The National Writing Project’s Unchanging Principles and Practices for Change
Our theme for this year’s convocation is “writing for a change,” and I want to address that theme under two related headings. The first begins with the proposition that writing is the best and most reliable instrumentality for learning and therefore for ensuring change of many kinds, including the changes that transpire dramatically and regularly for teachers in and through the writing project.
The second point I want to make on the theme of change is about the paradoxical character of the writing project itself: how the writing project is a powerful agent for deep and transforming change in persons, in professional development, and in the nature of schooling in part because we have so scrupulously resisted any change in our fundamental principles and practices, insistently monitoring and assisting all NWP sites to ensure that they demonstrate fidelity to the foundational features of a model that originated in the Bay Area Writing Project in 1974—a model one of whose distinctive features is that for 33 years it hasn’t changed.
Teachers Teaching Teachers: A Revolutionary Idea
Putting this second point first, let me start with the model of the writing project as it was conceived by our founder, James Gray, and refined and instantiated in the first years of the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP) by Jim and the circle of colleagues who were the first fellows and teacher-leaders of BAWP—many of whom still remain active in the NWP and some of whom are in this room and on this platform. The foundational principle of the writing project is that of teachers teaching teachers. This is a revolutionary concept not only in its plain sense, but also in the more esoteric interpretation that all of us who are writing project teacher-consultants and directors apply to the statement without recognizing how unusual our interpretation is.
First, the idea that a professional development program should be built on the principle that teachers are the best teachers of other teachers is itself revolutionary for a profession and cultural tradition that put teachers at the bottom of a professional knowledge economy where pedagogical knowledge would trickle down to classroom practitioners from the fountainhead of university researchers, through the mediation of school of education teacher-educators and school district and state department of education curriculum specialists.
As a supervisor in teacher education at UC Berkeley and a veteran high school teacher, Jim knew that knowledge so delivered was wasted knowledge, insofar as it was untrustworthy and rightfully disregarded by teachers because it was not knowledge earned and tested in classrooms. Jim also knew how much genuine professional knowledge and hard-earned pedagogical wisdom resided more credibly in the successful classroom teachers he had met in Bay Area schools and at professional conferences.
Just as importantly, Jim from the beginning embraced a constructivist or Deweyean view of teaching and learning, and therefore insisted that good teaching is not a one-way delivery system, but requires an active learner if any real learning is to take place.
Thus, from the beginning, Jim’s model for teachers teaching teachers was a model (unlike this ceremonially constrained lecture) of an interactive workshop where knowledge is constructed by the teacher-learners and not delivered up by experts for presumably less-expert teachers to consume like medicine or a sermon on how one should behave in life. Such consumed morsels Jim knew could deliver no true nourishment. If I tell you my idea, you know only that I have it. If I want you to have my idea for yourself, you need to experience it for yourself and my task as your teacher is to construct a venue in which you are given an opportunity to have an experience that is likely to yield for you an idea similar to the one I would have you learn.
False Knowledge and True Knowledge
The alternative, which I’ll describe in terms that Jim liked to hear me voice, is what Milton describes as false knowledge and dramatizes in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempted by Satan to consume the false fruit of the tree of knowledge, as if learning were possible in a single gulp, something taken in rather than something made by the learner. But the rationalizing (not reasoning) of Satan (and the gullible Eve) about knowledge is like the false reasoning of many pedants and assessment specialists who confuse recitational knowledge with learning. Because the test of true knowledge lies not in its possession but in the capacity of its holder to relinquish it in the interest of learning.
The problem with knowledge consumed rather than earned is twofold. First, if you consume knowledge rather than make it, you don’t know how it was ever made and don’t know how you might revise or refine it and you will be very reluctant to give it up for the insecurity of having to learn. Second, if you value yourself pridefully for what you know, you will feel devalued by any challenge to your knowledge and fearful of all questions that might call for the revision or suspension of your knowledge.
In either case you have become a kind of idolater placing a greater value on the tokens of knowledge that you have taken from others than on your God-given and humanly distinctive capacity to exercise your reason and your discourse in the interest of learning.
My account of the difference between true and false knowledge is another way of describing a distinction that Jim drew and called upon the writing project to draw in a number of publicly articulated principles and private admonishments about how to conduct the work of the writing project and ensure its commitment to true learning (always provisional) over false knowledge (always finished). Jim insisted that the writing project endorse no educational fashion or theory (paradoxically including his own), and that summer institutes be invitational and selective and include only those veteran expert teachers whose expertise did not close them off from new learning.
Competence and Incompetence
Jim would have been especially interested in the recent research studying the nature of expertise, which discovered that in most specialized fields of knowledge those persons with the greatest competence tend to regard themselves modestly as having quite limited expertise, while persons in the same field who have very limited competence tend to overrate themselves as experts. Hence the more expert you are, the more you are aware of what there is to know and how much you still have to learn. But the incompetent, who don’t understand how much there is to be learned in a field of expertise, overrate themselves, mistakenly thinking that their small store of knowledge represents significant expertise.
This explains, of course, why it is so often the case that the teachers who volunteer to participate in inservice programs offered by the writing project are the most expert teachers in their school, while the teachers who are convinced that they have nothing to learn from any inservice program are frequently the least expert members of the faculty.
And of course, the teachers who overrate themselves tend not to grow and change, which does not mean that the incompetent can never become competent, but that the most distinctive characteristic of the ignorant is less their limited knowledge than their refusal to learn. For it is surely the case that even a teacher with very limited competence could and likely would experience significant growth in learning and competence through participating at a writing project site, if only from the experience of writing itself.
Writing and Transformation
And this brings me to the second point I would make today about writing for a change. It is that writing itself—the act celebrated and taught and researched and theorized about in our writing project—has been understood from the beginning of our project and in all of its precincts to be the most powerful instrument available to literate persons for change in the writer as well as in the community, because writing is the most powerful instrument we have for learning.
I will not rehearse the classic account of our NWP colleague Janet Emig (who is often seen as the mother of modern composition research) about how the distinctive features of the cognitive processes that are required for writing make it a powerful form of learning. Nor will I take the time to elaborate on the historic role that writing project sites and site directors have had in conducting faculty seminars on writing across the curriculum at colleges and universities, and convincing teachers at every level of education of the crucial role of writing as a reliable and powerful way to advance student learning in every academic subject and discipline.
But I do want to report on how we now have a new and groundbreaking study that demonstrates convincingly not merely how writing fosters learning and change, but how writing in the context of a writing project summer institute and community is a key to the virtual transformation that takes place in the intellectual and professional lives of many writing project teachers. All writing project directors have witnessed this transformation over the years, but we have not yet adequately documented it and until now we have not been able to systematically account for it nor explain it through empirical research and a theory grounded on the carefully examined experience of teachers in the writing project.
That research and theory are now becoming available for our use through the dissertation research and publications in progress of Anne Elrod Whitney. Anne has been a fellow and teacher-consultant of two NWP sites and is now an assistant professor of education at Penn State University and a member of the research team for the NWP Legacy Study and other ongoing NWP studies under the direction of Paul LeMahieu and Linda Friedrich.
What Anne’s study demonstrates (to put it reductively and merely to hint to you of the rich findings she will be reporting in her presentations and publications over the next couple of years) is that many—and in her study, most—teachers who come to a writing project summer institute do experience a kind of learning that can most accurately be classified as transformational, and that their transformation is crucially enabled by the intellectual and emotional work they accomplish through their writing and their participation in their writing response groups.
Through their writing and the feedback they get from attentive, supportive colleague readers, writing project teachers have the opportunity to articulate, refine, reflect on, and come to recognize and appreciate the depth and breadth of their own professional knowledge and, just as importantly, what they still need and wish to learn; and in that process take possession of their true expertise, and then with both the confidence and the humility of the genuine expert, begin to frame the questions that constitute their own agenda for further learning.
In this process—one that is significantly advanced through writing project continuity programs as well‐classroom teachers experience a transformation in their sense of who they are professionally and personally, what their responsibilities are, and what they aspire to accomplish as professionals and as members of a professional community. Their transformation is characteristically realized in action—even beyond their renewed and improved teaching in their classrooms—in their assumption of new professional leadership roles and responsibilities, in their engagement in classroom-based research, in their continued writing and publication, in their relationships with colleagues, and often in decisions to seek advanced degrees. Hence writing is an instrument for true as opposed to false knowledge, for the further learning that it enables rather than obstructs.
And this suggests that if the friendly angel sent by God to guide and instruct Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden had been our gruff but loving mentor Jim Gray instead of the friendly and perhaps overly polite angel Raphael, Adam and Eve might have written their way to provisional and productive new knowledge every day in their reflective journals and essays, and never have fallen prey to the temptation of false knowledge represented by the interdicted tree and offered to them through the blandishments of the devil disguised as a pedantic snake whose only interest was in raising educational standards and providing a quick fix to the ignorance of the poor children of Eden. And we would be sitting now in our national meeting in naked bliss, celebrating the intellectual accomplishments of all children on a planet where all teachers are like writing project teachers.