How to... orchestrate cerebral cells

November 24, 2000

WHAT : Essays test a limited range of skills, and portfolios often fail to draw together disparate pieces of work

WHY : Richard Winter believes the 'patchwork text' lets students write in a way that gives them confidence and creativity

HOW : Coursework assignments tend to fall into one of two categories: the essay or the portfolio. Both have problems.

The essay focuses on a narrow range of skills and can be a daunting task at the end of a course. Students often begin the essay before the course ends to maximise the time available. This can lead to low attendance and to a selective attitude to the ideas presented in the essay. The portfolio, or learning journal, solves these problems but creates others. It lacks a requirement to create an overall synthesis, and is thus suspected in many quarters of being an easy option.

The "patchwork text" is an attempt to resolve the problem. It takes account of the variety of ways in which students are able to present their learning in written form. It requires a synthesis of students' understanding, but one that is based on creating an "aesthetic" unity rather than simply a logical argument. In this way, the patchwork text has a political purpose, to broaden access to higher education qualifications for the large number of students who do not lack the ability to write but for whom the essay form is alien.

The text is a coursework format that is built up gradually over weeks, and in which each component of work is shared with other students in small group discussions. Students are asked to combine different ways of writing -for example, a story, a personal memory, a book review, a commentary on a lecture or notes from a field trip and so on.

This allows the writer to move between description, imaginative creation and analytical commentary. In this way, it helps students experience the acquisition of knowledge as a personal process of self-exploration and self-questioning. The emphasis on sharing preliminary pieces of writing builds collaborative learning and formative feedback into the learning process.

Whereas the analytical essay focuses on logic and cognition - and thus favours a specific range of prior talents and skills - the patchwork text, like a collage or photo-montage in the visual arts, enables students to draw on their imagination, emotion and aesthetic understanding.

A model of the patchwork text was developed during a course on reflective writing for professional practitioners (social workers, nurses and teachers) at Anglia Polytechnic University. The course aims to encourage participants to reflect on their practice. It has been running at APU for eight years, once or twice a year, and is included on a variety of professionally oriented honours degree pathways. Work is under way at APU, Cambridge and Nottingham Trent universities to introduce the model into other types of course, including science, sociology, classics, philosophy, family therapy and communication studies.

At least 50 students have successfully completed the work, and almost without exception have  commented with enthusiasm on the sense of freedom, intellectual confidence and creativity it generates. They say it has improved their general ability to write and also to appreciate the complexity of their work.

The patchwork text makes explicit the uncertainty and subjectivity of our understanding. It includes, alongside the author's voice and perspective, the voices and perspectives from which it has been derived. Like a story, it is a synthesis of diverse elements. But its unity is looser and obviously more fragile: it shows that its general analysis is based on a particular range of details and on imaginative identification with others' experiences.

Richard Winter is professor of education at Anglia Polytechnic University.

The ideas presented here are based on the work reported in Professional Experience and the Investigative Imagination (R. Winter, A. Buck and P. Sobiechowska, Routledge, 1999.)

Case study: how the patchwork text works

Matthew, a forensic nurse studying behaviour therapy for dangerous psychiatric patients, has written a text titled Personal Effects.

In the first section, the abstract, "kindly" voice of behaviour therapy speaks: "I can change your behaviour, make you a better person, loved (or at least tolerated) by society. I can mould your behaviour like a potter working his clay..."

In the second section, a patient replies: "I don't want to change. I don't give a damn if I'm loved or tolerated... Who are you to decide what I should or should not do? Who are you to steal from me a part of my individuality, to steal that which helps make me me?" Matthew's second piece is an imaginary interview that brings out the insidious appeal of the raw prejudices and emotions of the average citizen:

"When I think of some of the things they've done, it makes my blood boil.

"The next thing you know another self-respecting citizen drops dead
with some nutter's knife in his back."

Next comes an ironic imaginary interview with a psychologist: "Do you really get consent or do you just bribe people with a suitable reward?"

"It's the same thing really. We offer a reward and the client chooses to either have his reward, by not displaying a targeted behaviour, or chooses to forfeit that reward and instead display the behaviour. Voilà: consent."

The next "interview", with an enlightened citizen, picks up the moral ambiguity revealed by the psychologist: "I mean, where do you stop? ...You're changing the way someone acts, thinks even, against their will... Effectiveness is not necessarily a justification."

Then there is the point of view of "a nurse", who recognises the potential value of the treatment but expresses reservations: it can easily be overused, leading to treatment programmes that ignore the possible causes of challenging behaviour; some forms of behaviour offend some sections of society but do not necessarily affect a person's ability to function.

Matthew's final piece is his own analysis, drawing on some of the current literature on the subject and arguing that treatment policy must "steer a course between the polarised views of the persons from  the earlier passages".         

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