George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: THe Skills to Make It Happen

Technical Writing: THe Skills to Make It Happen

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Technical Writing: The Skills to Make It Happen Explicit Tasks In his interesting 2005 short article in Science and Children ("What writing represents what scientists actually do?" November/December, pp. 50-51, available online at ) Bill Robertson urges science teachers to try writing assignments that reach beyond the stereotypical (and somewhat fictional) hypothesis-experiment-results lab report. He suggests instead: 1. "the presentation of science fair projects," 2. "a formal critique" of another student's procedures or conclusions, or 3. "a column for the school newspaper" that explains science class work to a broad audience. Robertson never mentions, however, how to get unprepared students to the point where they could actually carry out any of these realistic science writing assignments. [Robertson also surprisingly omits one other science writing project that is not only realistic but influential, even high-stakes: abstracts. Abstracts strongly affect how often technical articles are cited; some journals and conferences even screen submittals by reading their abstracts alone. While science teachers sometimes assign project abstracts along with papers or reports, very few offer any tips or feedback to help students actively learn how to design abstracts that are effective.] Explicit Techniques Marsha Ratzel steps into the void left by Robertson with her recent tactical suggestions in "Writing: Not Just For Language Arts" (Education Week, September 13, 2011, articles/2011/09/13/ratzel_writing.html). Ratzel reports that science student success in her classes increases markedly with adequate pre-writing preparation, including: * making EXPLICIT her grading criteria for science writing assignments, * coaching students to build a ROADMAP or "plan of action" before they write (more helpful than a rigid outline), and * itemizing various TEXT-REVISION techniques so students can pick some from her list to improve their drafts. All of these tips have in common that they EXTERNALIZE planning or drafting moves often made by those who write nonfiction well. Such moves are seldom overt. Exposing them is the secret of cognitive apprenticeship. Enter Apprenticeship Writing (including the realistic technical writing that Robertson urges) depends heavily upon having a repertoire of underlying skills. And the way professionals in life beyond school build such skills is through apprenticeship. They work along side "masters" who do much more than show off their expertise; they REVEAL that expertise by 1. talking about what they would normally do quietly, 2. making overt or distinct preparatory steps that would normally be blurred together, hidden, or private, and 3. scaffolding moves that they would normally perform unaided by prompts or extra framework. (Apprentice magicians who understudy with a master are a good dramatic example of all three such features.) Apprentices build their own skills by mimicking the master out loud, publicly, and with cues at first. Gradually they internalize the modeled expertise--first performing better (here: writing more effectively about science) and later performing better quietly, privately, and unprompted. So Ratzel's explicit criteria, overt roadmaps, and itemized revision techniques are not just cute gimmicks or window dressing--they are crucial features of literacy (nonfiction) cognitive apprenticeship. They are vital to get apprentice science writers practicing moves shared by good scientists in private. Merely turning student writers loose on the three Robertson drafting projects (plus abstracts) is no more likely to yield effective prose (or to build effective prose-creating skills) than asking novice magicians to make a tiger disappear is likely to yield an effective stage illusion. For professional literacy skills, there is no substitute for the path through apprenticeship. (For help applying this approach to science abstracts, see ).

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