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Why writing doesn’t just prove learning, it improves all learning-including STEM

Today’s students need to write in science and math class because they will need to write well to get tomorrow’s jobs.

Writing is used to assess student learning more often than it is used to facilitate learning. We talk about writing as a product for assessment, a subject where paragraphs and commas are taught, or a skill that one either has developed or lacks. Rarely do we hear people, even teachers, discuss writing as a process for learning.

Imagine if a teacher said, “Go write on it and see what you come up with,” after a student asked a question. “Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts,” writes William Zinsser in Writing to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All. “Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.”

Simply put, writing is our critical thinking made visible.

Through the process of writing, writers put nascent thoughts into comprehensible language for others to read. In their pursuit of self-expression, they often find themselves challenged to find new words or motivated to develop academic vocabulary.

Because it is a critical thinking process, writing isn’t merely an act of jotting down what you have in your head. Once the initial thoughts in your head start to flow, you naturally begin iterating on them.

In academic writing, this leads back to the text, where writers rethink, re-evaluate, and understand a detail or main idea more deeply. As Robert Frost points out, “All there is to writing is having ideas. To learn to write is to learn to have ideas.”

In the best classrooms, writing for learning is facilitated through collaboration with a peer or revision based on feedback from a teacher. This process can happen when studying any subject, not just English language arts.

(Next page: How writing improves STEM learning; closing the writing gap)

Writing in STEM

In math classrooms, students can use mathematical modeling instruction as a pre-writing experience to understand a variety of topics. After all, mathematical modeling is how we think critically about real-world math.

In science classrooms, students can explore disease networks from the point of view of government officials and write arguments answering questions such as, “When was the earliest moment at which the governments should have stepped in to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa?”

Collaboration and writing about topics like these help students develop deep mathematical habits of mind, learn scientific language, and practice real-world problem-solving.

The debating aspect of argumentative writing adds a naturally social element to classroom work, motivating and engaging learners at all levels of readiness.

Closing the Writing Gap

Standardized tests across the globe are focused on assessing writing, and The Carnegie Foundation’s 2010 report Writing to Read shows that writing about reading has a huge impact on improving reading scores. To be sure, teaching students to be better writers is important to improving learning, but its value goes beyond test scores. National standards tie writing proficiency to career and college readiness, and effective writing has real currency in the marketplace.

Writing opens doors for students. In today’s workforce, writing is critical even in performing the most mundane tasks, and will become even more essential to our everyday lives when we are interacting with chatbots more than human beings as we carry out our personal business from day to day.

Like any other discipline, writing takes practice, and achievement is directly correlated to the amount of practice and the quality of feedback students receive. In addition to writing about reading and teaching students to be better writers, the final way writing can improve reading scores is by increasing the amount of writing students do. This can be accomplished by rolling out literacy instruction across content areas over time: start with ELA and social studies. Once processes are in place and teachers trained, expand to science and math.

In many ways, the new digital divide is the writing divide. Writing is the most important differentiator in the workplace today.

In the future, the ability to read or consume information will be far less useful than the ability to synthesize and express your own point of view effectively. As automation and AI command a greater share of current jobs, economic success will depend more and more on writing.

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