Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities
An important challenge to what currently masquerades as conventional wisdom regarding the teaching of writing.
There seems to be widespread agreement that--when it comes to the writing skills of college students--we are in the midst of a crisis. In Why They Can't Write, John Warner, who taught writing at the college level for two decades, argues that the problem isn't caused by a lack of rigor, or smartphones, or some generational character defect. Instead, he asserts, we're teaching writing wrong.
Warner blames this on decades of educational reform rooted in standardization, assessments, and accountability. We have done no more, Warner argues, than conditioned students to perform "writing-related simulations," which pass temporary muster but do little to help students develop their writing abilities. This style of teaching has made students passive and disengaged. Worse yet, it hasn't prepared them for writing in the college classroom. Rather than making choices and thinking critically, as writers must, undergraduates simply follow the rules--such as the five-paragraph essay--designed to help them pass these high-stakes assessments.
In Why They Can't Write, Warner has crafted both a diagnosis for what ails us and a blueprint for fixing a broken system. Combining current knowledge of what works in teaching and learning with the most enduring philosophies of classical education, this book challenges readers to develop the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits of mind of strong writers.
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About the Author
John Warner is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a contributing blogger for Inside Higher Ed, and an editor at large for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He is the author or coeditor of seven books, including The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.
"That title sounds as if it will be a grumpy polemic, but it's actually an inspiring exploration of what learning to write could be, framed by an analysis of why it so often is soul-destroying for both students and their teachers."--Barbara Fister "Inside Higher Ed "
"Articulates a set of humanist values that could generate rich new classroom practices and, one hopes, encourage teachers, parents, and policymakers to rethink the whole idea of School and why it matters to a society. Warner is pragmatic, not programmatic, and hopeful without being naïve... I hope teachers, parents, and administrators across the United States read his trenchant book. We are the reformers we have been waiting for."--Ryan Boyd, University of Southern California "LA Review of Books "
"Why They Can't Write dissects the underlying causes of why so much writing instruction fails in the American system and it provides tested, practical solutions for doing better. The book is more than a how-to-teach guide, however. It diagnoses several important structural problems in American education, including standardized testing, the allure of educational fads, the abuses of technology-driven solutions, and cruel working conditions for teachers."--Danny Anderson "Sectarian Review "
"I wanted direction on how to better teach writing, and I got it--sample assignments that I can tweak to fit my classroom and discipline in marvelous ways. But I got so much more. I closed the book feeling energized and motivated to go back to the classroom and make changes. In fact my first reaction, as I finished, was 'I have to go write about this!' Which so perfectly encapsulates so much of what John would like to see us do as learners that I couldn't help but laugh."--Cate Denial, Director, Bright Institute, Knox College
"What is to blame for students' bad writing? According to Warner, the entire context in which it is taught. He rails against school systems that privilege shallow "achievement" over curiosity and learning, a culture of "surveillance and compliance" (including apps that track students' behaviour and report it to parents in real time), an obsession with standardized testing that is fundamentally inimical to thoughtful reading and writing, and a love of faddish psychological theories and worthless digital learning projects."--Irina Dumitrescu, University of Bonn "Times Literary Supplement "