National Writing Project

Common Cause and Common Sense

By: Richard Sterling
Publication: Speech at NWP Annual Meeting
Date: November 18, 2005

As many of you know or might guess, I grew up in England. I attended primary and secondary school there, but I left school at age 15. My teachers told me that I was not suited to education because I had a "grasshopper mind." Their perception—which actually predated much of the current research on cognition and learning—was not wrong. This label used to haunt me; I envied my classmates, who could sit still for what seemed like hours, studying away. I would bounce out of my seat every minute or so.

My teachers were onto something—although I am not sure they felt as positive about the label as I do in reinterpreting it today. I love information from multiple sources. I like putting seemingly disparate things together. As I grew older, however, I realized that my approach failed to yield the deep knowledge of a particular subject that only disciplined study can accomplish. Yet for me, engagement always resulted when I could follow many paths to the goal, despite attempts by some of my teachers to (literally) knock my errant habits out of me. So you can imagine that when the Internet came along, I was one happy person! I usually have three or four windows open at the same time, and a TV news channel on mute with two or three crawls at the bottom of the screen.

My failure in a traditional school was in part what led me into education. It wasn't learning I didn't like, it was the way learning was organized. Later, in college, I found flexibility around learning that finally enabled me to focus and become a successful student. So my grasshopper mind is still serving me well, especially as another wonderful approach has become commonplace, involving collaboration, teamwork, shared decision making—all of which enable us to work together to gather ideas from many sources and then synthesize the best of the best.

In many ways the National Writing Project has instantiated this process from the beginning, with its highly collaborative, democratic way of organizing knowledge. With this approach, we in the NWP educate many young people and young adults very well. However, we also lose many. Developing ways to engage the many will continue to be a powerful focus for years to come.

Writing and Learning
Today, I want to talk about two interconnected ideas: the importance of teaching writing to all young people and the importance of rethinking how we teach writing given the new technologies that are available to us,

Over the last six months I have had the opportunity to explore these ideas, observe in classrooms, and talk with other educators who want to understand how the writing project works and how they might apply the model in their own communities—including educators from Hong Kong and the small island nation of Malta. And on Sunday morning here at NCTE I am participating on a panel with James Gee on video games and literacy.

In addition, I had some time over the summer to read what others think about these issues. One book about a writer may surprise you—a new biography of Thomas Paine by Harvey Kaye (2005). I'm proud to say Paine was a fellow immigrant from England, more than 200 years before me. He immigrated at the age of 37, arriving in Philadelphia at the end of 1774 "with high hopes, no money, and a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin," who was back in England at the time. What brought Paine—like so many immigrants—to America was passion, outrage at injustice, especially his own treatment in Britain, and a deeply held belief in the knowledge, skills, and ability of ordinary people to determine their own destiny. In Common Sense (1995) Paine wrote about tyranny and the need to declare independence from Britain. And note well what he wrote: "It was the cause of America that made me an author."

Common Cause and Common Sense
The ability of ordinary people to determine their own destiny is still at issue 200 years later, and at the center of the issue is literacy: making quality teaching of reading and writing available to all young people. Particularly urgent is the issue of how to engage students who have not previously been successful in school. This question persists in the United States and many other countries, despite important and significant efforts over the past 30 years to change the nature of schooling for young people. Thomas Paine was not writing about this question when he wrote the famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls," but for all of us who work in the field of education, it does seem to resonate.

This year we are seeing the beginning of a new focus in education reform from Washington. Secretary Spellings has urged educators to focus on high schools. We know the dropout rate is still a significant challenge in urban and rural communities and that large numbers of young people don't find high school of value. I remember how I felt at age 15 and I understand some of their issues.

In the last year, Bill Gates wrote a provocative article on high schools in the United States. He said,

When we looked at the millions of students that our high schools are not preparing for higher education—and we looked at the damaging impact that has on their lives—we came to a painful conclusion:

America's high schools are obsolete.

By obsolete, I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded—though a case could be made for every one of those points.

By obsolete, I mean that our high schools—even when they're working exactly as designed—cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It's the wrong tool for the times. (2005)

And the concern is not only for the students who are not doing well. Many of our more accomplished students regard their education experiences as a necessary evil. (One student told researchers that when he goes to class he has to power down!) But for many of us, that is by no means the whole story. Some of us work in entire schools that do work, and work well. Others work in classrooms that work well, where students are excited and engaged. Still others are working in places where they are an island in a sea of chaos. What then makes the difference, and how can we, doing the work of the National Writing Project, begin to increase our capacity to make islands more like continents?

Writing with Technology
Writing is central to learning and thinking. And the promise of the digital age allows us the opportunity to rethink some of our basic notions about learning, as well as to expand our understanding of writing.

Concerns about student achievement are not really new, even though the spotlight is shining on writing as a critical component more now than ever before. What are new however, are the extraordinary changes in the way we work, the way we play, and the way we come together socially. Many of these changes are made possible by the devices that we carry in our pockets and bags. You know the list: email, blogging, IM, hyperlinks, digital stories, pod casting, and still newer approaches to communication that are appearing on the horizon.

And as I have said before, so much of this communication starts and ends with writing in one form or another. Hours and hours of many young people's time are being spent on writing and composing using these new technologies.

Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age
All of this leads me to my second point about teaching and learning: the need to rethink how we teach writing given these new technologies. In 1997, Mitchel Resnick, a professor at the Media Laboratory at MIT, wrote,

First, the good news: in the years ahead, the declining cost of computation will make digital technologies accessible to nearly everyone in all parts of the world, from inner-city neighborhoods in the United States to rural villages in developing nations. . . .

Now, the bad news: while new digital technologies make a learning revolution possible, they certainly do not guarantee it. . . . In most places where new technologies are being used in education today, the technologies are used simply to reinforce outmoded approaches to learning. (2002, 32)

Resnick offers these suggestions, which will sound familiar to many of you:

  1. Rethink how people learn. Students can become more active and independent learners, with the teacher serving as consultant . . . . Instead of dividing up the curriculum into separate disciplines, we should focus on themes and projects that cut across disciplines . . . we should let students work on projects for extended periods of time.
  2. Rethink what people learn. Schools must prepare students with the new skills and ideas that are needed for living and working in a digital society . . . where knowledge is the currency. Many ideas and topics that have always been important but were left out because they were too difficult to teach with only paper, pencil and blackboard are now accessible through digital technologies.
  3. Rethink where and when people learn. Most education reform initiatives assume that learning takes place between 8 A.M. and 3 P.M. (2002, 36)

Well, if we are around children, particularly adolescents, we know that 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. are perhaps their worst hours. Digital technologies allow us to work on schedules much closer to our own needs. Schools must begin to take this capability into account.

Using Technology to Promote Writing and Learning
I am excited about the possibilities of the new technologies for both teachers and students, particularly because teachers in the National Writing Project are excited about them. And I have seen some of these new approaches already operating in the NWP.

There are three principles that govern these new learning environments: first, that they involve collaboration; second, that problem solving is at the core; and third, that they make use of media, broadly defined. A typical example might contain images, text, video, and sound.

Here are some examples of what I am describing.

First, on the Edutopia website, a creation of Star Wars producer George Lucas' organization, teachers are discovering worlds that previously were only available through extensive research in large university or big city libraries, and then only after enormous investments of time and energy. Here is a quote from a teacher, Marilyn Wall, in a remote rural area of Virginia:

My students often think of their futures in limited terms—working on farms or in poultry houses, driving a truck, or working in a small family-owned business. Stars, planets, and astronomy are topics not usually discussed at the dinner table, certainly not as leading to possible career choices. That is, until my students and I connected to NASA's K–12 Quest Initiative. . . . NASA created a telecast called "Live from the Stratosphere" and invited students through the Internet to conduct a global star count. . . . My students felt like real research scientists as they entered data on a star census map. . . . For my students in the Shenandoah Valley, technology has become the equalizer. (2000, 1)

Second, in the Bay Area Writing Project, teachers have been working with NASA to create a program called Reading, Writing, and Rings (n.d.)—a series of lessons for elementary students focusing on the Cassini-Huygens space probe studying Saturn.

Third, blogs and associated technologies are causing an explosion of collaboration online. Some NWP sites are experimenting with a blog project and a small number of teacher-consultants are using blogs to connect students and their writing across different communities.

Teaching Writing in This New Age
How are we to teach writing in school in this new age? First, I believe we must take the time to understand and become familiar with the contexts for learning that young people are deeply involved in. Perhaps we should begin with the kind of learning that engages our youth for thousands of hours.

James Gee has written that video games are one of the more powerful learning tools that youth spend time on. To prepare for the panel session this week, and on the recommendations of two or three people under the age of 25, I bought four video games: Half Life 2, The Rise of Nations, Sims2, and Myst 4. As a new learner to this environment, I spent a few days getting nowhere, and with a rising sense of frustration, I called my stepson for help. "Why are you doing this on your own?" he asked. "Get on line, get new information, join a community that is already playing this game."

This was my first lesson—one I certainly should have known. These new technologies have enabled, indeed demanded, a learning community. So following this advice I found information on the Web for neophyte players, and I started advancing rapidly. One of the ways that these games are categorized is by whether or not they are "shooter" games. The first one I played was definitely a shooter game, not something I particularly enjoy, though as I became more proficient I enjoyed even those challenges. But, I asked, am I learning anything? Well, at the heart of the games that I played I spent a lot of time solving logic problems. To get from A to B and then on to C and forward, I had to determine the underlying logic of my "enemy," pick up clues left for me to find, and then proceed to rescue, destroy, or unlock the major secret hidden within. Another game, this time a non–shooter game, asked me to develop and build a city within a certain historical context; I chose Roman Britain. I was to understand the level of knowledge and available technologies, build a city, populate it, defend it against my enemies, and grow and prosper. What I learned was that in any endeavor, multiple competing interests have to balance against the general welfare. And it was the building of knowledge that moved the player to the next level of civilization.

This game had a larger appeal for me, but I still was left with some uncertainties about the learning. It was difficult; I did have to learn and understand the rules of the game, and in that way it was not unlike what young people have to do to be successful in school. They have to learn the rules of the academic game. Many do, as we all know, but what we may not know so well is why so many do not do well, or do not seem to learn in the ways that we teach. Even the successful ones often complain that school is boring, but necessary. But if we are to educate more people to a higher level than ever before, we should perhaps aim for a closer alignment between the way so many young people learn on their own and the way we are trying to educate them. Perhaps we need an academic version of, say, the history game I described—one that will use a similar discovery and learning process, with additional Web-based research processes built in. So far, my looking at other software has turned up nothing that approaches the sophistication of these games as tools for education.

John Seeley Brown, the chief scientist at the Xerox Corporation, makes a cogent point regarding learning during the school years:

Learning by doing with others offers students the opportunity for in-depth enculturation into a particular practice, where one learns to be a physicist, social scientist, historian, etc., in contrast to just learning about such professions. Students could absorb the social and practical aspects of a profession (its practices) and gain tremendously from their proximity to practitioners, especially when they can watch, listen, and peripherally participate. Enculturation is crucial to such learning, since relatively little of the complex web of practice can effectively be made the subject of explicit instruction. (n.d., 66–67)

This certainly describes my experience in learning the intricacies of the video games. It is perhaps only in graduate school that practice and theory are strongly linked in the way that Brown is suggesting.

But the essential periods of learning all take place long before graduate school, and if we believe, as I do, that a significant number of young people are giving up on school learning long before that, we should perhaps look at the activities that are the most engaging for them outside of school. Here we can see enculturation going on in many arenas. Brown goes on to say that

we are witnessing a profound blurring of the classical boundaries separating teaching, learning, research, administration, communication, media, and play, all brought about by new technologies. For today's students . . . [technology] is not so much a tool as it is a way of life. (n.d., 80)

Meanwhile, here are a couple of findings from the Pew Internet and American Life Project released two weeks ago:

Some 57% of online teens create content for the Internet. That amounts to half of all teens ages 12–17, or about 12 million youth. . . . The most popular Content Creating activities are sharing self-authored content and working on webpages for others. (Lenhart and Madden 2005)

The report concludes by saying,

Teens are often much more enthusiastic authors and readers of blogs than their adult counterparts. Teen bloggers, led by older girls, are a major part of this tech-savvy cohort. Teen bloggers are more fervent internet users than non-bloggers and have more experience with almost every online activity in the survey. (Lenhart and Madden 2005)

I am aware that change is difficult. In an earlier life, I was an electronics engineer. It has stood me in good stead. I have not resisted changes that involve technology, though at my age I still prefer to sit and read a book in my spare time over almost any other activity. I am also aware that the challenge for educators is that we need a more highly educated population than ever before, and that traditional methods of schooling that worked for a small minority are failing to educate sufficient numbers today. Literacy, the ability to think on paper, the ability to analyze and problem-solve through the expression of words and images is, and will be for some time, an essential survival skill. Failure to use what excites the learning of millions of young people is, I believe, a serious mistake.

Fifty years ago it was possible to leave school at 15 or even earlier, get a job at an auto plant, and earn enough to raise a family. That has not been true for some time now. We must change the way we teach, we must place writing and literacy, the most powerful tools for thinking, in the hands of every child. Only then can we compete as a society and only then can we offer opportunities to young people that allow them the choices to participate and succeed in our new and complex world.


Brown, J.S. 2001. "Learning in the Digital Age." In The Internet and the University: 2001 Forum. Published jointly by EDUCAUSE and the Forum for the Future of Higher Education. Accessed 11/05 from

Reading, Writing, and Rings. n.d. Cassini-Huygens: Mission to Saturn & Titan website. Available at

Gates, B. 2005. "National Governors Association / Achieve Summit Prepared Remarks February 16, 2005." Accessed 12/14/05 from$file/GatesRemarks.pdf.

Kaye, H. 2005. Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. New York: Hill and Wang.

Lenhart, A., and M. Madden. 2005. "Teen Content Creators and Consumers." Pew Internet and American Life Project. Accessed 11/05 from

Paine, T. 1995. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, edited by E. Foner. New York: Library of America.

Resnick, M. 2002. "Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age." In The Global Information Technology Report2001–2002: Readiness for the Networked World, edited by G. Kirkman, 32–37. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed 11/05 from

Wall, M. 2000. "NASA Initiatives Turn Students into Scientists." Edutopia. Accessed 11/05 from

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