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Writing as Learning

I’m currently reading Robert Caro’s book about the life of Robert Moses. “The Power Broker” is nearly 1,200 pages and covers the impact Robert Moses made on the City and State of New York. It’s safe to say the New York City we see today as visitors was planned by Robert Moses. Moses worked as metro New York City’s master builder from 1924 to 1963. Caro is famous for his articulate and relentless approach to biographical research and writing. He demonstrates these literary behaviors not only in “The Power Broker” but also with his continuous pursuit of capturing the life and times of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But here’s the deal. I’m guessing during his research and writing about Moses and LBJ, Caro learned so much more than recounting the lives of Moses and Johnson. In order to write “The Power Broker,” Caro must have researched and learned about local New York City politics and New York state politics from the 1920’s to the 70’s. Caro must have researched and learned about NYC mayors and governors of New York over that same time span. He must have researched and learned about hundreds, if not thousands, of individual and community stories that emanated from a number of cultural, social, economic, and political intersections. Robert Caro has done the same work with LBJ, which covers a similar time period but involves different people, forces, strategies, and results.

Thinking about Caro’s work, and the work of all researchers and authors, brought me to this question: can you learn everything you want or need to learn through the writing process? Robin Reagler, Matt and my guest on a recent podcast proclaimed that “writing is an act of discovery.” She went on to say that “writing gives us power.” Robin is an author herself and led the Houston-based Writer’s In The Schools for 25 years before her recent retirement. Just like writing, learning is an act of discovery (or it should be!) and learning is powerful too. So what would it look like if the writing process became the most important strategy in a young learner’s toolbox? Let’s see what it might look like.

STEP 1: The importance of the essential question

My Uncle Warren was a big fisherman. Whenever I had a chance to fish with him, I learned so much – about fishing and life. One of Uncle Warren’s favorite fishing lessons was this: “If you want to catch fish, you have to have really good bait.” When it comes to learning, and motivation to learn, instead of “bait” you need a really good “essential question.” An essential question is the beginning of the learning pathway. It is what causes curiosity and a commitment to find potential answers inside the learner. The researcher/writer might want to generate other questions that support the essential question. 

STEP 2: Develop a research plan

How will the researcher/writer try to answer the essential question, and any other accompanying questions? What possible resources can be accessed to answer the essential question and the sub-questions? What type of timeline can be established to keep the research plan on track? Who else needs to be involved along with the primary researcher/writer during this process? Answers to these questions will help the researcher/writer to take the first steps to developing a research plan.

STEP 3: Develop an outline

The outline is the bridge connecting research and writing. What will your writing look like in draft form? Are there answers to the essential and supporting questions evident in the outline? What are the potential strengths and weaknesses of the final paper as predicted by the outline’s contents? Are there “critical friends” available to review the developed outline? What adjustments might be needed based on critical friend feedback?

STEP 4: Write the paper, or record the video, or?

The final product, whether it be a written paper, a recorded video, or another option, offers answers to the essential question and its supporting questions. The final product might be shared with peers, or possibly experts, to receive additional feedback on its content. Feedback on the final product could lead to a different essential question, more supportive questions, additional resources, a new outline, and a revised paper. The cyclical process moves forward, and continues. 

Think about a conversation between yourself and a young learner that starts “What do you want to learn?” No matter what the answer might be, you and the young learner begin the research/writing journey that includes narrowing the above question into a single essential question and supporting questions, forming a research plan, creating a preliminary outline, ending in a final product that demonstrated skill and understanding. How much learning could occur using this process? Could this process rival school-based strategies (like worksheets, quizzes, and tests) when it came to authentic learning? 

Could you learn everything you needed to learn by employing the researching/writing process?

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