May 23rd, 2011
I taught writing for 30 years, 15 years of traditional approaches and 15 years
of using technology to teach writing. For the latter work, I had 7 grants
over 13 years. What we learned: students write better and more
authentically if the writing is dialogic. At that time, the individual
essay still ruled supreme, so the dialogic writing was "pre-writing,"
a way to build ideas toward the individual essay.
In ePortfolio practices I am seeing in campuses across the country (the US),
the individual essay -- which researchers showed long ago was an unfortunate
choice for developing writing skills -- is now called a "reflection"
but has changed rhetorically not a whit. What was bad before is still bad
under its new term.
This re-labeling a bad practice to begin with would be bad enough if it were
still appropriate to be focusing on the individual autonomous learner.
But, it is not. Employers are begging, instead, for graduates who
are comfortable working in teams.
To address both issues -- the writing of essays as an unproductive learning
practice and, secondly, the need for students to be skilled as employers expect
-- we should consider a better approach: dialogic reflection.
Students writing to each other in response to a prompt avoids the traps of the
individual essay: writing autonomously to the teacher, an inauthentic
writing task, and the resultant writer-based writing: not communicating but
performing for a grade.
Dialogic reflection can be done in chat, email, text, blog, wiki, or in the
ePortfolio system itself -- whatever can be saved in an exportable file.
Both students are responding to the prompt, but must come up with just one
joint reflection. As part of the reflection, excerpts from the dialog can
or perhaps should be included.
When students write to each other about a shared task, their writing has a real
purpose and communication is necessary, so the students tend more toward
reader-based writing, a more mature and life-long form of writing than the
performance essays or reflections that are common now.
One important affordance of portfolio technology is the ability to support
collaboration. AAEEBL is, in part, about authentic learning -- real life
learning. Writing an essay to a teacher as a performance is not an
authentic simulation of real-life writing situations. There is no reason
to perpetuate this unfortunate practice in portfolio-land. It is better
to consider dialogic reflection or some other configuration to move away from a
rhetorical practice we know results in graduates who can't write.