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College Readiness: Writing to Learn

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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The controversial author Norman Mailer said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down." Joan Didion perhaps said it better in this way, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." Donald Murray, a pioneer of the writing process, stated, "...all writers 'are compelled to write to see what their words tell them."

There is an amazing power to learn when you read what you have written. When we write to learn, we analyze, we revise, we organize, we rewrite, we evaluate and so on until what is written is what we want to communicate. These are all higher order thinking skills that we aspire to achieve in the classroom setting. The way it works for me is that I start with an idea and write it down. Then, if I get stuck, I play with it (sometimes like a cat with a dead mouse); I add to it, take away from it and shift it until it makes sense to me. Sometimes I have to let it sit for a while. One of my students said she lets it "marinate." Thinking is hard work. Writing to learn is hard thinking.

Learning From What You Write

Perhaps the first level of writing to learn has already been discussed in my post on critical reading. This happens when students read the stellar works of authors and try to understand not only what was written, but also the implications from what messages are being portrayed by the words choices, style, tone and organization of the text. What better way to clarify understanding than to use writing to enhance learning! Michael Schmoker affirms that a great way to write to learn is reading with "pen in hand," ready to jot down notes in the margins (or on a note pad if you have an aversion to writing in books) in order to capture the things we want to remember: corollary thoughts, disagreements, questions, things to look up for more research, evidence, words we do not understand, references, or more. As I've mentioned before, a way to use writing to enhance learning and thinking is Cornell Notes. Overall, however, it is not specifically the writing that helps the learning.

Though writing is an active learning endeavor, not passive as in listening, the act of writing involves more of the entire body in the process and thus will increase the likelihood of learning. What makes writing to learn powerful is the process of reading, thinking, writing, rereading, and rewriting that occurs over time.

Writing to learn is more than just putting words on the page for someone else to read. The focus has to be on what the writer gets out of the process of writing -- not just the reader. The process of writing to learn clarifies perspectives and crystallizes jewels of personal beliefs. The final product of the writing to learn process is a summation of the thinking and learning that occurred. Writing to learn crosses all content areas. For example, writing about the process of an experiment; what the student hoped to learn, the analysis and what was learned from the conclusion, is all writing to learn. Writing about the experience of solving a difficult mathematical problem, or making connections to disparate historical events can also be writing to learn.

In the Classroom

Students begin to write to learn by laboriously reading what others have written and then mimicking their style and methods in their own writing. As the students get more sophisticated in their writing and learning, then they will be able to reflect on their learning -- what was learned, and what was not learned; how it was learned and perhaps why.

For very advanced learners, the ultimate writing to learn will be the arrival at reflexiveness. This is when a student challenges his or her own writing and learning by asking the hard questions: Why do I believe this? What evidence do I have? Does this demonstrate a bias? What fallacies in thinking am I succumbing to? According to sociologist and author Carol Kingdon, reflexivity is acknowledging the writer's own standpoint or theoretical perspective.

What's the difference between reflexivity and reflectivity? Reflectivity only requires the writer to review what has happened, and perhaps analyze it to arrive at some understanding, point of view or course of action. Reflexivity requires the writer to reflect and then determine what effect he himself has on the thinking and writing. This includes evaluating his own personal character, and beliefs and then involves assessing the effects of who the writer is.

For example, students reading the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, are exposed to prejudice in a number of different forms. Reflective writing would be to put themselves in the shoes of Scout or Atticus, or Boo and discover what their own responses would be. Reflexive writing would take that one step more. It would require the students to identify their sympathies, biases and their own prejudices and identify how these affect their personal analysis of the book.

How do your students use writing to learn?

Suggested resources

Kingdon, C. "Reflexivity: Not Just a Qualitative Methodological Research Tool." (British Journal of Midwifery 13, 2005)

Schmoker, M. Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning. (ASCD, 2006)

Stewart, T. J. "Aloneness and The Complicated Selves of Donald M. Murray." (Composition Studies, 39(2), 2011)

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Terry Heick's picture
Terry Heick
founder/director at teachthought. humanist. technologist. futurist. macro thinker extraordinaire.

Love this. Thanks for sharing.

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

Hello Ben

I appreciate your insights into this issue of getting our students to read and to write at a level that prepares them, not just for college, but to effectively communicate with one another in life.

As a high school science teacher I struggle to devise effective writing strategies to motivate students to fully engage in written discourse. From lab report presentations, to experimental observations and commentary on articles on science, it is a continual consistent and committed effort in the classroom, to get high school students to work on developing their skills in writing.
Over the past few years I have tried to utilize online postings of lab reports including conclusions within the academic social network called THINKQUEST. I have documented steady improvements in students writing abilities in both increased quality and in depth of discussion.

The sharing aspect involved in the writing process and the potential for immediate feedback from teachers and peers is one of the most important aspects when using this online academic social network of ideas and beliefs.
Twelve years into this new century and it seems that the potential for capitalizing upon the rise of the online social media as a tool to help develop more effective writing skills is lagging. I am one of those teachers that continually work to implement new ideas and new technologies to get students to learn. Writing is one of those skills that are most important to our students' development.
I am encouraged that this issue is getting more recognition and emphasis in the classroom. Deeper learning and understanding by all of our students is the goal for science education. The development of effective writing skills and the resulting metacognition that students can benefit from are essential parts of a modern science curriculum.

Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach

with my students when I introduce free writing (ala Peter Elbow):

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" E.M. Forster

At first they're confused, but they soon see the light. It's easy to come back to this again and again as I introduce different methods of informal, writing-to-learn methods.

For anyone interested in learning more about Writing to Learn and Writing and Thinking methods, I cannot recommend highly enough Bard College's Institute for Writing and Thinking. In almost 20 years of teaching, no professional development even comes close to but a day at the institute.

I love the distinction between reflexivity and reflectivity. I'll be using that.

Suzanne Klein's picture
Suzanne Klein
Founder & CEO of WriteSteps, a Common Core writing program for K-5.

Thanks for your insightful ideas. Here is another great quote about writing to learn:

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say." ~Mark Twain

Mersolene Bollers's picture
Mersolene Bollers
Third grade teacher

Following the writing process means learning to plan,organize,edit,revise,share etc.
In writing, these skills could be transferred to all subject areas.
Reflective writing also helps students to get a deeper understanding from an aesthetic stance.

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