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January Issue

Vol 25|No 3|January 2016


After technology - What then?

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

For three decades schools have been told that new technologies would transform classrooms and learning, changing non-readers into readers, poor writers into strong writers and non-thinkers into thinkers. If you filled classrooms with smart boards, students would become smart. If you taught students to program turtles (LOGO), they would grow more logical.

Some educational leaders even proposed "smart classrooms" by which they meant classrooms filled with networked equipment and smart boards.

What went wrong?

Some of us argued from the beginning in the 1980s that this was not about technology or software. The prospect of changing schools and learning depended most upon teaching and learning strategies. But the money went overwhelmingly to machines and software. In most places, professional development was done on the cheap if done at all.


Did computers improve American writing scores?

Properly introduced, word processing and idea processing with laptops or iPad type devices should have made a big difference in the scores of American students on the NAEP Writing Report Card since some of us started using computers for writing back in the 1980s.

Three decades later, sadly, results have shown little improvement (see below).

To achieve such a difference, teachers would have to understand Writing as Process and know how to exploit the composing and editing powers of word processing software, mind mapping software and the digital thesaurus. In turn, this would require that school districts make a substantial investment in professional development. Dropping laptops onto student laps will not turn them into effective writers.

Introducing Macs to the writing program at Princeton High School in the 1980s, we provided extensive professional development support to the teachers, blending the concepts of Writing as Process with the advantages provided by the fluidity of electronic text. Based on this experience, I published an article "Accordion Writing" — expository composition with the word processor" for the English Journal (v73 n5 p56-58 Sep 1984).

Since then I have continued suggesting best writing practices in a dozen articles. In March of 2011, I published an article, "Laptop Thinking and Writing" that outlined in considerable detail how student writing might be improved with these tools. In that same article I lamented the elimination by Congress of funding for the National Writing Project, an organization that had been instrumental in supporting professional development for teachers of writing.

Fortunately, in October of 2015, the organization received "new grant funding through the U.S. Department of Education's Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program. With $5.5M awarded for the first year of a three-year program, this investment in NWP's College-Ready Writers Program: Expanding the Reach of Effective Teacher-Leaders to Support All Student . . . " Hopefully, we will see further investment in programs like these.

Sadly, the scores of American students on the NAEP Writing Report Card have remained pretty much stagnant in the thirty years since I published that 1984 article. We have not seen the growth and improvement we could have expected with robust professional development and adequate funding of groups like the National Writing Project.

For many years the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has reported the percentage of American students performing at the advanced level, the proficient level, the basic level and below. The 2011 NAEP Writing Report Card for grades 8 and 12 showed the following:

24 percent of students at both grade levels scored at the proficient level on the writing assessment, while 54 percent of eighth graders and 52 percent of 12th graders met the benchmark for basic. Around 20 percent of both grades performed below basic, while only 3 percent scored at the advanced level.

Back in 2007, the results were quite similar. Farther back in 1998, the percentage of students reaching proficient was 27 for 8th Grade and 22 for 12th Grade. Only 1 percent reached advanced at both grades in that year.

What then?

What should have been evident from the start is the importance of professional and program development when asking teachers to use new tools. When it comes to improving the writing of students, we should be investing in the kinds of two week summer programs offered by the National Writing Project and identifying successful models such as the 6+1 Trait® Writing Model of Instruction & Assessment:

Education Northwest offers workshops, writing institutes, and on-site and virtual instruction in a wide range of topics. http://educationnorthwest.org/services/professional-development

After decades of placing the cart before the horse, it is time to emphasize effective teaching and learning strategies. If we hope to see much better performance on challenging writing tasks like those demanded by the Common Core Standards or the NAEP Writing Test, we must align our professional development to those tasks.


We can, for example, equip all students with questions to help them transform their early drafts:

Ideas and Content
How can I . . .

  • Change the way I write my sentences so that the main ideas stand out more clearly?
  • Add evidence or examples so that my ideas stand with enough support?
  • Add details, testimony or information which will make my paper more convincing?
  • Explain my reasons for not agreeing with opposing ideas and possibilities?
  • Improve the logic of my argument?
  • Strengthen the connections between ideas, examples and illustrations?

How can I . . .

  • Rearrange the order of the ideas and their supporting evidence to provide a stronger foundation for the argument I am making?
  • Make sure each section of the paper does what it is meant to do? Is the introduction inviting? Does it state the issue clearly? Does the conclusion pull together the whole piece? Does it end with some power?
  • Pace the flow of the paper so that it slows down and speeds up at the right times?
  • Build smoother and clearer transitions and bridges between sections of the paper as well as between the ideas being explored?

How can I . . .

  • Strengthen my own personal identity in these words and sentences so the reader will hear my strong feelings and beliefs?
  • Modify the words so that my passion and caring both shine through with conviction and strength?
  • Change the piece so that I anticipate the questions, needs and concerns a reader might have?
  • Write with fresh and original insights which I have built and discovered myself without simply borrowing the ideas of others?

Word Choice
How can I . . .

  • Substitute stronger words where they are needed?
  • Tone down words where they are too strong?
  • Replace words which are "overdone" or "over-ripe" or "inflated" with language which is just right?
  • Change tired and worn expressions into something new, fresh and original?
  • Insert language which appeals, awakens the senses and strikes the fancy of the reader?
  • Deepen and sharpen meaning by checking the thesaurus or dictionary for just the right word?
  • Eliminate needless repetitions and the flabby use of words?

Sentence Fluency
How can I . . .

  • Rewrite sentences to improve their flow from one to another so that my writing has cadence much like a piece of music?
  • Introduce variety to the length and type of sentence in ways which seem natural and pleasing rather than forced and awkward? Can I combine some short sentences? Can I replace clauses with phrases?
  • Insert bridging words such as adverbs both at the beginning and also within the body of my sentences to avoid stringing overly simple clauses together in a choppy manner?
  • Change the words within sentences to eliminate "deadwood" and clarify meaning?

How can I . . .

  • Place paragraph breaks where they will help to put my message across?
  • Employ punctuation that helps the reader know where to pause and how to read my material?
  • Check to make sure all rules for grammar, spelling and capitalization have been followed?

Introducing Idea Processing

When word processing first came to schools, many teachers waited for the final draft before letting students use the computer. There can be huge differences and advantages to composing ideas and paragraphs on the computer instead of paper, most of which flow from the fluid nature of electronic text. When combined with idea processing and mind mapping software, students are better prepared for the kinds of writing for thinking required by the Common Core Standards and the NAEP Writing Test.

The Core Standards require students to perform well on many of the tasks related to the performance on the NAEP test that will win a "proficient" or an "advanced" level, and it is apparent that testing will move in this decade from paper and pencil to computers. The following statement from the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (PDF) gives a dramatic look at what students must be able to do:

Note on range and content of student writing

For students, writing is a key means of asserting and defending claims, showing what they know about a subject, and conveying what they have experienced, imagined, thought, and felt. To be college-and career-ready writers, students must take task, purpose, and audience into careful consideration, choosing words, information, structures, and formats deliberately. They need to know how to combine elements of different kinds of writing — for example, to use narrative strategies within argument and explanation within narrative — to produce complex and nuanced writing.

They need to be able to use technology strategically when creating, refining, and collaborating on writing. They have to become adept at gathering information, evaluating sources, and citing material accurately, reporting findings from their research and analysis of sources in a clear and cogent manner. They must have the flexibility, concentration, and fluency to produce high-quality first-draft text under a tight deadline as well as the capacity to revisit and make improvements to a piece of writing over multiple drafts when circumstances encourage or require it.
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It is sad to note the very low percentage of American students who score at the Advanced Level on the NAEP Writing Test. In comparing the tasks below required to move from proficient to Advanced, the main difference is the type of logic, argumentation and thinking required.

Writing achievement levels, grade 8


Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to produce an effective response within the time allowed that shows a general understanding of the writing task they have been assigned. Their writing should show that these students are aware of the audience they are expected to address, and it should include supporting details in an organized way.


Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to produce a detailed and organized response within the time allowed that shows an understanding of both the writing task they have been assigned and the audience they are expected to address. Their writing should include precise language and varied sentence structure, and it may show analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking.


Eighth-grade students performing at the Advanced level should be able to produce a fully developed response within the time allowed that shows a clear understanding of both the writing task they have been assigned and the audience they are expected to address. Their writing should show some analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking and may make use of literary strategies to clarify a point.

At the same time, the writing should be clearly organized, demonstrating precise word choice and varied sentence structure

The secret to the powerful use of laptops or computers for writing and thinking is an understanding of incubation, percolation, fermentation, reverie and idea processing. In addressing the challenges presented by the Core Standards and the NAEP Writing Test, the strategies outlined in the March 2011 article mentioned above will help a school to maximize the number of students performing at the proficient or advanced levels.

Laptop Thinking and Writing


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