Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Some Thoughts about Teaching and Writing

by William Proefriedt - 1988

The process of learning to teach is comparable to learning to write because the fundamental activities in which teachers take part are in many ways like the activities of writers. Implications for teacher education are discussed, especially with regard to the trend to establish a scientific knowledge base for teaching. (Source: ERIC)

Not long ago, while chairing an education department at Queens College, I became interested in questions about the total education of teachers. At the same time, as I read on issues I had not previously concerned myself with, attended relevant conferences, talked to people in various areas of teacher education about their work and to teachers about their education, I decided to try my hand at fiction writing, toward which end I enrolled in a workshop run by Hayes Jacobs at The New School for Social Research in New York City. I initially saw the workshop and the fiction writing as a vacation from my newfound scholarly research in teacher education, until it dawned on me that reflecting on the educational experience I was going through with the other students in that writing workshop could help me to better understand certain problems in the education of teachers. I began to ask myself questions about the connections between the process of learning to write and that of learning to teach.

Most people in the workshop seemed to have a clear task in mind. No one was there in order to fulfill certification requirements. No one was without a knowledge of the basics of written expression. We were there to learn more about how to write fiction. We wanted to publish. Anyone who claimed otherwise was humorously, and I think correctly, dismissed by the instructor as engaging in self-deception. The focus was on our own work. Most class time was spent reading and discussing student manuscripts, though the instructor usually spent some part of the class making more general comments on writing.


The teacher of this class had published both fiction and nonfiction in respectable, even prestigious outlets. The students’ knowledge of his background contributed to their trust in his direction. More importantly, his own continuing writing experience lent a richness and concreteness to his comments. His being a writer was a necessary but clearly not sufficient condition for the effective work he did with our group. He also had an abiding interest in the workings of his own craft, as evidenced by his familiarity with autobiographies and biographies of writers, especially those in which writers talked about their own work habits, sources of inspiration, or the overcoming of technical problems. Further, he took a genuine delight in the best efforts of the class members, reading them aloud and commenting on them. He spent enormous amounts of time reading and making detailed comments on the short stories we turned in. A writer himself, he was reflective about his craft, and devoted to the task of encouraging and providing critical feedback to those of us in his workshop.


Many have said about both teaching and writing that their nature is such that it is impossible to state clearly and specifically criteria for what constitutes a successful effort in either field. Some critics argue over the merits of a particular book. Others argue over what criteria should be employed in settling such disputes. Still others raise questions about the very possibility of formulating such criteria. How then can we teach people to become good writers when we argue, sometimes bitterly, over what constitutes good writing, and wonder if efforts to determine such criteria even make sense? This is not unlike the situation in teaching.

Consider how differently A. S. Neill, were he alive, and E. D. Hirsch might react to the efforts of the same teacher. Because these critics think differently about the nature of subject matter, about human freedom and purpose, about educational ends, and about a whole host of other things that impinge on the way they would formulate a notion of what constitutes a good teaching effort, they would undoubtedly find it difficult to agree on ways to educate good teachers. More mundanely, we find in some quarters the strict teacher praised for bringing order out of a chaotic classroom, whereas in other places the same teacher may be condemned for instilling fear in students rather than motivating them in a more positive fashion. The charismatic, brilliant lecturer may be praised by some for inspiring an audience, and dismissed by others as focusing too much on his or her own performance and not showing enough concern for the students.

It seems to me a part of the teacher’s education to address this normative question of just what constitutes good teaching. That is to say, good teachers, like good writers, develop criteria for good teaching as they go along with the task. In neither case does one set out on a road with a clear idea of just where one is going. One begins to work and to reflect on the nature of the work without knowing exactly what constitutes good teaching or good writing or even if there is an answer to such a question. Reflection on this issue is embedded in more immediate tasks for both the teacher and the writer. The very getting on with the work can be part of the process of understanding what it means to do the work well. It seems to me that this uncertainty about the question of what constitutes good writing and good teaching suggests that the sort of knowledge one acquires in becoming a teacher or a writer and the way in which one acquires it cannot be subsumed under the standard notion of a preexisting body of knowledge being acquired by an entrant to a profession and then applied to daily work.

Let us look at the sorts of advice given to fledgling writers and teachers and the contexts within which that advice is offered to see how they square with the problem of uncertainty in determining what constitutes a good writer or teacher. In the workshop I attended, the instructor at one point offered us a list of the qualities exhibited by a good short story. The list was not offered as the definitive and only list. The instructor had emphasized from the beginning of the course that we would be getting one point of view on writing, and a set of comments on our own writing rooted in that point of view. He underlined his wish that students in the class not take his comments as the final word, but that we reflect on what he had to say and seek other perspectives. He told us stories of editors turning down now well thought of novels because of perceived inadequacies. This recognition of dramatic differences among the “experts” did not lead him to a wishy-washy approach in the advice he gave us. He played his own game with a fairly commonly accepted set of rules, and a few uncommon ones, and he played with enthusiasm and attention to detail; but he bracketed his own game with the recognition that you could sometimes break some of the rules and still carry off the game successfully, and further that there were other games being played in the neighborhood with different sets of rules that he had some problems with, but that some of us might want to take a look at. In short, his advice was rooted in his own beliefs about what constituted good writing, but offered in a context that encouraged an active and reflective challenge to his approach on the part of a group of people who tested whatever was said in class in the larger context of their own reading, conversations with others, and finally their own writing experience.

Now, to the list. Jacobs told us that a good short story has a strong central character caught up in a crisis situation; a single unified point of view; a limited time span; a significant theme; strong conflict dramatically portrayed, usually through generous use of dialogue; emphasis on the actual, not the typical; a distinctive sense of geographical place; vital minor characters subordinated to the main character; a length appropriate to the story’s complexity and to reading at a single sitting; and a steady forward movement of the story line, arranged to provide maximum suspense.

Such a list is easily dismissed. One can offer well-thought-of stories that do not exhibit each or several of the criteria. One can say the list is banal or that good short stories are not written by following such lists, or that most of the items are at too general a level to be helpful to the execution of a specific writing task. All of these disclaimers were in fact made by the instructor, along with his concern that none of us would see the list as a set of directions to “apply” when we wrote a short story. As far as I could see no such admonition was necessary. We went on writing our stories, forgetting the items on the list except when one of them would pop into our heads as we were writing or rewriting a story. “Look what I am doing here, telling how this fellow typically acted instead of plunging the reader into the actual events of my story. That would be so much better. Now I have switched the point of view here, but that switch is crucial to the conflict of the perceptions of the world of these two people, and that conflict is the whole point of my story. And it is my story. I’ll go with it.”

The rules provided us with a vocabulary, a conceptual structure with which we were able to reflect on and talk to ourselves and others about our work. That vocabulary learned in the class was in turn digested into a larger vocabulary and culture that had grown up around our common task of writing fiction. We argued about these matters, with the instructor and among ourselves, with the arguments growing out of what we had written. The “rules” I outlined above and a thousand others offered by the instructor, picked up in writer’s guides, and developed from our analyses of what favorite writers were doing all contributed to a vocabulary with which we could reflect on and revise our work.

My argument here is that in teacher education rules are too often perceived in a quite different fashion, and that it would make more sense to treat them in the fashion that we novice fiction writers treated our instructor’s rules. Many teacher educators want to establish a scientific base for the art of teaching, by identifying teacher behaviors that have nonchance relationships with desirable learning behaviors. Since there are so many variables involved in student learning, lately even those who champion the notion of a scientific base for the art of teaching recognize that there are points where the teacher as artist must step in and make clinical or artistic judgments about the best ways to teach. Gage and others, however, still resort to medical or engineering analogies as they talk about the application of a knowledge base to teaching practice, and the task of teacher education as disseminating that knowledge base and moving through a teacher training process from knowing that to knowing how.1

Up until a few years ago the orthodox literature on teacher education was dominated by this aspiration toward the scientific. (That has mellowed lately and the doors have opened widely on questions of what constitutes appropriate method and content in research about teaching and schools, what sorts of knowledge teachers need, and the nature of their relationship to that knowledge.) One can search far and wide in writing about writing and still not find this scientific aspiration. Writers know they are about a task quite different from those of doctors or engineers and exhibit no desire to model their work on the scientific professions. They do work terribly hard, nevertheless, at the business of becoming better writers.

Add to this scientific aspiration the understandable but nevertheless pernicious desire of so many teachers for explicit directions in carrying out their teaching practice and the willingness of too many teacher educators and in-service circuit riders to provide them with just such directions, and we have set up a skewed context in which to do teacher education. Teachers, like writers, it seems to me, need to look at the “rules” of teaching wherever they are offered as possible additions to a vocabulary with which to reflect on their daily work. Of course, the rules are often banal, trivial, arguably wrongheaded. Nevertheless they can be helpful. They get you started thinking and trying out new approaches in your classroom or modifying old ones, elaborating something you have been doing already, or stopping some ineffective habitual activity that has been brought to your attention.

After reviewing a large number of studies of efforts to train teachers to raise the academic achievements of their students, Rosenshine and Stevens concluded “that there are specific instructional procedures which teachers can be trained to follow and which can lead to increased achievement and student engagement in their classrooms.“2 The context here is one in which there is much more confidence in the significance of a set of truth statements about what constitutes effective teaching, and in our capacity to train teachers in their implementation, than there is in teachers’ ability to actively incorporate a set of ideas about instruction into their ongoing work. Barak and Rosenshine then go on to set up what they call “a general model of effective instruction.”3 They list six instructional functions: review and checking of homework; presentation of new content or skills; guided practice and checking for understanding; feedback, correctives, reteaching; independent student practice; and weekly and monthly reviews. The authors elaborate on each of these instructional functions. For example, under aspects of clear presentation they advise the teacher to model the skill or process when appropriate, to offer detailed and redundant explanations for difficult points, and to provide students with concrete and varied examples. They remind us to check for student understanding by asking the students questions to monitor their comprehension, having them summarize the main points in their own words. We are then to reteach the parts of the lesson the students have not understood. Of course we know all these things already, and perhaps we really do not need extensive studies to support such directions. The sort of elaborate directions to teachers that Rosenshine and Stevens offer in their article could, however, serve the same function as the checklist offered in the writing workshop I attended.

If context is not everything here, it is clearly significant. We need, above all, in teacher education, to discard the exclusive and silly model in which we see researchers building up a knowledge base that teachers learn and from which they develop specific behaviors to be used in classrooms in order to increase levels of student achievement. Teaching, like writing, is something we are in the middle of. Good teachers like good writers pick up ideas to be incorporated into their ongoing work in all sorts of places, not excluding research journals, and college classrooms, superintendent’s conferences, and teachers’ lounges. What is crucial is that teachers be active and reflective in searching out appropriate ideas, trying them out, elaborating on and altering them in appropriate ways.


A criticism that has been made of writers’ workshops is that as thousands and thousands of young (and not so young) writers around the country have attended them, they have succeeded in producing a very high level of technical proficiency and a sameness of style without succeeding in producing even a small number of individuals with the imagination, passion, and originality to move into the first rank of world writers. Imagination, passion, and originality are seen as qualities central to the writer’s task and not producible in workshops. Although technical proficiency is not one of the usual charges made against teachers in the daily paper, there is a similar feeling in the air that the nature of teaching is such that its essential aspects are not reducible to a set of teachable techniques.

I am not at all sure that it is very easy to define clearly where the line may be drawn between the “merely technical” and the “something other” in both writing and teaching. I think there is, however, an important distinction to be made between those teachers and writers, on the one hand, whose habitual approach to their work is to take a set of directions and mechanically apply them, and those on the other hand who take a reflective, critical, and experimental stance toward new ideas.

The sorts of issues that we usually dismiss in writing and teaching as merely technical, and hence as not touching in either case the heart of the matter, have an odd way, when pursued, of opening out into what is clearly something more than the technical. The ways in which teachers and writers pursue these issues is all-important. To say that some piece of technical advice is all well and good but skirts the periphery of the “real issues” ignores the fact that such technical concerns may be both perfectly legitimate in themselves—that is, useful in carrying forward the work of the teacher or the writer—and that they may also serve as ways of gaining entrance to larger questions, the significance of which would not have been seen had the technical issue not arisen.

Questions, for example, about what point of view a work is written from might be dismissed as merely technical unless they are pursued in a serious fashion. A growing consciousness of the variety of points of view that a writer may choose to work from in handling a story and the different sorts of limitations and possibilities each choice affords, derived from an active analysis of what other writers are doing and from a conscious experimentation with one’s own work, soon leads one into an area of thinking about writing in which the “merely technical” gives way to the “something other.” One can treat questions of point of view in an unimaginative or merely technical manner just as one can treat advice to teachers in the same way. When teachers are told to offer concrete examples or to check for student comprehension they may pursue these bits of advice in ways that will open them up to questions of the nature of definition, of how children learn, of what constitutes adequate understanding, and of other significant questions. Again, for the active teacher these questions become important insofar as they impinge on daily tasks. Of course the uncertainty of the nature of those tasks means that they are open to continuous redefinition as new situations are encountered. Good writers and good teachers always have some plan in their heads, some idea where they are going, but must take care to be alert to voices not yet heard from and willing to alter their course in response to those voices.

Are there not successful writers and teachers who establish formulas for themselves and follow them without deviation? That of course depends on what we mean by successful. In the writing class I attended, one student complained to the instructor about time spent on anything but a “how-to” approach. A Wall Street man, he’d been impressed by the sorts of dollar figures he saw certain writers getting for their books and wanted to get down to the business of learning a formula he could follow to make money. Our instructor certainly was not a man unaware of the commercial realities of publishing, and he often made the point that we could learn a great deal from authors we might dismiss as not serious artists, but his essential project in the class was to help people do serious fiction writing and he showed little patience with the demand for money-making formulas. The instructor was saying that the business of writing has a normative quality to it, inquiry into the nature of which was as much an ongoing part of the writer’s task as learning how to create strong, believable characters.

Many teachers look for formulas not so much for mercenary purposes as to fulfill such needs as order in their classrooms or adequate scores for their students on standardized tests. They sometimes can achieve such ends, but at the cost of further inquiry into questions of educational purpose and the possibilities of student learning. One might say that their mastery of a certain technical proficiency has cut them off from the possibility of further growth as teachers. It seems to me more useful to note that it is their refusal to move on and to embrace the uncertainty of the teacher’s role in continuing intellectual inquiry into their own work that is the real problem.

There is of course a profound truth at the heart of the distinction between the technical and the something other in both writing and teaching, which is that beyond any attention to questions of point of view, or imagery, or character development, good writers must have a wide and deeply reflective experience of the world on which they can draw and which itself can be deepened in the writing act. This cannot be taught, and yet it is not unaffected by one’s education and by the continued effort to render one’s experience meaningful, that is, educational. Thus the criticism of so much contemporary writing in the United States is that it exhibits a certain thinness. Technically proficient, perhaps due to its practitioners’ attendance at writing workshops, it lacks an experiential richness and an easy acquaintance with the great historical human dilemmas. There is a similar complaint made against contemporary teachers. They are badly educated; they bring little in the way of knowledge and enthusiasm about subject matter to their classrooms. This is often blamed, incorrectly for the most part, I believe, on their having spent too much time learning how to teach and not enough in general education or a liberal arts specialty. Enthusiasm for subject matter, an interest in all the myriad factors in a society that affect the way children learn, a willingness to examine subject matter and methods in terms of larger educational purposes—these are not technical accomplishments, not reducible to a set of teacher behaviors that can be easily stated and into which teachers can be trained. They are not, however, unrelated to the education of teachers; to the task of encouraging teachers to become more alive to their own experience, to discover the connections and the meanings within it; to become, as Gary Fenstermacher has said, students of their own work.4


After a few weeks of the first semester of my writing workshop, I found myself meeting before class with a few of the other students. We talked with one another about all aspects of our writing, suggested books to read, traded our various efforts with one another, giving and receiving critical comments from week to week. We found people whose comments we could trust and the confidence in ourselves to incorporate those comments into our thinking about our own writing. I found this extension of the workshop an extremely valuable part of the whole experience.

Dan Lortie and others have commented on the problem of the isolation of the teacher.5 I think it worthwhile to look at the question of isolation in teaching in relation to the isolation of the writer—and I am talking here not just about the writing of fiction, but about any sort of writing for publication. Clearly the writer’s task is a lonely one. As a writer, finally, I must sit down by myself and produce the work. Most writers, at some stage of their work, actively seek comment and editorial advice from those whose judgment they respect. They talk with others about writing problems. They are interested in what other writers are doing, and see themselves as part of a larger historical community of writers and thinkers. Of course there comes the actual writing act when all of that involvement with others is transmuted into an autonomous production. You sit down and do the job.

I think the situation with teachers tends to be quite different. There are, of course, teachers who sit with their colleagues and talk on a systematic and ongoing basis about their daily work; who develop teaching materials together, argue over curriculum matters, exchange classroom visits, and generally provide feedback and support for one another. Such groups of teachers are the basis and model for any significant change in the direction of teacher education, and wherever they exist, we ought to find ways organizationally to sustain them. More typically, an unhealthy split exists between the settings in which teachers find themselves drawn together. The teachers’ lounge discussion tends to be dominated by personal comments on students, and a set of complaints about one’s classes and other aspects of the institution. College classroom teacher discussions tend too often to be unrelated to the realities of the school, or, worse, descend to the level of the teachers’ lounge complaining. It is hard to find contexts in which the discourse of teachers is shaped by the experiential realities of the classroom, open to helpful ideas from whatever sources are available, and designed to feed back into the teacher’s work.

Lortie diagnoses the problem as the absence of a technical vocabulary shared by teachers.

Teaching is not like crafts and professions, whose members talk in a language specific to them and their work. Thus the absence of a common technical vocabulary limits a beginner’s ability to “tap into” a preexisting body of practical knowledge. Without such a framework, the neophyte is less able to order the flux and color of daily events and can miss crucial transactions which might otherwise be encoded in the categories of a developed discourse. Each teacher must laboriously construct ways of perceiving and interpreting what is significant. That is one of the costs of a mutual isolation which attends the absence of a common technical culture.6

I think Lortie has come very close to something here but he has not got it quite right. He speaks of a common technical language and a common technical culture, which he sees missing in teaching. I think that teachers at various grade levels and of various subjects need to develop a language of discourse about their work, and that the language will have many sources; but essentially it should grow out of common reflective efforts to understand one’s own work and to alter it for the better. The vocabularies of the psychologists and sociologists, the philosophers and the curriculum theorists, are all in the running for incorporation into such a discourse at appropriate points, and I for one believe in the importance of these disciplinary perspectives in the work of teachers, but clearly a language for teachers, a common culture for teachers, will have to grow organically within cooperative enterprises by teachers supported with institutional commitments. We do indeed need a language to talk about our work. That is not to say very much. The hard task is to determine the ways in which a language suited to the daily contours of classroom life, and directive toward its improvement, can be developed.

There is an extraordinary ferment within teacher education today in which serious questions are being raised about the kinds of research that ought to be conducted and about the kinds of knowledge that are appropriate in the education of teachers and perhaps most importantly about the manner in which that knowledge is to be appropriated by teachers. Something far more than a technical vocabulary is at stake here. One direction this ferment is taking is illustrated in an article by Janet Miller, reporting her work in teaching a Writing across the Curriculum course to a group of in-service teachers. Rather than beginning with a body of concepts and information, she begins from the premise that teachers are storytellers: “Every teacher has a version of the drama, terror and history of life in the classroom, and for a brief time that collective life seems a bit more manageable through the recreation and sharing of these ongoing and often embellished sagas.“7 Thus, rather than attempting to create a common culture through the introduction of a common technical vocabulary that teachers might find useful, she begins with their own language and their own efforts to make meaning out of their lives in and outside of classrooms, “involving them not only in their own self-reflective research but also in classroom research.“8 Miller emphasizes the active and collaborative roles of the teachers in this work. The vehicle for the reflective process was the writing of the teachers, some of whom reported that this was the first time they had ever written about their work in a reflective manner. They were reading and writing the texts of their lives in classrooms.

It seems to me that the case for modeling learning to teach on learning to write rather than learning to be an engineer or a doctor rests finally on the fact that the most fundamental activities in which good teachers take part are more like the activities of writers than those of engineers or doctors. The teacher, like the writer, cannot arrive on the scene with a set of scientific laws to be applied to particular cases; the teacher, like the writer, must explore, interpret, and contribute to the construction of a complex and particular reality.9 Good writers usually do not impose a single set of meanings on their readers; they allow room for the reader to enter into the meaning-making process. So, too, good teachers take care to adopt a style and language that do not, as in the behavioral paradigm, seek to cause particular learning effects in students, but that invite them into the business of reflecting, imagining, and actively constructing their own worlds.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 2, 1988, p. 281-291
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 485, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:18:30 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue