Home » composition » Stretching in the Right Direction: On Reading Beaufort’s Composition Pedagogy and Bain’s Teaching Study

Stretching in the Right Direction: On Reading Beaufort’s Composition Pedagogy and Bain’s Teaching Study

Anne Beaufort’s College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction and Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, (books thoughtfully passed along to me by Professors Elsie Rivas Gómez and Beverly Tate), utilize contemporary understandings of student learning in their work to discuss fundamental pedagogical assumptions and goals, and offer curricular practices for college courses.  Their celebrated, sound teaching practices and worthy educational goals connect and correlate to those utilized and promoted by Stretch Acceleration Composition.  These studies on effective teaching make me believe that we are indeed stretching in the right direction.

In Beaufort’s section on “Teaching for Transfer” in chapter six, “New Directions for University Writing Instruction,” she follows Premack in claiming the goal of education is “transfer” (149).  Beaufort utilizes the decades of research on “transfer of learning” and applies the key idea to writing instruction; here, the basic idea of the transfer of learning is to give the student tools to utilize in the many different writing situations they encounter.  In her portrayal of the transfer of learning, she stresses the organizational frameworks of genre and discourse communities (150).

The Stretch Composition course is set-up to move the students through a sequence of writing tasks.  As students move through the sequence and through areas of writing expertise, they take on the challenge of learning a variety of critical writing skills.  Within the sequential writing model, students are exposed to the idea of genre as category and work within different generic modes.  Additionally, the extended class allows time to build the necessary bridges between the assignments and reinforce the conceptual model of movement between knowledge domains and disciplines as students apply the practical and learned skills to each new writing endeavor.  In this way the composition course can work to “cue, prime, and guide” in order for the transfer of learning to happen (150).  Ultimately, we endeavor to have our students become skilled learners adept within various writing contexts.

Working outside a direct compositional focus, Bain’s book is premised on his study of outstanding teaching practices and it reinforces Beaufort’s developmental view of learning.  More specifically, his book uses psychologists Perry and Clinchy’s work on the development of undergraduates to diagnose or depict a progressive scale from the lower level of “received knowers” and “subjective knowers,” to the intermediate level of “procedural knowers” and on to the highest level of “separate knowers” (42-3).   The teacher’s goal is to have students progress to “independent, critical, and creative thinkers, valuing the ideas and ways of thinking to which they are exposed and consciously and consistently trying to use them” (43). This use would demonstrate Beaufort’s transfer of learning.  Fundamental to both Beaufort’s and Bain’s works is the idea that knowledge is constructed and learning is viewed as a process in which students build upon past understanding in new encounters.  Overall, central to the best teachers of Bain’s study and within Beaufort’s sound composition practices is a marked valuation of human learning.  Stretch Composition is premised on the understanding that learning is a process and the course is structured to facilitate this.  The model itself demonstrates the value we place on student learning.

The stretch composition class is also uniquely situated to further engage and benefit from Beaufort’s conception of “discourse communities.”  While Beaufort focuses on the compositional study of discourse communities in the writing course, the discourse community need not be considered only as a learning framework.  It seems this concept can be effectively extended as a practice in the Stretch classroom wherein the students investigating the conception of discourse communities are also a cohort with time and space to build their own discourse community within the lengthened multi-term class.  For this group of learners and writers, the teacher can explicitly frame the class as a working model, their own academic discourse community.  Here, within the encouraging space of the classroom, the students take responsibility for their own writing and also come to understand their additional responsibility to each other as members of a writing community.

In terms of teaching philosophy, I think it is important that Beaufort notes a “principle for increasing the chances of transfer learning that runs throughout the literature: teaching the practice of mindfulness or meta-cognition” (152).  Bain also keys in on “metacognition”; he believes that the best teachers “reflect deeply on the nature of thinking in their fields…” and work to understand how others might learn (25).   Bain then expressly promotes teachers who strive to make students aware of their own thinking.  This speaks to core of my current thoughts on the writers’ work and our stretch compositional program, above, in terms of the transfer of learning and discourse communities. An informed stretch composition course may combine both Beaufort’s student centered approach and Bain’s teacherly approach. We can practically ask the student large questions about their writing tasks and draw out critical connections between tasks; this is important.  Moreover, in my teaching experience, I’ve found that students respond positively when they are asked to join in the discussion of the concept of the writing course itself.  We productively acknowledge our meta-critical pursuit by discussing such fundamental notions as why we are doing what we are doing.  In a composition course that asks the students to think about writing and write about writing, we all become intellectually engaged in a complex, thoughtful, critical and finally rewarding endeavor.

In reading the books, I feel particularly inspired and empowered as a writing instructor.  For the writing class is an active class; we’re in a great position to engage and provoke students.  And with the additional time and within the myriad ways that Stretch Composition is set-up to “develop reading, writing, and critical thinking competencies” (PCC Stretch FAQ), we can assist our students in the principal and important process of learning.  Of course, as teachers we too are learners and we should continually examine our approach.  In this way we can work to be a model of the kind of life-long learner that we hope our students become (and it’s always good to stretch ourselves).

Discussion:

In thinking through the theoretical concepts, there are of course practical questions, such as: How can we constructively work to make the class into a discourse community? What are effective strategies to introduce and reinforce a productive meta-cognitive approach? I would appreciate hearing your thoughts and hearing about your classroom strategies.

Also, Beaufort’s article in Composition Forum, College Writing and Beyond: Five Years Later,” offers an update in which she discusses clarifying assumptions about learning goals. She utilizes a categorical list of “expressivist, critical theory, democratic, pragmatic, aesthetic, and process goals.” These can be useful in thinking through particular approaches to academic writing courses and thinking about the value of such courses. What are, or should be, our underlying Stretch course assumptions and goals? Could we come together in conceptualizing these? How could we best express these?

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