“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” -Flannery O’Connor
One of the biggest misconceptions that many people hold about writing is that it is mainly a vehicle for recording and sharing what we already know. While preservation and dissemination of knowledge is certainly a key reason to write, any writer will tell you that writing just as often (if not more often) is actually about figuring out what we know.
This is why people write journals, why writing is so often a part of therapy, and why so many people write stories, essays, and ideas that are never shared with the world. It is why J.D. Salinger said, “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself,” and the creator of the essay Michel de Montaigne said, “I put forward formless and unresolved notions…not to establish the truth but to seek it.”
In all of these situations, the act of writing and the knowledge it brings about ourselves, our lives, and our world are what matter most; if someone else gets to share in our thoughts, all the better, but the main reward is our deepened understanding.
While on the surface this misconception might seem like a minimal, somewhat semantic detail, I would argue the impact that it has on both students and teachers can be profound for these three reasons:
1. We Underutilize Writing as a Knowledge Building Tool
The idea to us writing to build knowledge has been around for a long time. In their 1984 work “Writing as Learning through the Curriculum,” the early writing instruction pioneers Knoblauch and Brannon say, “The value of writing in any course should lie in its power to enable the discovery of knowledge.” In the early 1990s, Peter Elbow wrote, “Students learn more from writing than from our responses to their writing.” And yet, nearly 25 and 35 years respectively after these pieces, the concept of using writing as a learning tool still lives on the periphery of our educational systems.
This has always baffled me, as studies have consistently pointed out that writing is a powerful tool for both building knowledge and clarifying understanding. The reason for both of these is that, to paraphrase Daniel Willingham, our brains are lazy. They generally skip across the surface of ideas, never connecting certain dots or delving too deeply, unless we force them to.
Writing is that force. It concentrates our attention, nudging us to deep dive and make connections, and the result is that nearly every time we sit down at a keyboard or place pen to paper, we walk away with clearer thinking, more knowledge, and a better understanding of how our world works.
2. We Don’t Do Enough Low-Stakes Writing
I’ve written on this before, but whether it is in a journal or writer’s notebooks, low-stakes writing–where students have room to experiment, play, stumble, and learn in writing that is not read by the teacher–has been a ubiquitous and regular part of the teaching practice of every major writing teacher over the past fifty years. It is the one commonality that links the classrooms of Gallagher, Kittle, Atwell, Graves, Murray, Burke, and numerous others. The reason for this is that the first attempts at any new writing skill will likely be clumsy and filled with missteps and false starts, and so many students come into our classes so terrified of “doing it wrong” that they will never seriously leave their comfort zones to engage with these new skills if teachers grade everything. Having some writing that does not get a teacher’s gaze frees many students from that fear while also having the side benefit of opening our classrooms up to more writing (research suggests students should be writing 30-60 minutes daily) because we aren’t responsible for reading and critiquing every syllable.
The power of low-stakes writing is maybe best seen in University Park Campus School in Worchester, Massachusetts. Approximately 75% of UPCS students are English Language Learners and a similar number enter the school two to three years below grade level in reading and math. Yet by the end of 10th grade, 50% of them score advanced on state standardized tests. Their secret? According to principal Dan St. Louis, it is their one defining difference: the school has every student do low-stakes writing in every class every day!
3. We Often Stagnate Thought and Discovery in Our Approach to Writing
The idea for this entire post came from an Edweek article on the hidden dangers of teaching argument that I shared in this week’s Tuesday Reading and Teaching Tips. And specifically it came from these lines:
But by teaching [students] to focus on finding evidence to support claims, I was achieving the opposite effect. I was making them susceptible to an epidemic of our time: the tendency to select facts that support a certain perception of reality, rather than discerning what reality is by analyzing observations and facts.
These lines were a revelation and also slightly horrifying. I have often framed argumentation to my students in terms of making a claim and then finding supporting evidence, but I instantly saw how that approach can in some situations suggest to them that writing is less about seeking a clearer and more accurate sense of the truth and more about convincing others of the truths you already believe.
After reading this article, I did a little experiment where I made an announcement to my class where I told them that as we write our arguments tend to evolve and it is alright for them to change and shift there theses. I then watched in amazement, as over the next few days something happened that has never happened in my classes before: nearly half of the students did go through multiple rounds of theses, resulting in the single best group of theses I have ever seen from 9th graders!
Writing has an ability to engage, teach, and clarify that is unique. This is the main reason I and so many of the writers I know write. It is wonderful to have people listen to one’s ideas, but ultimately we write, like Michel du Montaigne, for us first. I would argue that if we got our students to see and feel this, and our pedagogy followed suit by involving a lot more writing to learn opportunities, that the gains we would see would likely be significant!
Thanks as always for reading!
Yours in teaching,
Connect with Matt
If you would like more about teaching the essay and all things writing instruction, join my mailing list for a weekly writing newsletter and list of curated articles on writing instruction and a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing.