Review: Why They Can’t Write

Chris McNutt
April 27, 2019
John Warner’s message is clear in Why They Can’t Write: we need to restore purpose to writing (and all curriculum) by removing antiquated “structure.
“In theory, it was the training wheels that allowed me to ride freely without help not long after my father released his grip and yelled at me to ‘pedal, pedal, pedal.’ In reality, we’ve learned over the intervening years that those training wheels were far more hindrance than help when it came to learning to ride a bike.

The reason? Training wheels actually prevent young riders from practicing the most important skill for riding a bike: balance. For sure, training wheels make it safer for kids who don’t know how to ride a bike, but when it comes time to ride for real, they haven’t spent quality, focused time on that much more essential skill.”

John Warner’s message is clear in Why They Can’t Write: we need to restore purpose to writing (and all curriculum) by removing antiquated “structure.” Hence the subtitle: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Like most books rooted in best practice, it’s supported by hundreds of sources. Warner has written extensively on writing instruction, both with classroom strategies (The Writer’s Practice) and now, pedagogical change.

Warner’s inspiration was seeing students in his college English course always knowing “how” to write (i.e. standardized writing) but not why they write:

“When I ask students what they’ve been told about writing, they can list rule after rule. When I ask them where these rules come from, why these rules are rules, they shrug. Because the teacher said so.

He emphasizes that writing instruction (that prepares students for standardized tests) is doing it all wrong:

“Don’t be a writer, we tell them, just do some things that make it look like you know how to write. And when in doubt, at least sound smart by using words like ubiquitous and plethora. If you want to really show off, try myriad.

These words resonate not only with English educators, but with everyone involved in the lives of students. Students seem to not know how what they do matters — or if it should matter. No matter the subject, the purpose of education lags behind the need to perform well for an all-knowing standards model. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising how apathetic and lost many students are in their lives — especially when it comes to huge issues (military intervention, healthcare, rights advocacy.) This isn’t to imply that young people aren’t advocating for these things — but to acknowledge that traditional schooling is detrimental to supporting the will to make change.

Interestingly, Warner notes that our culture’s obsession with what students can’t do, and therefore must focus more on: grammar, spelling, literacy — are not sincere problems. He references Andrea Lunsford, whose research found that students are writing more than ever. Further, research highlights how students make the same amount of errors in writing as those of any other documented area (albeit, the type of errors have changed.) Warner states,

“I am not concerned about students’ basic writing skills. Put students in the right situations and they will write clearly, persuasively, even beautifully. But what students are asked to do in school rarely showcases them at their best.”

A restoration of purpose to writing is in-line with critical pedagogy — work by Paulo Freire and bell hooks implores educators to give students voice in the classroom — while simultaneously providing tools to empower in their communities. Indeed, Warner is trying to shift the focus of writing instruction to that of “why do students write?” versus “how to teach students to write?” — where the second question will be answered by teaching the first.

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Pictured: A student writing in a notebook.

The Council of Writing Program Administrations came up with habits of mind for every writer: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and meta-cognition. Warner adds empathy, accuracy, obsessive (over persistent), and able to be comfortable with complexity. Of course, there are systemic barriers to actually teaching this in a classroom. A grade-obsessed culture, “data-driven” practice, and inequitable, imperialist tendencies in writing rubrics prevent us from fostering a learning community — and Warner highlights all of these.

In addition, Warner criticizes the education community of its obsession with fads — specifically the “hype cycle” — where when a new research study concludes something (especially increased test scores), everyone jumps at the opportunity to integrate a ridiculous practice. No one is taking the time to analyze, review, and integrate solid pedagogical changes. This is ironic, given that this is the same problem our students face in their assignments. (Perhaps a connection is to be made in how we educate kids to how adults behave in curriculum-development circles.)

Warner states these changes are for naught without societal change,

“Addressing the underlying conditions of poverty and inequality directly will have a far more beneficial effect, far more quickly than any curriculum could ever hope to achieve.”

This line (my favorite of the work) emphasizes this concretely:

“As for writing instruction, the first step down the road of progress is to spend much less time worrying about the writing as demonstrated through largely meaningless assessments, and instead pay attention to the writers themselves.”

As for making meaningful writers, Warner offers a range of advice: give agency and control to students, make their work relevant and important, provide a connection between a prompt and the writer’s life, establish the purpose of communication and goals of a writer’s practice. Throughout, Warner troubleshoots questions on “how about?’s” and “what if?’s” backed in documented evidence. The Human Restoration Project firmly supports this work for any educator — even those who don’t teach writing — as it provides so much documentation for real change. Gift this to one of your school’s instructors.

*John Warner is a board member of Human Restoration Project.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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