Writing and teaching: ‘twin crafts’?

By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University

How is writing like teaching? The question came up in a Teachers as Writers research team meeting. Some of us felt quite strongly, at an intuitive level, that such a link does exist, that the two activities had something fundamental in common, but none of us could put our finger on what exactly. The discussion moved on.

Personally, as a teacher at the Open University, I experience nearly all of my teaching activity as writing. Through written language (which is also used to introduce audio, video and other media), I have to engage my learners’ interest and build their understanding through a carefully structured text. This isn’t simply a matter of setting out information in a logical order, the writing has to be carefully paced, drawing wherever possible on the experience and previous learning of the student and constantly finding ways of checking the student’s understanding. But maybe that’s just a case of writing imitating teaching.

I was reminded of Donald Graves’s injunction to Learn the twin crafts of writing and teaching. Graves considers both writing and teaching to be craft activities as each is ‘a process of shaping to an end’. Just as the writer works and reworks a draft so that it conveys their intended meaning in a way that they judge to be right, so the teacher works with the learner’s growing understandings, intervening where some ‘shaping’ is required, and knowing the end towards which they are shaping the learning.

Graves also talks about experienced writers’ and teachers’ capacity to deal with surprise, arguing that the unexpected provokes new and better ways of dealing with the matter in hand, whether that be in a text or in a classroom. This idea of a continuing process of improvisation within some fairly rigid constraints feels familiar to me, both as a writer and as a teacher.

As a writer or teacher reading this, perhaps some of the above rings some bells for you; maybe you have other thoughts, which I’d be very interested to read in the space below the line. For my part, I’ll offer just one last idea.

I’ve always resisted the notion of teaching as ‘performance’, since the image it conveys to me is of the forthright pedagogue lecturing his or her passively listening students. But there is a different sense in which both writing and teaching can be seen as a kind of performance. Each depends for its success on the response it elicits in its ‘audience’ (again, not a word I’d usually use to refer to learners), and so must relate directly to both their expectations and their existing knowledge. Each involves a (longer or shorter) period of planning and preparation away from the eventual audience before the moment of revelation, when the text is shared or the lesson taught. And good writing, like good teaching, requires active engagement. And after the experience (or ‘performance’), readers and learners come away not just having learnt something new, but full of questions and ready to learn more.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

1 thought on “Writing and teaching: ‘twin crafts’?”

  1. Interesting stuff. The only trouble I find with being a teacher and a writer is that all my energy and good ideas go into my lessons. The two processes are connected, though, I agree. And sometimes a discussion with a student or a class can spark an idea for a story. But it’s hard to make room for the writing. My mother got her first novel published the year after she gave up teaching. I’d like to keep the two going in tandem but in practice it’s hard work.

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