Sunday, 8 April 2018

We need to talk about Brian’s work!

Ok, I have been using the ‘200 Word Challenge’ for over two years now and in that time I have seen a lot of writing. And, I mean a lot. On average, I look at about forty five pieces a week. Roughly, fifteen pieces a class at KS3. And, in that time I have spotted trends, patterns and interesting things with writing and how students write as I am constantly looking at the writing. I am not doing a termly plough through books, but instead I am measuring the temperature of their writing. Too cold. Too hot. This piece of writing is just right.

Recently, I was working with a student called ‘Brian’. I use that name specifically to hide his identity; I have never taught a Brian. Brian is interesting with his writing, because he is a student who works hard. Brian listens and behaves well in lessons. However, there is a problem with Brian’s work. His writing. He uses paragraphs, punctuation and vocabulary with some proficiency. However, he tends to produce ‘beige’ pieces of writing. They have some value and the content is appropriate, but they often lack variety, interest and enthusiasm. They are just such bland pieces of working. Therefore, they are ‘beige’.

You see Brian isn’t alone in this. And, I think that Brian represents a lot of boys and possibly a lot of girls. I was a Brian at school. I did what Brian did. I ‘phoned-in’ a performance with my work. If there was one thing I can do well, it is to write meaningless waffle. I could do it for hours. Give me a question and I could write ten pages on crop rotation or the benefits of pesticides. You see that ‘phoned-in’ writing doesn’t engage the full brain and so I was able to be in a ‘semi-state of working’. I was neither working really hard nor doing nothing. I was in a trance state. I suppose the nearest thing I can link it to is the state of mind you have when completing a colouring book or reading Facebook comments. You are active and doing the process, but you heart, mind and soul are not fully engaged.

In fact, I’d say that a lot of my education was spent in this trance state. You do just enough to keep the teacher off your back, but not enough to progress further. It was a great place to be, if I was honest. It was a safe place to be. I didn’t get the attention from the teacher for being great at a task (I never thought for a second I’d get that) and the negative attention for not completing the work. So for years I produced drivel and boy did I produce pages of drivel. In fact, I produced so much drivel that I’d rarely be picked up for my lack of work in a lesson. I’d write and write. I’d write with half a brain on the task and the other half on thinking about what I’d have for tea. I’d do this for every subject and every task.

The ‘200 Word Challenge’ has made me see this phenomenon up close. You see Brian turns up the quality of work for final assessments, but by then it is too late. The day-to-day work is phoned in. Brian switches on the automatic pilot and feels comfortable and safe with his work. When you do it so much, it becomes a normal process of working. And, a hard process to break, especially when, physically, Brian is doing nothing wrong. He writes enough and he completes the task set. He is completing the task and the teacher has nothing to complain about. It is a safe place for the student and a safe place for the teacher.    

So, how would I describe this type of writing? Well, I say that it is just average. Average words. Average sentences. Average ideas.  Nothing flashy. Nothing exciting. Nothing impressive.

For an eternity we have had an issue with borderline students. We are constantly feel like we are going to lose our minds over these borderline students. Could there be something in our eyes that’s making such fools pushing us over the borderline? Could it be the fact that these student have adopted this way of working? It isn’t malicious. It isn’t really lazy. It is just safe. A safe place to be. A place to hide. Not every child wants positive or negative attention. They just want to get on through the lesson or day with the least amount of resistance and resilience. Yes, they will add a word to their writing, because the teacher instructed them to. Yes, they will add a simile to their writing, because the teacher instructed them to. No, they will not change the way they write, because it will cause attention and doesn’t feel comfortable.

Boys are often tarnished as being lazy. I’d argue they are not. I’d argue that they often find, like everybody, a formula that works and stick with it and repeat it. From what I have seen over two years is this pattern. Boys writing being appropriate to the task and being neither really good nor really bad. They have been somewhere in the middle. Average. Beige. Bland. Phoned in.

In the classroom, we need to speak about this ‘phoned in’ performance. You see I think boys (and some girls) are not aware of what they are doing. It is a fixed pattern of behaviour that they can’t see, because they are doing nothing wrong. I think we need to talk to the students. We need to talk about it and highlight it and put a spotlight on it. You see extra lessons, extra interventions or a different strategy will not change this child. The behaviour needs to change and not the teaching.

Brian, we need to talk about your writing.

Thanks for reading,



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  2. Xris -

    Thank you for your post. I find it interesting that you chose to address the issue through the lens of gender (while relenting that certainly there are girls affected by this sort of engagement paralysis). I am in a teacher education program where one of my primary issues is literacy in young men. This interest comes out of personal experience.

    I feel that I too led a sort of "Life of Brian" in my middle and high school (American here) writing. I was written off as a mediocre writer by my teachers. Much like your Brian, I produced uninteresting, uninspired writing that met all of the requirements of the assignments. When I was a kid, phoning in my assignments, I didn't think there was anything wrong. In my defense, I was reading a sort of literature that could safely be described as dreck. Then it was no wonder that I might turn into a Brian. If the model literature was boring, how could my teachers expect anything other than boring product from me. It wasn't until I got older and read texts that made me see the rich variety of possibilities in literature that I became more of an interested and interesting writer.

    Just short of sitting a kid down in front of Dave Eggers (for me) or Angie Thomas (for my students) how do you describe writing to a Brian in order to make him understand? What can we say to wrest him from that routinized "beige, bland, phoned in" writing?

    - Jim "Brian"


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