September 3rd, 2009

Writing to Learn


I got my book finished last week … packed up and mailed off. Letting go of something you’ve worked on that hard for so long is difficult, at least it is for me. But I wanted to share two experiences relevant to the finishing up and sending off.

First, I was doing the last read through which for me is not a pleasant experience. Any enthusiasm felt for the content is long gone. Now it’s about all those places where you’ve made it better, but it still isn’t as good as it should be. I came to one of those paragraphs where I’d struggled mightily but still hadn’t fixed it. Looking at it once again, I realized the problem wasn’t with the writing. I didn’t have the idea clearly in mind yet. What was the relationship between the two ideas I was trying to link? Was it this? Was it that? What if I came to the idea from a totally different direction? Bingo! I had it. I saw the relationship. Within three minutes the paragraph was fixed. I was glad I made the passage better, but the rest of the afternoon I was really relishing this new insight. I finally understood something I hadn’t understood since I started working on the book.

This week, I’ve been cleaning up–throwing out the old versions, organizing the articles, tossing notes to myself. I found some early notes written just as I started this project. Wow, was my early thinking primitive. I have learned so much since then, changed my thinking so completely. It was pretty stunning.

What these two experiences confirmed for me, which I’d love for you to find persuasive, is how much can be learned about teaching and learning by writing about it. I’m not suggesting everyone has to write books. Maybe you don’t even need to write articles for publication, but there’s nothing like writing to slow you down and make you think. Even very informal writing, like a set of course notes you make to focus your prep time when you next teach the course, or an email to a colleague in which you try to sort out and through how to help students understand a challenging concept, or a set of instructions for adjuncts teaching sections of a course you’ve designed. Any opportunity to write is a chance to reflect, pause, and think about what we are doing—to see it in a different light, to understand more deeply, to question, and to pursue other possibilities. For me writing is like a crowbar, it helps me pry apart ideas, chip away at what they mean, get them out in the open where I can see what they’re made of. Writing is the best way I know to become one of those reflective practitioners.