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Swapping stories

Exchanging Writing, Exchanging Culture, By Sarah Warshauer Freedman, Harvard University Press #163;35.95. 0 674 27393 1.

Sarah Freedman has written a timely and lucid book with important implications for educational practice on both sides of the Atlantic. Although a national survey was conducted in each country, the heart of the book is her account of a student writing exchange that matched English classes from four middle and high schools in the San Francisco Bay area with counterparts in greater London.

The eight "experienced and thoughtful" teachers shared the theoretical view that written language is acquired through social interaction. The theory, first outlined by Vygotsky, supports the idea that students should discuss their ideas and writing with each other and with their teachers. It also encourages students to take on challenging writing activities and be comfortable in asking for and receiving assistance.

Working with her British colleague, Alex Ferguson (then at the Institute of Education), Professor Freedman organised the exchange so that the written work was rich and varied in content, extended across a year and involved genuine collaboration between the paired classes. The exchanges provided an opportunity to observe and monitor the teachers and changes in students' work.

The book is distinguished by the way in which it uses the fresh and vigorous insights of the eight teachers and their 32 students. Skilful analysis of the students' work and the comments by teachers provided new evidence about the complex ways in which writing reflects and shapes education. The exchange project largely reinforced the survey findings, but it is in three main areas that the book has particularly significant things to say.

With regard to the actual writing, teachers in the US looked for expository prose and cared much more about grammatical correctness. British teachers were more liable to stress the importance of imaginative work, richness of language and extended projects. Put more generally, British teachers focused attention on their student learners, on getting to know their needs and then developing activities to meet those needs. The US teachers focused their attention on the curriculum, on developing techniques for teaching writing as a process and on being certain to set a good example by writing alongside their students.

Organisationally, Sarah Freedman notes that British schools give scope for a student-centred approach. Secondary schools tend to be more responsive to local communities, create more intimate subdivisions within the school, have smaller classes and provide more continuity as teachers spend more time with students across their school careers.

Most significantly for the teachers in the study, British schools provide far better professional opportunities for teachers than schools in the US. British teachers play major roles in running their schools and heads are required to be experienced and successful professionals. The school culture in the United States does not nurture and then promote able teachers to posts of responsibility. It would require restructuring the whole teaching profession to prepare teachers for new leadership roles.

However, US teachers were very critical of the British high-stakes national examination at the end of secondary education, particularly combined with the decision to move away from "portfolio" assessment. The view was that the examination inhibited student thinking, confined imagination and limited writing development.

The pace of change in British education is illustrated by the fact that so much has altered since this comparatively recent study. In revisiting England before finalising her text, Sarah Freedman speaks of an overwhelming sense of a receding wave of school reform - diminishing budgets, dismantling of community schools, lack of support for new teachers, moves away from mixed ability teaching and concerns over the national curriculum and associated examinations. She asserts that these changes are undermining a profession that had been strong and viable.

The judgments of this highly respected educator are worthy of attention. It now seems just possible that someone is listening.

James Porter is dean of New Initiatives, Institute of Education, London.

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