Coherence and Adherence – 13/31 #SOL20

High School English teachers interested in writing talk a lot about coherence. A quick search of coherence in the visual thesaurus visuwords reveals synonyms like “logical, fluid, understandable”. While, adherence brings up words like “stick, bond, bind”. I find this funny, sort of, but not really, because on the one hand we ask students to ensure their writing has flow while on the other demanding prescribed form. I guess that’s why I enjoyed John Warner’s book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. 

I’ve been trying to kill it for several years now, but realized that you can’t kill a behemoth alone. I need colleagues to help me slay this lifeless beast. Students often learn early to fear the dreaded essay and allow their thoughts on literature to be ruled by tyrants of form while not really understanding the liberation of function. They write with fill-in-the-blank formulas and check box thinking. So, when I ask them to let the ideas guide their structure, it’s understandable that they stare blankly at me. Coherence?

These contrasting ideas of coherence and adherence floated into me today during a brief conversation with my principal about an article on equity. She was sharing her thoughts about Gorski’s conclusion that students of colour are often found in “lower track” courses where they have less access to engaging content and more exposure to “control-oriented practices”. (Gorski, Paul. “Avoiding Racial Detours”, Educational Leadership, Apr. 2019, pp. 56-61) We stared at one another in a moment of shared despair and drive. Adherence?

And of course, adherence to models can produce measureable results, while coherence allows for flexibililty in the name of understanding and comprehension. I realize that I might be stretching the meaning of these words or excessively extending the metaphorical application to matters as complex as racial inequities in education.

But, then again, maybe not. Maybe, like writing, life is the place where we wrestle with ourselves to figure out the fluidity and coherence to come to a new understanding. Maybe, like writing, we need to focus on the ideas of equity to allow for coherence because adherence to one way means we forget the function of education.

9 thoughts on “Coherence and Adherence – 13/31 #SOL20

  1. Formulas constrain writing. They make students work harder to second guess the teacher than explore their own thinking. I like what Kelly Gallagher says about thinking of writing as having a beginning, middle, and end. Then I like thinking about the features of these three parts because they allow so much flexibility. Years ago, as an undergrad, I learned about paragraph blocks. This concept is so much more freeing than a five-paragraph essay, which I think teachers assign as a way to make “teaching” writing easier. Also a long time ago I got called in by my principal and excoriated for speaking against the five-paragraph essay after the teacher across the hall complained that I had told students not to write using that formula. That was in the 90s. I did not cave.

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  2. This bit, I’m borrowing: the instructional gravitation that leads students to “allow their thoughts on literature to be ruled by tyrants of form while not really understanding the liberation of function.” Made me go hunting back for a quote I’ve referenced before from education professor Yong Zhao by way of author/principal George Couros: “Reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling.” Form tends to be a floor, I’d argue, in too many cases.

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  3. I’m interested in why the 5 paragraph essay lives on. I think any writing teach who is a writer knows so much about how formulas constrain writing. Writing teachers who don’t write don’t know what else to teach. They don’t know what it’s like to put your ideas down without a formula. I know that after they leave me my students are likely going to learn some formulas along the way. These will be comforting to some. But they will have, I hope, learned from me that they don’t NEED a formula.

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    1. This might sound harsh, but I think it lives on because those who use it feel safe and comforted by it. They do not know how to teach writing so they teach form. And you nailed it “Writing teacheers who don’t write don’t know…” HOW to teach writing. It’s comlex and difficult and there is no single formulaic solution. I just wish I knew how to kill it with teachers at my school.


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