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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

As science and math are slated for more emphasis in our classrooms, writing should not be sacrificed. Indeed, in the past two decades, neuroscience and cognitive science research have provided increasing evidence that correlates creativity with academic, social, and emotional intelligence. Writing can help the brain to develop the logical functions required for successful math and science learning.

Writing to Develop Executive Function

During the school years, especially from ages 8-18, the most rapid phase of maturation is taking place in the prefrontal cortex. This is a critical time during which the brain is developing the individual's executive functions. These include judgment, critical analysis, induction, deduction, delay of immediate gratification for long-term goals, recognition of relationships (symbolism, conceptualization), prioritizing, risk assessment, organization, creative problem solving. There are also emotional aspects to executive function, including the ability to identify one's emotional state, exert emotional self-control, and reflect about emotional response choices.

When it comes to math and science, writing brings more than literacy and communication advantages. The practice of writing can enhance the brain's intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information. Through writing, students can increase their comfort with and success in understanding complex material, unfamiliar concepts, and subject-specific vocabulary. When writing is embedded throughout the curriculum, it promotes the brain's attentive focus to classwork and homework, boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain's highest cognition.

How the Brain Stores Information

There is an involuntary information intake filter that determines what sensory input is accepted into the brain. Input must also pass through an emotional filter, the amygdala, where the destination of that information is determined. When stress is high, the intake filter selectively admits information related to perceived threat, virtually ignoring other sensory input. The high stress state also directs the amygdala switching station to conduct information to the lower, reactive brain, where long-term retrievable memories cannot be formed. In addition, the behavioral outputs of the lower brain are limited to fight (act out), flight (self-entertainment sometimes misinterpreted as ADHD), or freeze (zone out).

Use Code Names to Reduce Anxiety

Fear of making mistakes in front of classmates is one of the greatest sources of anxiety for students. This fear impacts learning. With the help of blogs and wikis, a teacher can set up an environment that enables students to post anonymously via a code name that's known only by the teacher. These code names afford individual privacy so students can express themselves without the fear that limits in-class responses and questions.

With these tools, we can introduce a variety of writing activities that reduce the stress that blocks passage through the amygdala to the reflective prefrontal cortex. For instance, students can write descriptive responses to math or science questions, as well as predictions, hypotheses, and questions. Other useful writing exercises include journaling, newspaper editorials to defend a position, and formal research-style formatted reports of student experimentation with data analysis.

These activities provide all students with the opportunity to actively participate in learning, as they receive timely feedback, reflect, revise, and risk making mistakes. In this way, writing can build confidence and reveal gaps in foundational knowledge. Students can share creative insights, and build their capacities to communicate their ideas and defend their opinions.

Through these shared written reflections about content and concepts students have opportunities to express creative hypotheses, alternative perspectives, and concerns about their understanding. Especially with peer anonymity, there is accountability and peer interaction, without the concern about mistakes that is so paralyzing to many students during class time. As students consider and define their opinions, conclusions, and predictions in writing, their brains construct valuable concept networks. (More on these below.)

When learning is examined through shared writing, students are exposed to multiple approaches to solving problems. This is so important in building the flexibility and open-minded approach to other cultures as the science, math, and technology world is indeed global. Furthermore, students have the chance to communicate using their own words. They build communication skills they will surely use in their collaborations now and in the future science and math communities they will enter.

Make Writing Relevant to Help Curb Dropout Rate

Writing can also reduce the neural processing blockades that result from the stress of boredom -- the most frequent reason high school dropouts give for leaving school. We know that students are engaged when material is personally relevant, and connects to real world issues and problems. And when this happens, there is increased information flow through the attention and emotional filters to the higher processing prefrontal cortex.

Writing can increase both personal relevance and confidence. Personal relevance comes when students can write for creativity and personal expression. Even when the facts of the math or science are not debatable, individual responses to the information are appropriate writing topics. When writing is incorporated in learning and assessment, there is increased opportunity to produce the ideal situation for active, attentive learning with collaboration, revision, and metacognition through personalization, and creativity.

Reminding students of previous successes promotes confidence, as does providing them the opportunity to recognize their own progress over time. One way to help them recognize their progress is through their written assessments: For instance, along with the content you're assessing, you can also have students write their responses to both the learning itself and to recognition of their progress. These can be maintained in computer files or portfolios and reviewed as evidence of successful, incremental progress with student opportunities for metacognition about strategies used for success.

What's Going on in There? Writing "Sprouts" Conceptual Brain Networks

The construction of conceptual memory networks builds the most valuable neural architecture a brain owner can have. These networks serve as "nets" to catch and hold new input with similar patterns, and "work" when activated for creative transfer -- use of the information learned in one context for application in a new context.

Concept networks are the valuable tools the brain uses in the highest orders of thinking. When the brain seeks to predict the best response, answer, solution to a problem or make a choice, the executive function control networks in the prefrontal cortex send out messages to the memory association areas, such as the hippocampus and memory storing cortex of each hemisphere. These messages activate stored prior knowledge memories that relate to the new situation. The more extensive the brain's collection of memory networks, the more successful it will be in activating the best prior knowledge to predict the best responses, answers, and choices for any new situation. The greater the links and cross-connections among networks of stored information, the greater a person's access to multiple storage centers of background knowledge to use in response to the new problem or opportunity.

Writing as Memory Cement and Concept Clue

Memory bundles, such as Piaget's schema, contain category-related information linked in circuits based on commonalities (such as similar sounds, visual images). These bundles of neurons are linked together because they have been used together repeatedly.

The many varieties of writing can serve to guide the brain to recognize, construct, and extend its patterns. Writing can illuminate sequential procedures that students need to learn in mathematics and science, from factoring an equation to the photosynthetic chemical process. Prior knowledge can be activated to link with new input through writing and drawing mind maps or graphic organizers, and new learning can be added into visible and mental patterns when students write analogies and other comparisons.

The neural activity or mental manipulation that transforms formulas, procedures, graphs, and statistical analyses into words represents the brain's recognition of patterns. When this is also done in writing, the facts, procedures, and observations are processed symbolically in the writing process -- giving the memory another storage modality and truly illuminating the patterns for the brain to follow as it adds new learning to existing concept networks.

Understanding How the Brain Thinks
Teach more effectively by learning how students receive and apply information.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jackie Ludwig's picture
Jackie Ludwig
5th grade Math/Language Arts Teacher

Wow! What an eye opener. I really enjoyed reading your blog, it answered so many questions I had. I have heard and read similar articles, but this really made sense. Thank you for proving that Math and writing can coincide. We are trying a new program at our school with our math program where students have to use sequential events to solve problems, and in turn explain how or why they reached the conclusion they did. This really helped me understand what it will be like for the student, and the thinking process they will have to reach. Thanks for the insight!

Jackie

Luke's picture
Luke
9th grade math teacher from ND

I also really enjoyed this blog. It answered many questions for me as well. We have been told that writing is so beneficial in the classroom and that it needs to be done. However, in math I have sometimes found this hard to accomplish. I have had students do a little bit of writing by having them explain their steps to an answer in words or by explaining a method that they used, but I think I need to have them do a little more. I like the ideas of having students write stories or songs with math concepts because I too believe that keeps them more engaged and it is fun for them. Great blog!

scigalemt's picture

Your series is right, "write," on with the new common core standards. Science and Math teachers must incorporate argumentive and informative writing into our curriculum. I agree with using technology to reach students after school hours in a less stressful way to communicate. Also, I find it comforting that students are actively increasing brain learning from the ages 8-18. Research has focused on the under 5 years old to 10 year olds as the best time. That is why your series of using writing and hands on activities will stimulate both sides of the learner's brain and we as educators need to take note.

Carole's picture

Your Part 2 of 5 benefits of writing for logical functions in math and science learning was a renewed encourager for my required weekly writing assignments. This blog agreed with and solidified my recent study of cognition in my NILD Canada Level l course. There is so much to learn and apply for my students' benefit!!! Not only is handwriting a perceptual and cognitive skill but the visual-motor and motor planning ability integrates bilateral and asymmetrical movements which forces the use of both right and left brain hemispheres. I personally would take the handwriting practice and development to another level and require math and science students to write out a few of their problems forcing them to think through in a logical step-by-step order to prove his/her rationale of how he/she arrived at their final answer. Unfortunately, students are in too big of a hurry in problem solving to catch non-sensical errors. This method would definitely slow them down. As an educator it is imperative for my students' success to understand the learning process and adapt accordingly.
Thank you for your research and this blog!!

Ms. ACarlson's picture
Ms. ACarlson
5th through 12th Language Arts teacher, Sacheon, South Korea

As a language arts teacher who has taught math I completely agree. I would often have students fold a paper in half. On the left hand side they would do the math work and on the right hand side explain each step in words. Mistakes and the reasons behind them became obvious very quickly.

monicakochar's picture
monicakochar
IB Maths teacher; Author

I am a maths teacher and I heavily use language in the class. This article has helped me to understand the 'why' of what I do intuitively. Thanks!

Michelle H. Williams's picture
Michelle H. Williams
6th grad math teacher, Mathews County, VA

During my second year of teaching math in our small district, the four math teachers joined forces to discuss and brainstorm ways to increase the state scores and one of the conclusions of those meetings was the development of a master list of content specific vocabulary as well as non-math words that might stump students that could be used/instructed in the Math classes. I had studied the brain research that spoke of the networks that were created when students incorporated writing into their problem solving. We implemented a process wherein students must "prove" their work in one of four ways: give a definition, tell a rule, draw a picture, or show their work. Once the students were well-versed in this process, we added a second component: "Talk to Me". The talk to me is a journal type explanation of a problem solving technique. I personally push these strategies and we have seen a substantial increase in our scores. They are still not where we want, but they are going up! Thanks for posting a more in-depth explanation of what we came up with!

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger

Michelle,
Your specific applications are wonderful and I'll be sharing them with others in my workshops...and of course crediting you. Kudos, Judy

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