A Simple Focus on What Works: Dr. Webster’s Two-Question Test

Mar 29, 2017 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

Teachers by nature are seekers of new and innovative tools to improve our teaching. We sign up for workshops, attend in-services, read books, and scour social media for strategies to add to our “pedagogical bag of tricks” (Alber 2015). We return to our classrooms eager to implement new strategies with our students, only to find that most don’t work the way we’d hoped they would. In our eagerness to find solutions, we end up wasting a lot of time with little to show for our efforts.

Mike Schmoker, a former school administrator and the author of FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, believes in simplicity—focusing only on the few things that are most likely to help schools achieve their goals. In FOCUS, Schmoker asserts that our failure to be clear and focused “is the simple reason we haven’t made enormous strides toward better schooling in this age of reform” (Schmoker 2011). He uses business writer Jim Collins’s (Good to Great, Harper Business 2011) analogy to illustrate how the hedgehog uses simplicity to focus on the essential—survival.

Hedgehogs do one thing well (roll into a ball to protect themselves), as opposed to foxes, which plan and plot and scheme as they pursue many ends at the same time. Foxes aren’t simple; they are scattered and diffused, moving on many levels. That’s why they fail. By contrast, hedgehogs, with their simple, singular focus, succeed because they commit entirely and exclusively to what is essential and ignore the rest. (Schmoker 2011)

The fox, despite spending large amounts of energy in its quest to eat the hedgehog, ends up hungry in the end while the hedgehog lives to see another day. Schmoker’s point is that education’s cluttered and confusing climate of new programs, gimmicks, and fads is a distraction that impedes progress. Thus, schools should imitate the simple, singular focus of the hedgehog by targeting the essentials and ignoring everything else.

About seventy years ago, Dr. James B. Webster, one of IEW’s founders, did just that when he committed to a simple, focused approach to teaching writing. Dr. Webster began his career in a one-room school in northern Saskatchewan. That first year with fifty-five students in grades 1–10, he was determined that his students would know how to write well, and he set about finding a practical way to accomplish this (Webster 2009). How did Dr. Webster do it? He focused on the essentials and ignored the rest.

Webster attended in-services and educational conferences and studied the methods of his aunt, Anna Ingham, designer of the Blended Sound-Sight Program of Learning, coming away with new ideas to try with his students. But rather than use a hit-or-miss approach, Dr. Webster decided that each technique he tried had to pass two simple tests, or he rejected it.

Does it work? (Did students make progress?)


Is it enjoyable? (Did students find it engaging?)

Dr. Webster’s students enjoyed some of the techniques he tried, but they didn’t produce results. Some techniques worked, but his students did not enjoy them. Over the next few decades, Webster’s trial-and-error grassroots approach resulted in a structured, sequential, and engaging writing process that worked with students from the primary grades to the university level.

Dr. Webster’s process eventually became the Blended Structure & Style in Composition method. In the 1990s with Webster’s endorsement, Andrew Pudewa brought the program to the United States, where he created the Institute for Excellence in Writing. The writing process that began in the Canadian classrooms of Mrs. Ingham and Dr. Webster became IEW’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style method, which continues to give teachers a clear and consistent way to teach writing.

Dr. Webster succeeded in finding a way to teach students to write well. His simple, two-question test—Does it work? Is it enjoyable?—doesn’t sound much like the educationese of school reform today, but it resulted in a writing process that uses highly-effective teaching practices that are supported by current research:

  1. A clear purpose and learning goals that provide explicit criteria on how students can be successful

  2. Models and examples so students can see what the end product looks like

  3. Class participation so students learn from each other and which creates opportunities for teachers to formatively assess, through observation, how well students are grasping new concepts

  4. Effective, consistent, and accurate feedback through frequent, routine formative assessment

  5. Opportunities for students to monitor their own work and to self-reflect along the way (Alber 2015)

Dr. Webster’s practical approach was successful because he focused on two simple yet essential questions to create a process both timeless and true. The Structure and Style Writing Method™ worked then and still works today, empowering educators to teach well and empowering students to write well.


Works Cited

Alber, Rebecca. "5 Highly Effective Teaching Practices." Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation, 27 Feb. 2015. Accessed 09 Mar. 2017.

Schmoker, Mike. Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. ASCD, 2011.

Webster, James B. Blended Structure and Style in Composition. Institute for Excellence in Writing, 2000, pp. iii-vi.

Webster, James B. "Why Is Structure & Style So Effective?" Institute for Excellence in Writing, 25 June 2009, Institute for Excellence in Writing, L.L.C., iew.com/schools/help-support/resources/articles/why-structure-style-so-effective. Accessed 09 Mar. 2017.

Structure and Style Writing Method is a trademark of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, L.L.C.

Jean Nichols brings 34 years of classroom experience to IEW, having taught grades 1–6 in New York, Virginia, and in California, where she taught sixth-grade language arts in the Rocklin Unified School District. Named Rocklin’s “Elementary Teacher of the Year” in 2001, Jean was also included in the 2004 and 2005 editions of Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

Are you a teacher or school administrator interested in IEW? You can contact Jean or any of our Educational Consultants through our website at IEW.com/schools/help-support/contact-us.

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