Writing to learn

I am a big fan of Donald Murray.  I love his text Write to Learn.  I have seen in my own life how much I learn about myself and about whatever topic I am investigating by writing about it.  So today when I read Revisiting Theory 15 Years Later over at Between Classes, I was paying a lot of attention.

Kate is, or at least seems to be, a great teacher.  I seldom have an argument with anything she posts.  She is thoughtful and dedicated.  So I was surprised to read her comments on some of Murray’s ideas.  Especially this one:

No. 5 strikes me as charming but unrealistic. Since much of my teaching of writing is test format driven, I don’t encourage students “to attempt any form of writing which may help him discover and communicate what he has to say.” The concept attracts me, but my teaching reality has much more of a locked step curriculum, and we all work on mastery of academic essay structure rather than writing in variable forms. I can see how this is like teaching people how to cook one dish without educating them on flavors or the chemistry of heat and fats. The people can cook that one dish convincingly, but they may not have transferable cooking skills should they wish to vary the dish. I’ll chew on No. 5; I’m back here revisiting this theory for just this kind of idealism.

My argument is not with the author but rather with an educational system that makes her feel that she cannot take time to have students write to discover what they have to say.  It seems to me that we would be further ahead giving students the opportunity to discover what they know and can say before we expect them to actually say it and say it in a particular form.

This is something I have really been stressing with my students this year so far —  writing about the topic before they sit down to write their papers.  It takes time, but I know how successful this approach is for me, and I know it can be just as valuable for my students.  Somehow I think we need to help teachers see that, even with a lockstep curriculum, this kind of writing for discovery is necessary.  It might even be more important when you have a lockstep curriculum!

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