Judy Willis


Santa Barbara, CA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 5 Years ago
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It’s About Me! Not Just Someone Else’s Science and Math

This is Part II of a series of blog posts I'll be posting on the importance of writing in STEM subjects. Part I was posted last week, Why Writing is Crucial to STEM.

Writing can reduce the neural processing blockades that result from the stress of boredom -- the most frequent reason high school dropouts give for leaving school. Specifically, they report that what they learn is not interesting or personally relevant. We know that there is increased information flow through the attention and emotional filters to the higher processing prefrontal cortex when learning incorporates personal interest and connects learning to real world issues and problems relevant to students. Writing can increase both personal relevance and confidence. Personal relevance comes from the nature of writing that provides opportunities for creativity and personal expression. Even when the facts of the math or science are not debatable, individual responses to the information are appropriate writing topics. When writing is incorporated in learning and assessment, there is increased opportunity to produce the ideal situation for active, attentive learning with collaboration, revision, and metacognition through personalization, and creativity.

Regarding confidence, reminding students of previous successes promotes confidence as does providing them the opportunity to recognize progress over time. Written work – that includes assessments of science or math facts, procedures, theories, and projects, but also includes students’ written responses to both the learning itself and to their progress gives students more ways to recognize their progress then do files of test grades. These can be maintained in computer files or portfolios and reviewed as evidence of successful, incremental progress with student opportunities for metacognition about strategies used for success.

Neurological Nourishment: The Write Stuff for Math, Science, and Brains

The construction of conceptual memory networks builds the most valuable neural architecture a brain owner can have. These networks serve as “nets” to catch and hold new input with similar patterns, and “work” when activated for creative transfer – use of the information learned in one context for application in a new context. (See -- you can’t make corny word puns as easily with the spoken word.)

Concept networks
are the valuable tools the brain uses in the highest orders of thinking. When the brain seeks to predict the best response, answer, solution to a problem or make a choice, the executive function control networks in the prefrontal cortex send out messages to the memory association areas, such as the hippocampus and memory storing cortex in each hemisphere, to activate stored prior knowledge memories that relate to the new situation. The more extensive the brain’s collection of memory networks, the more successful it will be in activating the best prior knowledge to predict the best responses, answers, choices and in using their cumulative background knowledge to respond to the new problem or opportunity.

Planning of instruction in math and science that includes writing can be part of neuro-logical unit construction that ideally is part of a spiraled curriculum that extends throughout the school years. As in the Wiggins and McTighe backward planning described in their Understanding by Design books, goals considered from the outset can be planned into the unit. Writing provides a powerful venue to promote the development of concept networks when students have opportunities to recognize recurring patterns and activate prior knowledge related to a new topic. Units can be designed with authentic performance tasks and assessments that are personally engaging and call upon the brain’s processing through executive functions. Writing increases brain engagement throughout this process when it is planned to give students opportunities to respond personally to learning and to reflect, review, and revise.

I will be posting more in the coming weeks about the importance of writing in STEM subjects. You can also pick up a copy of my recent book, Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies That Change Student Attitudes and Get Results in the ASCD Store.

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