year, or the current UK version which was founded in 2009). This government-sponsored initiative gave hundreds of teachers across 24 local authorities the opportunity to reflect on their practice and collaborate with colleagues on new approaches to writing. It was a grassroots project – or ‘set of projects’ – designed, led and evaluated by teachers in the (now unfamiliar!) belief that practitioners were best placed to drive effective curriculum change. Its focus was also on classroom communities of writers engaging together in the complexity of writing process, from initial jottings, through many revisions, to final outcome: ‘children learning to be literate were not seen as pilots on solo flights, mastering a set of skills. They were perceived as learners involved in a collaborative venture’ (Czerniewska, 1990). However, unlike the US project, this early iteration was short-lived, concluding with the advent of the National Curriculum, and its impact was somewhat eclipsed.

How different the context now. Yet the problem with writing remains: the statistics that informed the UK project back in the 80s are replicated almost identically in the latest National Literacy Trust survey: that fewer than half of children enjoy writing; that enjoyment declines with age; that many equate writing with transcription skills; and that few write in their own time. It’s easy to wonder how far we have travelled in understanding what works or how best to facilitate change.

It’s encouraging therefore that the current National Writing Project UK continues to support a network of teachers’ writing groups, run by teachers for teachers, and through collaborative research to collect evidence with which to strengthen teachers’ professional voice. As one of the teachers seconded to the earlier project, I know we did exciting work. We certainly enthused students and gained professionally from the opportunity to participate in residential workshops and writing groups. As an initiative rooted in practice, the project may have lacked access to emerging theories of writing and to the specialist expertise of professional authors. And if I’m honest, we had no impartial means of measuring the impact it had on the quality of students’ writing or, in the longer term, on pedagogy. That’s not to suggest, however, that a top-down model would have had more impact. Reflecting later on the lessons learnt for sustained curriculum change and professional development, Richard Andrews concluded

…that a) bottom-up approaches are essential if changes in practice and ownership are to be achieved, but that b) it is also important to have the scope of a project theorised and c) informed by top-down curriculum goals and aims so that d) progress for teachers and children can be at least gauged, if not measured (2008)

In this respect, our current project model seems a particularly powerful one, combining the craft knowledge of teachers, writers and researchers, the long experience of Arvon, and all of the advantages of ownership, theory, and systematic evaluation. I’m reminded that all initiatives build on the work that has gone before, bringing new perspectives and methodologies to bear, and repurposing old ideas. Also of the fact, as TaW Manager Becky Swain observed in her recent blog, that desired effects can be painfully slow to emerge. As we reflect on the outcomes of the Teachers as Writers project we have to keep in mind the degrees of separation between initiative and ‘impact’ and celebrate steps on the way. The evident gains for students – in enjoyment, motivation, confidence, creativity, understanding of process, and ownership of writing – may not automatically make better writing, but good writing depends on them. Effective measures of impact serve not only to highlight progress along a causal pathway but also to point the way for future development. In our final report we hope to do justice to both.

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