Why Writing Is Crucial to STEM
Science and math are vital to our progress, yet our test scores on the international scales are not keeping pace globally. The US Department of Labor has projected that by 2014 there will be more than two million job openings in science, technology, and engineering, but according to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) international test score report, the US is lagging behind countries like Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland in STEM subjects. H.G. Wells cautioned, "Civilization is a race between disaster and education." and it seems the government is heeding that advice with initiatives in motion to increase emphasis on these subjects.
As STEM subjects get more emphasis, writing and the arts cannot become victims of that emphasis. It is also important not to narrow the focus to the rote memory test and to recognize the interdependence of science and math on a fully rounded curriculum. As we strive for students to develop creativity as innovators in STEM and all fields, it behooves us to consider the value of writing and the arts toward the achievement of these goals.
In the past two decades, neuroscience and cognitive science research have provided increasing evidence correlating creativity with academic, social, and emotional intelligence. We also know more about the neural processing of the brain’s highest executive functions that direct judgment, critical analysis, emotional control, creative problem solving, highest cognition, and other skillsets, which are becoming increasingly valuable for all students, and essential for those who enter the STEM fields in 21st century.
Writing for the Math and Science Literacy
As I’ve previously written about the value of embedding the arts throughout the curriculum (http://whatworks.wholechildeducation.org/blog/art-for-joyful-learning/ ) the focus of this article is to describe how writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information in science and math.
Writing brings more that literacy and communication advantages to STEM studies, and all academic pursuits. Through writing, students can increase their comfort with and success in understanding complex material, especially when the subject has unfamiliar concepts and subject specific vocabulary. Writing throughout the curriculum also increases the power of a literate nation to “read, compute, investigate, and innovate” and to participate more successfully in our democracy.
Writing: Just What the Doctor Orders for the Brain’s Successful Information Processing
In terms of writing and the brain, there are multiple reasons for embedding writing throughout STEM courses. Writing promotes the brain’s attentive focus to class work and homework, promotes long-term memory, illuminates patterns (possibly even “aha” moment insight!), includes all students as participants, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.
There is an involuntary information intake filter that determines what sensory input is accepted into the brain. Input must also pass through an emotional filter, the amygdala, where the destination of that information. When stress is high, the intake filter favors information selectively admits information related to perceived threat, virtually ignoring other sensory input. The high stress state also directs the amygdala switching station to conduct information to the lower, reactive brain, where long-term retrievable memories cannot be formed. In addition, the behavioral outputs of the lower brain are limited to fight (act out), flight (self-entertainment sometimes interpreted as ADHD), or freeze (zone out).
Fear of making mistakes in front of classmates is one of the greatest sources of anxiety for students. Writing is an opportunity to lower threat and to reduce the stress that blocks passage through the amygdala to the reflective prefrontal cortex. Descriptive written responses to math or science questions and written predictions, hypotheses, and questions provides all students with the opportunity to actively participate in learning, receive timely feedback, reflect, revise, and risk making mistakes as they build confidence, reveal gaps in foundational knowledge, share creative insights, and build their capacities to communicate of their ideas and defend their opinions.
Writing can include individual journaling, formal research-style formatted reports of student experimentation and data analysis, newspaper editorials about the evidence for environmental problems and a plan for intervention. Writing can be shared with varying degrees of scaffolding for students who need to build confidence, such as class blogs or WIKIs with code names known only by the teacher. Writing done at home, without time constraint and with access to the Internet and other resources, can lower the barriers, but not the bar. Students can then participate more confidently in class starting with reading their written responses, perhaps after the confidence-building of first sharing them with a partner.
Written peer feedback on class WIKIs or blogs offers the opportunity to reflect on the day’s learning, ask questions, or demonstrate accountability for the night’s homework to increase whole class level of preparation for the next day’s instruction. Through these shared written responses about content and concept students have opportunities to express creative hypotheses, alternative perspectives, and concerns about their understanding, with the low-risk option of peer anonymity. There is accountability and peer interaction, without the concern about mistakes that is so paralyzing to many students during class time, and as students consider and define in writing their opinions, conclusions, and predictions, their brains construct concept networks.
When learning is examined through shared writing, students are exposed to multiple approaches to solving problems (so important in building the flexibility and open-minded approach to other cultures as the science, math, and technology world is indeed global) and have the chance to communicate using their own words. They build communication skills they will surely use in their collaborations now and in the future science and math communities they will enter.
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.