The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What can be taught

There are many that argue that in education we should be focusing more on creativity and independent thinking. The reasoning behind this is basically that these will always be valuable skills and focusing too much on facts and memorization is counter-productive since much of that knowledge may become quickly obsolete. The problem with this line of argument is that it's not entirely clear how or even whether these things can be taught.

The Guardian yesterday compiled a number of opinions from various writers who briefly weighed in on the question of whether creative writing can be taught. Their opinions range from "not really" to "somewhat." Unfortunately, they don't go into the question in too much depth and I think that more can be said.

There are a few things that should be noted. First, even if we don't know whether writing skill can be taught or not, we know it can be learned. No one is born a Shakespeare. Access to the childhood writings of great writers consistently shows that they wrote generally as poor as all children wrote. Somehow they learned a few things about writing along the way.

Second, the more knowledge you retain and the better you are able to use that knowledge, the more creative you'll be. Memory, particularly working memory, is a big component of overall intelligence. Many people like to make this diametrical division between rote memorization and creativity, but the reality is that the better a person's memory functions, generally the more creative they are. And the best way to improve memory is to memorize things. That doesn't mean that rote memorization is the best way to improve memory, just that memory skill is important. Also, the larger the storehouse of knowledge you can draw from, the more creative you'll be. That means that learning lots of facts can be very beneficial.

Third, a teacher can only be involved in a percentage of the learning of a student. There are only so many hours of teaching time, and these few hours are certainly only sufficient to impart limited knowledge. Students need to be learning on their own, especially if they ever want to attain something that requires a great many hours of skill, such as sophisticated and well-developed writing ability. K. Anders Ericsson famously estimated, based on considerable research, that it takes on average 10,000 hours or 10 years to master something (if not more, in highly competitive fields). That's a lot more hours than I, or any teacher, probably wants to spend teaching a student.

Fourth, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. In other words, you can't force a student to learn anything they don't want to learn. In fact, a student doesn't even need to stubbornly refuse to learn, just simply not paying attention or not studying is enough. In short, the student needs to be involved in the learning process. A good teacher can motivate students, but the student still needs to meet the teacher half way.

Fifth, writers are not entirely aware or able to explain what they know. There are many skills that we develop and master non-linguistically and non-consciously. For example, the ability to throw a football forty yards with pinpoint accuracy cannot be explained because it's a matter of training your muscles and your nervous system to be able to coordinate themselves in such a way that you can simply think, "Throw this ball to hit that target," and it will happen. Your muscles and nervous system are conditioned in such a way that you generally perform poorer if you think consciously too much about it; decisions need to be streamlined such that they can basically be made below the conscious level, quickly and without deliberation. The way you condition them is with practice, repetition and feedback, and a lot of it. A talented writer's sense about what is appropriate, what fits, what the best way to say such a thing, what should happen in a plot, what a character should do, and so on, is also frequently non-conscious; such decisions have been developed through the experience of lots of reading and writing. This means that writers need only be aware of what they are doing in a limited sense; as such they really only have a partial understanding of what they're doing right, not to mention that they might also fall into bad habits that they mistakenly think are favorable. Thus, their ability to pass on useful information will also be limited.

Sixth, being creative means doing thing differently. In other words, you can teach somehow how other people have done things, but being creative means doing things in a different may. By definition, if you teach someone something and they parrot it, they're not creative.

If we take these points in combination I think we can get a good idea of what it means to teach creative writing. Namely, that at best a teacher can facilitate the self-learning of a student. By definition you can't really teach creativity, but you can help students become more creative. And the best way to teach students would be to teach them more readily teachable knowledge like writing techniques, tropes, conventions and genres through giving examples and reading quality writing; as well as trying to motivate them to broaden their knowledge independently. In short, as to the question of whether creative writing can be taught, the answer is: "sort of, but not really."

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