'In a world of social media and emojis, complex writing opens doors and expands horizons'

28th October 2017 at 18:03
Donald Trump and the power of social media must not signal the retreat of complex writing, argues one educationist. It must not become the privileged domain of an educated elite

Who are the enemies of higher-order thinking? For a start, there’s Twitter, with its character limit, and before that there was PowerPoint, with its bullet-point format. Not to mention emojis. Digging further back, the indictment includes email and even – let’s show our age – telegrams. Stop.

Complex thinking is inextricably intertwined with writing. Discourage extended writing and you damage deeper thought. This is the premise of the "Writing Revolution", a teaching programme pioneered by Judith Hochman and subject of an Atlantic magazine article in 2012. Now Hochman has co-authored a book setting out her programme, focusing on exercises that encourage sentence expansion in young writers. Conjunctions and dependent clauses enable writers to link, expand on and qualify simple ideas.

Psychologist Donald Olson argued, along similar lines, that writing is more than a tool for thinking – it actually creates the conditions for higher-order thinking. It is through reading and writing that we master the ability to link and qualify concepts, and apply the "rules" of logical argument.

Doug Lemov has weighed in now, with a powerful proselytising foreword to Hochman’s new book. In his view, the act of wrestling ideas into written words helps to “memorialise thinking”. Writing becomes a tool for capturing complex thoughts: “One way to generate complex ideas is to write them into being." He quotes Joan Didion approvingly: “I write to know what I think”.

Writing opens doors and expands horizons. Opportunities for extended writing, from complex sentences to discursive essays, can support intellectual development in all subjects. Writing seen in these terms is liberating. There is an inescapable irony here, though, because writing has not always had an emancipatory agenda.

Writing originated among the artefacts and endeavours that characterised the very first urban societies, which themselves depended on the neolithic agricultural revolution. The domestication of plants and animals allowed more to be grown and freed some people up to do things other than full-time farming – hence, administrators and artisans, living in urban areas, depending on trade or tribute. More complex organisation needed records – hence the first writing revolution.

Literacy and freedom of thought

But some would argue that this just-so story misses the point: writing, in fact, originating as a means of control and subordination, in the service of the earliest states. These came into being on the back of increasing inequality, the institutionalisation of taxes, forced labour and slavery. Writing enabled states to exercise control over individuals. Only much later did literacy become associated with freedom of thought and action, thanks largely to the invention of the printing press.

There is surely a danger that, with the stunted and shallow communications preferred by social media, writing as such will lose its democratic association and emancipatory implications, and retreat to its "pristine" purpose – the privileged domain of an educated elite.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once wrote that “writing is a strange thing … it seems to favour rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind”.

He wrote that more than half a century before Donald Trump punched out his first tweet.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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