I’m proposing something radical. I’m recommending we consider something that may not fit into a nifty acronym.
For some time, educators and those interested in influencing schools’ curricular foci, have suggested significant instructional redirection, often with an acronym that supposedly creates education’s needed compass. The most famous of these, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), has received media attention and boasts an impressive “coalition” of participating organizations.
Others have examined STEM and suggested additions, such as Rob Jacobs’s excellent suggestions of Arts and Design, resulting in STEAMD. In a recent Twitter interaction, the idea ofentrepreneurship was suggested as an addition(STEAMED). As stems naturally do, the acronym seems to be sprouting new branches.
While the evolving acronym provides a great mnemonic device, in its fullest suggested expression it’s still missing an important educational focus: writing. I know, how archaic of me to suggest that one of the “three R’s” (another mnemonic!) remains a focus in 21st century education. In this age of social media, of texting, of digital photos, why should we teach students to write well? Learning to write well is as much about what is gained from the process as it is about what is expressed as a result.
What Writing Does
In his outstanding book, Writing Well, Mark Tredinnick offers the following insight:
In these times, more than ever, we need a little depth and care, generosity and poise. We need a little perspective and honesty and restraint. And politically, a little low-voltage rage. We need, in other words, to rediscover the syntax of civility and the diction of democracy.1
The “diction of democracy,” claims Mark Tredinnick, is found in “the struggle to improve our sentences.” By equipping and empowering students as writers, we provide them with a critical tool for participation in democratic society. Being able to communicate well empowers expression. If a student believes his thoughts and opinions matter AND he possesses the means to communicate those thoughts and opinions, he is more likely to become a PARTICIPANT in democracy—someone with the means to change his standing rather than view himself as a victim of forces over which he has no control.
Relatedly, this morning I heard an interview in which a voter was asked, “What is one of the main traits you are looking for in a potential candidate?” The answer was refreshing: “reasoning.” The voter explained that the local government was mired in personality conflicts disguised as partisanship and wasted its time blaming political enemies. Folly filled the void left by reasoning’s absence, and major problems had piled so high that they threatened to overwhelm the community.
Learning to write promotes learning to reason.
Tredinnick describes writing as “the most exact form of thinking”:
It exacts—from those…who want to do it well—precision, discernment, fineness of observation, and detachment. By its nature, true writing practices critical thinking…Good, sustained critical thinking underlies good, clear thinking: you could almost say that good writing is critical thinking. It is critical thinking resolved and put down on paper.2
George Hillocks, Jr. makes a similar claim, explaining that writing is “a process of digging through superficial abstraction to get at the details that reveal the meaning of experience, not only to the reader but to the writer.”3 Such cognition reflects the traits of a candidate this voter was seeking—someone who could think critically to the point of action and resolution. Writing not only equips future voters to participate in democracy but also prepare the candidates seeking to serve them.
The benefits of learning to write also equip students for in-school success. Writing is a means of learning. Writing experts refer to this aspect of writing as “knowledge transforming”—“constructing ideas and images through writing.” In writing, “information promotes curiosity or speculation, and the writer uses the information and the curiosity to construct knowledge not originally accumulated.” 4 This extends beyond the language arts. Recent research suggests that writing fosters “discipline-specific thinking” in all academic subjects.5
Writing also develops important cognitive functions such as working memory. “Few activities are as cognitively demanding as writing.” In fact, different writing phases engage different elements of working memory. While drafting obviously engages verbal working memory, planning a piece of writing actually engages spatial working memory. Writers “represent their ideas visually when trying to structure their essays,” notes neuropsychologist David Galbraith.6 Spatial working memory empowers planning, verbal working memory empowers drafting, and both empower revision as writers evaluate and improve both idea-level structure and word-level details. Improving working memory abilities influences fluid intelligence, capacities “critical for wide variety of cognitive tasks” and “considered one of the most important factors in learning.”7 Teaching students to write not only gives them a means of constructing understanding, but actually equips them for better or more efficient learning in multiple areas. Writing engages “more areas of the brain and involves them more intensely than any activity thus far investigated.”8
Our Current Results
Despite these immediate and long-range benefits, our schools often fail to produce writers. A recent study found that 70% of students in Grades 4–12 are considered low-achieving writers. 70%! Researchers describe our current writing instruction as being stuck in the eighteenth century with little real relationship to actual writing. In other words, we are teaching something other than writing while we claim to be teaching writing. We must reclaim writing instruction and give it the time and energy it needs.
Back to the Acronym
With everything learning to write well does to develop students’ thinking and communication skills, it deserves to be a major focus of education. We may not realize its benefits because our current efforts fail to produce students with writing proficiency. This is unfortunate because writing remains a valuable ability, not just for what it enables students to produce, but for what it produces in students.
As for the acronym, what happens if we add W to the most extensive suggestion, STEAMED? We could go with DEWS TEAM? or SWEAT MED? Hmm. ME WASTED? Maybe education according to mnemonic isn’t the best plan. Let’s keep thinking.
- Tredinnick, M., Writing Well: The Essential Guide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 230.
- Ibid., 39.
- Hillocks, Jr., G. Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995), 11.
- Fearn, L. & Farnan, N., Interactions: Teaching Writing and the Language Arts (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 183-184.
- Newell, G.E., “Writing to Learn” in MacArthur, C.A., Graham, S., & Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (New York: Guilford Press, 2006), 242.
- Dingfelder, S., Writing Exercises All Aspects of Working Memory. Monitor on Psychology 37 (7), 19.
- Jaeggi, S.M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W.J., Improving Fluid Intelligence with Training on Working Memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 18, 2008).
- Houston, G. How Writing Works: Imposing Organizational Structure Within the Writing Process (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2004), 8.