Floss One Tooth

I sat down recently to outline my philosophy on student writing, and a phrase from blogger James Clear came to mind: 

Floss one tooth.

Fear not, I am a proponent of full-mouth dental hygiene. But the implications of this phrase are useful and varied.

These directions, according to Mr. Clear, are the results of a psychological study on habits. When researchers challenged participants with flossing their whole mouths, they performed inconsistently, often failing completely. But when researchers changed the directions to “floss one tooth per day,” almost all participants adhered to the habit…and almost all flossed all of their teeth every time.

When a goal seems too big, the flight response kicks in, and people don’t both to begin.

But when the goal is small–laughably small works best–it feels silly not to complete it.  Once you’ve flossed the first two, you’re in front of the mirror, floss in your hand, and you might as well finish the task.

I apply this to teaching writing by giving focused, minimal feedback. (See Grant Wiggins for a great definition of what feedback is and isn’t.)  

My current process is as follows: I read the entire paper. I ignore most of the errors. I point out the few (1-4) changes that will “nudge” a student writer forward.  I provide instruction or suggestion on how to revise or edit, and allow students to identify similar situations in the rest of the paper.

When the goal is simple and obviously attainable–“fix this misplaced modifier, find the others at least two others like this one and correct them on your own”–students see a reasonable suggestion, and one that requires action and thinking on their end. They will often revise more in the process.  

Notice I didn’t even say that I point out every error of a single kind that the student has made, but instead I point out one, provide instruction (using Kaizena.com) and then allow the students to identify and edit/revise the rest.  This results in me giving individualized instruction, and students taking ownership of their writing.

The “flossing one tooth” philosophy requires restraint, patience and trust, which are three virtues that I find difficult to cultivate.  Others likely feel the same. But giving students something reasonable to achieve, even if it might appear to others as minimal, is better than dreaming up unattainable standards in the name of “doing my professional duty” of correcting every error.


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