Tell the truth. Take your time.

By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University

Before my involvement with Teachers as Writers I was for some years involved with a large-scale English teacher development programme in Bangladesh called English in Action (EIA). A couple of years into the project, a group of four or five EIA colleagues, including myself, became unusually excited by the results of one of our evaluation studies. In the pilot phase, not only had English of the primary and secondary students in the Programme improved markedly, so had the English of their teachers. This was remarkable because the teachers’ English had received no explicit attention. We reflected on how this could have happened and quickly came to think of the many opportunities the Programme teachers had to practice their English, both as part of the CPD programme (face to face and using digital technology) and in their classrooms. The conclusion was very clear: incidental experience of English would improve teachers’ proficiency and thus (we surmised) make them better English teachers. We should tell the world; we should write a journal article. The working title was ‘Hidden Benefits’ and its earliest documents are dated September 2012.

‘Hidden benefits revisited’ is a draft from January 2015, while both ‘Son of hidden benefits’ and ‘Grandson of hidden benefits’ emerged in the course of that unusually productive year. Yet somehow we never got close to a final article. One of us (or sometimes a pair) would attempt to move a draft on, but after a bit we would run into the sand. Meanwhile, later studies produced results which, while still encouraging, showed a rather more complex picture. But on and off, we kept writing.

More recently the team won a contract to publish the lessons learnt from the Programme as a book and, guided by hope rather than experience, the proposal included a now retitled ‘Hidden benefits’ as one of its chapters. While I’m pleased to say that that chapter has now been handed over, I’m moved to ask,  ‘what made the difference this time?’

I think one of the big pitfalls of the early drafts was that we all agreed we knew what the evidence was telling us. The problem was that every time we tried to explain it, the evidence took us elsewhere and we struggled to drag it back on course. There was a more difficult story to tell, but we preferred our own version. Only when the drafts were exposed to external critical readers and there was a real prospect that (equally critical) people would read it in published form did I (as by that time the last man standing) follow the evidence where it took me. In the end, this wasn’t a million miles from our first ideas, but many of the conclusions were less triumphalist, more tentative and suggested further research was needed.

Probably the main lesson I take from this saga is, whatever you’re writing, just get on with it! This process didn’t need to take five years. But more importantly, it also shows how writing is a way at arriving at meaning, rather than expressing meanings already stored somewhere in the mind. Writing had in this case, in fact, shown itself to be an excellent mechanism for falsifying misconceptions as it helped us get to the truth. Clearly there was a role for outsiders too, both as collaborators (the critical readers) and as the future audience who would not be impressed by some poorly substantiated euphoria.

One final thought. Although this was a piece of factual writing, the reflections in the previous paragraph do have resonances with things fiction writers and poets have said to me over the years (‘just write’, ‘go where the writing takes you’ and so on). Is that a fair comparison? I’d be very interested in any comments from creative writers ‘below the line’.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

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