Math class techniques can fix the writing class culture that leaves too many students behind

Writing something? First, do the math.
Writing something? First, do the math.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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The notion that math and writing ought to be taught in a similar way feels simultaneously obvious and completely untrue. Most of us who teach writing publicly admit that math was never our thing. Many of us even panic at the idea of having to ‘do’ math, despite knowing intellectually that we engage with math in a multitude of ways throughout the course of a normal day. We ‘do’ math all the time—we just don’t like to think about it too much. Unfortunately for those of us who fit the description of math-phobic, we missed out on the key life lesson that math has to offer: it isn’t just where you end up that counts, it’s how you got there and what happened along the way. This lesson feels particularly apt for the writing teacher.

Math taught well by our definition (that is, math not focused on memorizing answers) offers a guide for teaching writing because a word problem, like an essay, is an argument. You start with the given information. You summarize it with symbols and expressions. You make a plan and follow some logical steps until you arrive at a conclusion. Along the way you’ll likely make mistakes. You might find you spent a disappointing amount of time on a bad approach, but that’s okay because the process is the whole point, as evidenced by the existence of partial credit. Good math instructors teach you to be wary of expecting a particular answer from the outset. Good math instructors encourage you to change your approach, to alter original assumptions.

In most writing classrooms, students still approach writing a paper as a product-driven enterprise. Time and again we ask students to begin with a thesis statement, to conduct research to support their claim, and to conclude by writing a paper arguing for that original thesis. We grade the paper without grading the work that went into writing, oftentimes weighing it heavily in a final grade calculation. Once we hand back the papers, we pack up camp and move on to the next assignment. And then the next.

This tired sequence remains intact in most traditional writing classrooms likely because of time constraints and the pressure to tick off a certain amount of content in a given semester or year. Though there are efforts to breakdown the process of writing into stages—pre-writing, writing, revising—there remains a mysterious veil surrounding the process as it applies to “real” writers. We present students with what we have: a finished product in the form of an essay or story or poem. We hold up these texts as canonical, as worthy of study. These are your models, we tell the students. But how often do we show the work that went in to making these polished pieces?

The traditional formula for teaching writing makes a bit of sense when you have a wealth of background information to draw on before you begin writing, or if you are inspired and dedicated enough of a student to come up with a great thesis from the start. The problem is that, like the kid who multiplies big numbers in her head, this way of writing is the exception and not the rule. We know that “real writers” do more than sit down and let the muse work her magic through them. We know you can’t go into a research project with an expected outcome any more than you can with a math problem. And yet how often do we allow students to work through the process of writing, messy and slow as it may be? Do we allow for the luxury of failing in our writing classrooms?

We argue here for something basic: the chance for students to go back and revise their writing in the way that we build-in revision into to our math classrooms. Questions abound: What would happen if a teacher spent all semester on just one paper? And what if the final grade was an accumulation of points earned during the process of writing, rather than the number assigned to a draft typed late in the night and saved as “final paper”? What would change for the student who comes to your class as just one stop on their writing journey? What would partial credit look like for a writing classroom?

Perhaps the layout of such a class might look like this:

  1. Pick a topic that interests you (in a given framework) and do some reading.
  2. Come up with a question you want to answer (the seed of the thesis).
  3. Do more research to answer the question (i.e. come up with a true thesis).
  4. If this is done over the course of a month or two, every week (or more) you should ask students in what ways has your thesis changed since last time? What new discoveries have you made? This should take up the majority of the project.
  5. Eventually, a final thesis should be determined and an outline should be done. The teacher should go through the outline, pointing out logical gaps/inconsistencies and asking the student if they have the info to fill/fix.
  6. Finally, when a good outline is complete, the student can write a paper.
  7. The grade should be weighed to reflect an appreciation for the work that went into the writing, taking into account the entire process of writing in the grading scale.

We love to talk about failure in the current educational milieu. But rather than emphasizing failure, what if teachers emphasize process, which itself has built-in little failures? Because really, the idea behind emphasizing failure is that you teach students to get back up again and keep going, even when the work gets tough. If we make it clear that writing, like a complicated word problem, is always a process, when a student gets stuck along the way, they’ll know that this is just how it goes. They will be encouraged to keep going until they write their way into a solution.

Students have come to accept this drawn-out and often difficult task in the math classroom (albeit grudgingly) because this is what math has looked like for most of their educational career; math has been work. But with writing, there persists a culture of talent. Some students are good writers and some are not. Perhaps the solution to better writing pedagogy lies in being honest with students. Like math, we can say, this won’t be easy. By spending one course crafting just one essay, we have a chance to show students the work involved in composing a really good piece of prose. We can model the work that should go into composition by slowing down the process on our end as teachers. We can practice what we preach instead of rushing from response, to analysis, to research, to reflection. We can slow down and in turn can expect our students to slow down. We can get to work.

Along with the popular idea of failure-as-virtue in our schools is the idea of encouraging academic risk. Is it not just a little crazy to think a kid who feels the pressure to get an A in every class is going to go way outside the box and risk getting a C on a research project worth half their grade? But if the expectation for process is established in the classroom, students will know they’ll have to continually refine their writing. If they are encouraged to research before having an idea set in stone, for example, taking a risk becomes less “risky” and much more palatable. Students are not experts at anything, so they should learn the process by which people become experts; that is, researching, formulating ideas, researching more, changing ideas, and so on. They can learn to be ambitious, to scale up or down as needed.

The danger in our current approach is that students are not encouraged to go back and revise naïve ideas based on new evidence. Instead, a conclusion will be drawn from the outset and students will continue to stand by it, even as the connections grow weak and evidence to the contrary mounts up. Arguably one of the most important skills an informed citizen can have is the ability to look at things clearly, to question initial assumptions, and to change their stance on an issue based on the evidence. Students should be taught that the process of engaging with ideas often involves shifting your own point-of-view. Students need to hear that changing one’s mind is a sign of intellectual maturity and not a grave error. Particularly in this polarized political climate, isn’t it our job as educators to encourage students to be open to changing their mind?

In math we learn that a limit has to do with where something is going, even if it doesn’t get there. Isn’t that what it means to write? The answers don’t matter. They might not even exist. So much can be learned in the process of working through a problem, in showing your work. That is a lesson worth sharing.