My friend Tom Macready regularly challenges us as school leaders to think from a communication perspective about our words and actions: the key question from this perspective is What are we creating when we…..? It flows from the conviction that all we say and do have an impact because of the meaning that we create. Thinking about our actions as leaders from this forces us to be more explicit in our thinking and mentally better prepared for the consequences of what we say. This then leads to a new challenge – did we create exactly what we intended by what we said or did? This has led some of us to have another look at what exactly we are creating when we ask children to improve their writing.

Two weeks ago I started working with a large group of Year 6 children to improve their writing. They are competently at the expected standard for Year 6 and we wanted all of them, or as many as we could humanly enable, to show us writing that met the interim standards (KS2, writing) for greater depth. A vile term, really. In doing so I was conscious that in the planning of this intervention, I had quite deliberately instrumentalised these children – using them and their achievements to serve as a proxy or tool for me to show that we were improving as a school by upping the percentage of Y6 children reaching a particular standard. We all do it as school leaders and it is iniquitous. If we believe that the primary accountability and assessment system is wrong (and many of us do) and that the tests we give them are ill-founded (many of us ditto) then what we should be doing is advancing the learning and achievement of these children as respected writers.  We do not “improve their writing standard” – like fine-tuning a machine – and we dare not instrumentalise them. So there was a challenge to me in avoiding their instrumentalisation; the way we found to avoid it was to hold a writing workshop, seminar-style, where children would challenge and encourage each other in the manner of their writing, the content, ideas and writing skills that they have been faithfully taught, using the tools of writing as instruments. This did certain things for all of us: it enabled me – and them – to take joy in their learning and in their writing; it enabled us as adult and children together, to honour the craft and the writing process, and to honour one another as writers. It enabled learning to flow from the child-child interactions (some of the comments they made on each other’s work are more severe than I would have written; and their kindness and appreciation of each other’s work is similarly fulsome), as well as from the marking I carried out each evening. The children were in control of the tools of writing.

Last week, we as a team of teachers moderated our writing assessments by working alongside teachers from our year group in a range of other schools. This is a great practice that we shall doubtless engage in again, but it did highlight the issue of instrumentality. We encountered writing, for example – I only saw this in Y3 and Y5, but imagine it was more widespread, where children had busily counted all the different times that certain writing features had appeared in their writing (and perhaps in their friends’ writing too) on a little rubric pasted into the work at the end. We used to use this a while ago (never as rigorously as we saw it in our colleagues’ work) but have abandoned it  subsequently because we saw that a child – or children, if peer assessment was involved – could obey all the rules and still produce rubbish work. Although it makes the assessor or moderator’s work much easier, what you are assessing or moderating may not (literally) be worth the paper it was written on. In other words you can get writing that is “at depth” by using the indicators, but which is barely worth reading. Children’s writing is always variable – even within the same child’s work there is rarely effective consistency across genres – but we are doing them a gross disservice if we do not treat them as writers and place the locus of control in the wrong hands.

And this is the nub of it: where is the locus of control? Tools for improvement in writing – grammatical, orthographic and syntactical – are taught in every school, and provide children with a toolkit of choice. They are allowed to use these tools as instruments with which to craft and perfect their work. The locus of control is with the child – to be sure, with help and encouragement from peers and teachers – and they remain the author. All we do exists “to honour the work if the writer and the work of the teacher” – as our moderation approach stipulates. As soon as we use the children’s writing or the children themselves for the greater glory of the school and its outward-facing data, we are guilty of instrumentality, of having used them for a purpose for which they were not created.

So to answer Tom’s question: what are we creating when we try and improve children’s writing? What are we doing to avoid using children for ends for which they were not purposed? Well, to start with, the following:

  • a growing self-awareness and self-respect among the children for themselves as real writers writing purposefully for real audiences.
  • a respect for the tools of writing as being fully under the control of the writer, and not the assessor or moderator.
  • a growing shared understanding between both teachers and children as to what a good writer really is. The best definition of this anywhere in the current educational literature is from 10 years ago and was written by Pie Corbett, entitled Good Writers. Until you have read that, you have no business teaching writing to anybody.
  • fitting our assessment of writing around the author as much as around the writing

In 1942, the great Austrian author Stefan Zweig, at the time one of Europe’s best-selling authors, published a set of reflective memoirs about his early life and the imperial Austro-Hungarian world in which he grew up before 1914. It is a reflective companion to the two greatest novels about this period – the Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb by his great friend and correspondent Joseph Roth. One of the more delightful essays is a look back at his schooldays and the early adolescence which led him and his class mates into the adventure of literature. But in it, in a discussion of the prejudice against youth in the Austro-Hungarian system, he says this:

Only that odd attitude can explain the way the state exploited its schools as an instrument for maintaining its authority.

This is such a contemporary reaction, but one that could be made by a whole host of educators since it was written. The locus of control for learning has to be with the learner, nowhere else. Any attempt by the teacher to set targets for a child, when not replacing and respecting the control that lies with the child, is in danger of instrumentalising that child to make their class results look better. Any attempt by the leadership of a school to collate data to improve its standing in a league table is instrumentalising its teachers and children. Any attempt by the local authority or municipality or by the state to enforce targets so it can look better, is pure instrumentality, using a child’s efforts to its gratify its own needs.

This week, an article by Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian touches on the extent to which the machinisation of humans in the workplace is growing. Low paid jobs now come with high-tech accountability systems; the very worst aspect of instrumentality, using people as robots. This identifies the subsuming of humanity to capital as a key narrative, and one that has to be resisted at every single level where we find it, whether in our workplaces or whether we are poring over a mis-spelt Year 4 account of the formation of volcanoes.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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  1. […] in any case norm-referenced and not criterion-referenced (writing assessment is an exception, but I discuss the failings of that here). Neither of these are honourable or worth doing, even if the measure was honest. But with […]

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