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Do Writers Need Teachers? Really?

posted: 12.5.12 by Nedra Reynolds

It was thirty-nine years ago that Peter Elbow wrote a revolutionary book called Writing Without Teachers, and the idea that writers might not need teachers or formal classroom time has persisted in composition studies in various forms. When I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Suguta Mitra and the “Hole in the Wall” experiments, it made me wonder what revolutionary changes might be possible in writing instruction.

Dr. Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, has been studying for several years teacherless learning—designing experiments to “let learning happen,” or to encourage kids to teach themselves and each other. Kiosk computers installed in the slums of India, for example, constituted his first trial; with each consecutive study, the approach has been roughly the same: give kids the tools and a nudge—and walk away.

Mitra has published the results of several experiments in international education research journals. Some of the conclusions will not surprise composition specialists: Small groups are hugely productive if students are motivated and curious. Mitra recommends that four to five students share a computer, and this detail is quite important. Giving every student a computer is not the point. When students consult with each other, that’s when the learning clicks and solidifies.

When adults are not around to interfere, “children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.” Even students who did not speak English figured out how to use online resources. One of the take-away points from Mitra’s research is that “Education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

Although the parallels are not perfect, it’s worth thinking about how Mitra’s findings might help us to reimagine college writing instruction, particularly when Big Boss comp programs are being challenged by both ideological critiques and budgetary constraints. While many of us moved to student-centered classrooms a long time ago and have also tried to design more authentic writing projects,  Mitra’s exciting work suggests that Elbow’s model is worth revisiting even within institutional settings. How do you think it would work, Bits readers, to give students a problem, a nudge, some tools, and then walk away?

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2 Responses to “Do Writers Need Teachers? Really?”

  1. Jack Solomon Says:

    The key sentence here is “When adults are not around to interfere, ‘children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.’” I think that that is indisputable. But generally they will not choose to learn what it is the task of writing teachers to teach: critical thinking and writing skills. They have already learned, in a self-taught manner, how to use Twitter, Facebook, online games, You-Tube . . . in short, the entire panoply of digital technology. But I am not hearing reports of improvement in critical thinking and writing skills. That is what teachers are there to teach.

    And then there is the question of just how far away teachers will be walking, according to Elbow’s prescription. The clear implication is that they will be walking into quite different careers, because if students don’t need teachers, well, that means that they don’t need teachers. So why should anyone pay for teachers at all? Any proctor can hand out a standardized Learning Management System designed assignment and walk away. Why pay for PhD professors?

    This is the inevitable conclusion that will be drawn from thinking of this sort. My own experience is that students do need teachers, however, and I feel that my role is a necessary one.

    Disclaimer: lest it appear that I am trying to protect my own economic turf, I am near enough to retirement age to be personally unthreatened by any of this. My own assignments in teaching critical theory (where students really need professorial guidance) and popular cultural semiotics (where students equally need guidance) are also unaffected by Elbow’s thesis. But should his thesis be accepted, a great many dedicated and well trained people will not only lose their jobs but a fine and noble profession—teaching students to write and think critically—will disappear. Is that what we want?

  2. Eric Dinsmore, CSUN Says:

    Because I am nowhere near retirement age, the future of writing programs is important to me for a variety reasons. Yes, I need a job, but I don’t want to simply be a facilitator of meaningless writing assignments that only assess a student’s ability to write memos to future business clients. As someone who is relatively new to the field, the challenges I see for our American students is to get the superficial thinkers to dig deeper in their critical thinking skills, and to boost the number of college freshman with 5th grade reading and writing skills (no jokes here, although many are up to par intellectually) to get them to write a cohesive paragraph.

    The challenges of kids in New Delhi is vastly different from what we face in the West. That’s why I made sure to state my “American students,” although many are coming from other countries. Educating children in poorer countries requires utilizing sources on a low budget. I can appreciate those efforts. But to have a similar approach here in the states would resemble a corporate cost-cutting technique and completely undermine teachers of all disciplines.