Writing to learn vs. learning to write

Every once in a while, you run across an article that hits home about something you’ve been thinking about for some time.  I recently had that experience with Writing to learn across the curriculum:  Tools for comprehension in content area classes by Kathy J. Knipper and Timothy J. Duggan.  I give a lot of presentations to faculty and students about writing across the curriculum.  I explain what it is and its importance.  But I am always struggling to find the right words, the right way to present the ideas, especially when it comes to why it is so important.  Then I came across Knipper and Duggan’s article.

Writing across the curriculum is one way to help students use writing to learn, as opposed to learning to write.  I suppose you could say it actually helps with both, but one reason why it is so important is that writing helps students think critically about a subject; but, we can’t expect critical thinking to magically appear in projects when we have not given them low-stakes writing assignments that lead them to deeper critical thinking in larger projects.

Writing to learn differs from learning to write in that there is no process piece that will be revised until it reaches the finished project stage.  Writing to learn, instead, is a way to provide students with opportunities to recall, clarify, and question what they know and would like to know about a subject.  It is a way for them to express their thinking in writing (Knipper & Duggan, 2006).

This all sounds good to me, but I still had the nagging question about how do you do this in meaningful ways?  And upon more reading, Knipper and Duggan answered my question.  Using writing to learn means that we provide examples and models of what we expect from students, and more important, we allow them to make decisions and make mistakes.  We allow them to experiment and explore a topic in writing without the fear of failure.  This is why low-stakes writing assignments are so important, and also how they help students process subject content.  Why do they have to do this in writing?  Because there is not one of us who works in a situation where our thinking does not have to be translated into writing at some point.  It’s how our world communicates today.

One key to helping students use writing to learn is that these smaller, low-stakes writing assignments have to be sprinkled throughout the course, and then students have to be shown how to use them as building blocks for the larger projects where we expect to see their big ideas.  And they have to be more than summary. Summary is certainly beneficial, but the whole reason anyone is in school is to eventually be a contributor to a particular field.  You can’t contribute if you do not know how to reason and critically think through information.  And this can’t happen only in the final project for each course.  Every week students have to be given the opportunity to wrestle with ideas in writing without the fear of failure. 

Next time, I’ll talk a bit more about the idea of failure and what Knipper and Duggan say about assessing writing to learn in the classroom.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.

Diane

Reference

Knipper, K.J. & Duggan, T.J. (2006). Writing to learn across the curriculum:  Tools for comprehension in content area classes. International Reading Association, 462–470. doi:10.1598/RT.59.5.5

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