I teach English literature, writing, and religious studies, so let's talk about math.

In a variety of studies conducted over the last decade, researchers have demonstrated that students who spend their time memorizing formulas and math facts perform worse than students who learn number theory and are able to use flexibility and creativity to solve math problems.

At least, this is what I'm told by Stanford math education guru, Jo Boaler. In Limitless Mind (affiliate link), Boaler goes over a variety of qualitative and quantitative research to this effect. By analyzing a number of case studies, she shows that students who think there is a "right way" to do the math, students who believe that a certain recipe or algorithm is the only way, tend to perform far worse. She even goes as far as to write a letter to her own child’s teacher in which she tells the teacher that her child will not be doing all of the problems on a worksheet sent home for homework because she doesn’t want her child “to think that this is what math is.”

As an illustration of the different ways in which we can go about solving even simple arithmetic functions, Boaler asks groups of adults to solve 18 x 5 and document how they arrived at their solution. In one particularly fun passage, Boaler takes this little experiment to Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity. The boardroom is so a-buzz with amazement at how different people attacked the problem, that they end up going around the office and out into the street to ask others to solve it. They even created t-shirts to memorialize this event.

The point: there’s more than one way to solve a math problem and students who are encouraged to be creative and flexible tend to perform better on math tasks than those who are locked into a recipe. When students buy into a single method for solving a math problem, they aren’t really doing mathematics; instead, they are doing tasks that look like mathematics.

Checkout Jo Boaler's TEDx talk on YouTube. Growth mindset, y'all.

Tasks That Look Like Writing

Imagine you’re sitting in a meeting with your supervisor, perhaps your department chair. She’s excited about some new ideas you have about a new project-based unit that you’ve been dreaming up for your class. Maybe you’re telling her about a framework that you’re planning to use. Wanting to mull it over in greater detail, she says: “Would you mind drafting a memo with all of this so that I can think it over and share it with others?”

“Sure,” you say. “How many paragraphs would you like that to be?”

She stares at you, either stone-faced or gobsmacked.

The question is a ridiculous one because your department chair does not give a rip how many paragraphs the memo is.

Think about your professional experience as a teacher. When asked to write something—a memo, an email, a rationale for something you’re doing in class, a proposal, a letter of recommendation—have you ever asked your audience how many paragraphs that piece of writing should be?

Probably not.

That’s because each time we sit down to write, we are producing a custom piece tailored for that particular communication task with that particular audience in mind.

When a student asks how many paragraphs or how many pages or how many quotes their piece needs, then you know that student isn’t writing. Like the students who stick to one particular method to solve a math problem, these students have been taught a recipe or a formula. They are trying—doggedly perhaps—to adapt that formula to every single writing task.

This is not what writing is.

Rather, these students are doing tasks that look like writing. They are mimicking the writer, parroting back a method or a formula that they probably don’t understand.

While tools like the 5-paragraph essay, the funnel method, and the Schaffer method are great for teaching students a tried and true template for doing well on certain kinds of writing tasks—e.g., standardized tests—these templates don’t often transfer to different contexts.

A Student Who Mimics Rather Than Writes

Imagine the following dialogue in an entrepreneurship class—

Teacher. Now that your group has developed this product, write me a piece that persuades me to purchase it.

Student. How many paragraphs should that be?

Teacher. As many as you need to show me how valuable your product is and why I need to buy it.

Student. Okay. How many concrete details?

Teacher. What?

Student. Concrete details. Pieces of evidence. How many should I have? Also, is it okay if I put more than one concrete detail in a paragraph?

Teacher. It doesn’t matter. Convince me. Persuade me. Give me an argument.

Student. Got it! What if I don’t want my thesis statement to be the last sentence in the introduction? Is that okay?

Teacher. Yes. Absolutely. Be creative. Do it however you like. Your task is to convince me to buy your product.

Student. Should it be double-spaced with an MLA heading?

None of these questions have anything to do with the task of writing. The student should be asking questions about the audience, trying to figure out what would convince the teacher. The student should be thinking about the product that his group has developed and how it fits a need that his teacher might have.

When we teach students a formula, this is the sort of output that we’re going to get.

How do we help a student move beyond the templates? How do we help a student discover her voice?

A Student Who Gets It

At the beginning of the year, my team gives a benchmark essay so that we can assess where students are in their writing journey. The prompt for this year's benchmark essay was this:

What issue matters most to you, and why should it matter to others in your community?

I like this question quite a lot. It forces students to articulate what they really care about. I also end up learning quite a bit about them. Many students write about climate change or gun control. Sometimes, though, they surprise. One of my favorite pieces this year involved the ways in which personal data are sold by large tech companies.

But this wasn't my favorite. No.

This year, in the midst of COVID-induced distance learning, I had a student write one of the best responses to this question I've ever read. She's in my advisory, so she had an advantage over many of her classmates: she knows her audience. I watched her and her classmates on Zoom as they wrote the essay. She dutifully took my advice to spend about ten minutes planning before writing. When I told students that they should transition from pre-writing to writing, she began typing. She finished far earlier than many of her classmates, most of whom took the entire class period to write this first draft of their essay.

The result?

A perfectly rendered five-paragraph essay about how the U.S. education system schools creativity out of its students.

Now, that's writing!

Sound Off

If you want to think more about this, check out John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (another affiliate link). Warner helped me understand what was lacking in much of my 1990s-era training as a middle school and high school writer. (He also helped me understand why some of my high school English teachers were the best people I know! Thanks to Mrs. Simons and Mrs. Krajefska for always encouraging me to think about audience!)

In the comments below, I'd love to hear your thoughts about how we go about teaching writing. Here's some questions to spur your thinking:

  • Do you love the templates I mention above? Why? How do you use them?
  • How do we help students move beyond the templates?
  • How can we develop authentic writing tasks that ask students to create custom pieces tailored for the occasion?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!