Want Students to See Themselves as Thinkers? Get Them Writing
Have you ever been told that you were good at something, but you didn't believe it?
I thought about this while reading The Dot, by Peter Reynolds, to my 3-year-old daughter. In a single, brief encounter, the teacher in the book helps a student to see herself as an artist for the very first time. And it changes the trajectory of her life.
There have been 'dot' moments in my own life: the day I became a father; when a college mentor encouraged me to go into education; the first time I had an article published. I believe experiences such as these often transform our lives in extraordinary ways.
Learning to write changes a person too—or, rather, the experience of seeing oneself as a writer helps us clarify who we are and reimagine our future.
Before writing was part of my chemistry classroom, I convinced myself that I wasn't "a writing teacher." I wanted students to be thinkers, scientists—not writers. Plus, students got writing instruction in English class, right?
Had I ever missed the point!
By not teaching writing to my students, I deprived them of strategies to understand chemistry, and I denied them a chance to see themselves as writers and thinkers.
But becoming a writer had such a profound effect on me that I began to bring a bit of writing into my chemistry classes, hoping it would do the same for my students. And it did. I found writing to be the vehicle to teach thinking, because writing is thinking.
You Think What You Write
Much like driving a car, writing is a complex activity, which involves the simultaneous coordination of numerous skills and processes in our brains. Beginning writers often feel clunky at first, but learn that over time writing becomes more natural. Writing forces you to be focused, productive, reflective and decisive—all at the same time!
My freshman English teacher Kate Murray used to say, "Writing is a blueprint of thinking." You can have the grandest vision of thoughts swirling in your head, but it's not until you set them free in writing that you can better understand what you think. In this way, we write not to communicate something we know, but to know something we communicate.
If you want students to see themselves as thinkers, you must provide them roles as thinkers. The more they engage in that role, the more their identity forms around it. It's not until you realize you're capable of having great thoughts—often by reading what you have written—that you view yourself as a thinker and a unique individual. As students begin to view themselves as thinkers, they build self-efficacy, viewing themselves as confident inquirers and competent learners. This has a profound effect on their success in school, as John Hattie's work has shown.
So how can educators help students codify their identity as thinkers and develop self-efficacy?
Developing students' identity as learners lies in helping them increase their thinking capacity, which doesn't mean teaching them more. It means getting them to think more. And for that, it turns out, the pen is mightier than the board.
Reasons to Embrace Writing
You can help your students to enhance their writing, deepen their thinking, and make learning visible by building writing into the regular learning experience. Writing creates the 'whitespace' for great ideas and 'ah-ha' moments. It is a creative activity that engages the 'back of our mind' and routine writing generally helps to solidify thinking. As they write, students will develop skills noticing, persevering, and organizing, because it:
- increases cognitive fluency
- doesn't require a huge amount of time to do
- helps you remember and better understand what you write
You don't need a new curriculum either. Simply get kids writing in various ways more often to practice thinking and form an academic identity. Giving time in class for writing allows teachers to work more closely with students—simultaneously supporting content learning and skill development.
This approach proved useful with my students. They often struggled to understand why the temperature of water decreased slightly when they boiled it. Even after they witnessed it firsthand, the phenomenon was still unclear. However, as they wrote about the 'story' of water boiling, and what was going on at the molecular level, writing helped them refine their understanding of the situation. One student wrote about it this way:
"In a phase change, energy is associated with the arrangement of particles, the more energy, the further apart they are. The evidence we have for this is the change in state of matter. We found out that the energy is actually stored in the fields around the particles. The other concept we learned about was the thermal account of energy, which is associated w/the speed of particles. The evidence we have for this is the change in temperature. For thermal energy, the energy is stored in the movement of the particles." ~Tiara, 5th Period Chemistry Student
As students write, pause to read each other's writing and create dynamic feedback loops that inform learning by making student thinking visible. Once kids see the impact writing has on the way they organize their thoughts, they will kiss their brain and respect writing as a different animal completely.
As a STEM teacher, it was a daunting proposition for me to have kids write more in my class, but I can still remember how glad I was that I started having students publish a blog several years ago. After all, scientists write and publish their writing all the time. Thinking like a scientist means acting like one—and that involves writing in the ways that scientists do.
Be Intentional About Writing
Being intentional about the student writing experience makes you, the teacher, a multiplier.
Here are some ideas to make it yours in the classroom:
Tools for Digital Writing
- Dedicated Writing App—go beyond blogging with a dedicated writing platform, which can be awesome for developing writing skills, publishing writing, and guiding writing with content-specific prompts. By far, Write About provides one of the best student writing experiences and classroom writing communities.
- Blogging—provide open blogging opportunities, or a closed format, to give students a chance to share their thoughts, crowdsource information with classmates, or reflect on their learning.
- Tweet180 Project—have students create tweets, either on Twitter itself or in their notebook or other writing platform (still using only 140 characters) to share their big learning each day for an entire school year
Ideas for Individual Writing
- Quick Writes—use an ongoing topic, daily prompts, or even visual elements such as What's Going on in This Picture? to prompt student writing (perhaps as a bellringer)
- Commenting on Others' Writing—pass notebooks, use writing apps, or leverage discussion boards to provide students the opportunity to read and reply to each other's writing (e.g., "I liked..." "I noticed..." "I wonder...")
- Gratitude Journals—writing or reflecting on the people and things for which you are grateful can be a pretty convenient way to increase writing fluency and cultivate mindfulness
Ideas for Group Writing
- Group Chat—in groups of 3-4, give students a fixed amount of time to write their own thoughts about a topic or respond to a prompt. Then, they pass their writing to the person on their right. The next person either elaborates on, or can respond to, the first person's idea(s). After time is up, writing is passed to the right again, and the process continues until everyone gets their own paper back to read and reflect. BONUS: Have students write a statement summarizing their group chat experience.
- Summary Boards—Using chart paper or whiteboards (alternatively, an app like Google Docs/Slides), have students create a summary of a topic, unit, lesson, experience, or class activity from all of their recollection/notes. Make sure to have each student add their writing in a different color so that you can follow the collaborative efforts.
Through my own journey to publish my opinions about education, I have developed my capacity for writing, and that has enhanced my thinking. If I'm being honest, the greatest reward I find in writing goes beyond that it helps me share my thoughts with others. Writing enhances the way that I think, including how I view myself and my thinking altogether, and I have found it can do the same for students, too.
Writing is not only a way to "make your mark," as the Peter Reynolds book encourages, it's a way to find your mark.
And isn't that what we want for our students, as well?
Gary G. Abud, Jr. is an educational consultant, presenter, and writer with The Saga Educators near Detroit, Mich. His work currently focuses on helping kids with ADHD to succeed in school by offering coaching and workshops to educators, students, and families. Previously, Gary has served students in K-12 schools as a STEM teacher, curriculum specialist, and principal. In 2014, he was selected as the Michigan Teacher of the Year.