Monday, October 08, 2012

The Overarching Role Of Critical Writing & the Arts

I had just finished reading an article by Peg Tyre entitled The Writing Revolution last week in the October issue of Atlantic Magazine, when Frank Stasio, the host The State of Things, a public radio program broadcast from Durham, NC, where I live, interviewed the author along with several of the people mentioned in the magazine article.

Although, as Tyre writes, “research has shown that thinking, speaking, and reading comprehension are interconnected and reinforced through good writing instruction,” according to Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center for English Learning and Achievement -- “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding has become increasingly rare.”

A survey of 500 personnel hiring managers across the nation supports Applebee’s assessment.  In a USA Today article yesterday, Andrea Kay noted that one of the survey findings is that -- “Far fewer mature workers need to improve their writing skills — only 9 percent — compared to 46 percent of millennials, born between 1981 and 2000…”

Both the Atlantic article and Stasio’s interview provide an excellent overview of how interlacing critical writing into other subjects has created a remarkable turnaround for underprivileged kids in some low-performing schools.

Throughout secondary school and college it always seemed like I had to work two or three times harder than other students when it came to handwritten essays; and it wasn’t until I entered law school in the early 1970s, where the use of typewriters was permitted, that it seemed to be as effortless as it seemed for my peers.

As if being left-handed wasn’t challenge enough, essential tremor in both hands meant that I had to write more slowly and carefully than others while still racing to beat the clock.  It helped, when in my junior year, I became the first boy in my high school to take typing but it would be another seven years before that skill would help when taking of exams.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why I have such a struggle with commas (smile.)

I always breathed a sigh of relief whenever exams were multiple choice.  However, as Duke University professor Cathy Davidson noted a year ago in a Washington Post op-ed, Frederick J. Kelly, who invented that form of test, or at least was the first to deploy it in 1914, had a change of heart 14 years later when he became president of the University of Idaho in my native state.

Kelly is famous for writing that “college is a place to learn how to educate oneself rather than a place in which to be educated” and if he were still alive, he would be a strong proponent of “The Writing Revolution,” but the formulaic testing in the No Child Left Behind program, not so much.

In a blog post for Scientific American five weeks ago, Ross Pomeroy, the assistant editor for Real Clear Science laid out an equally strong case for the role of the “arts” as an overarching educational tool to include with science, technology, engineering and math, turning the commonly used acronym from STEM to STEAM.

Summarizing a few of the findings in a study linking the role of the arts in the success of science Nobel Laureates by Robert Root-Bernstein, Pomeroy notes in his blog that -- “Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.”

He also paraphrases Dr. Jerome Kagen, an emeritus professor at Harvard in writing that “arts contribute amazingly well to learning because they regularly combine the three major tools that the mind uses to acquire, store, and communicate knowledge: motor skills, perceptual representation, and language.”

According to Pomeroy, in remarks made to the Learning, Arts and the Brain Summit in 2009 at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Kagen noted that:

“Art and music require the use of both schematic and procedural knowledge and, therefore, amplify a child’s understanding of self and the world.”

Apparently, government’s continuing role in raising educational standards and fostering creativity and innovation is a lot more complicated than continuing to keep “Big Bird” in existence.

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