Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 4 (A Sociocultural Model of Writing)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 4 (A Sociocultural Model of Writing)

A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented.[1] According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford University, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college” (Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2003). In the case of writing, one of the central points of disconnect stems from the fact that high school instruction and college instruction typically are based on different models of writing. As a result, students face a different set of expectations and ideas about writing when they enter college, compared with what they learned in high school.      

In the 1970s, advances in writing theory began to move pedagogy from a concentration on the end product of writing to the process of writing. Classroom instruction began to emphasize the “complex of activities out of which all writing emerges” — activities such as planning, drafting, and revising (Bizzell, 1986, p. 49). A highly influential model of writing, developed by Flower and Hayes (1981) in the early eighties, described the process of composition in terms of cognitive functions — the mental processes by which decisions are made, ideas are translated into written language, long-term and working memory are engaged, and so forth (Hayes, 1980). By the 1990s, the process model of writing, grounded in cognitive theory, shaped instruction across primary, secondary, and postsecondary education. Indeed, this model continues to be predominant in pre-college instruction. Applebee and Langer (2011) found that over 90 percent of high school English teachers, when they taught composition, employed process-oriented instruction, teaching specific strategies for planning, organizing, drafting, and revising. (Evidence that these processes are taught using evidence-based instructional practices is mixed, however.)

In higher education, the cognitive theory of writing has been challenged and supplemented by sociocultural theory, a change that has not made its way into most secondary school instruction and assessment. Sociocultural theory accounts for the fact that, whatever cognitive processes are at work in the production of text, writing is always shaped by the particular social and cultural contexts in which it takes place. The writer is always situated within a discourse community, which has its own governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and behaving. In the discourse community of academia, for example, evidence-supported argumentation is a primary, legitimized, and rewarded means for making meaning and persuading others, whereas unsupported opinionating is not. Obtaining an education entails learning to think and communicate in ways established as valuable and acceptable within the academic discourse community.

Each academic discipline, and each classroom, for that matter, forms its own discourse community, while also serving as an instantiation of the larger discourse community of academia. In the most general sense, college equips students for participation in the broader discourse community of educated society, wherein clear, well-reasoned expression and evidence-supported argumentation are effective modes of meaning-making and persuasion.  

The sociocultural or “post-process” model of writing does not necessarily reject the cognitive process model, but rather extends it. That is, evidence-based practices grounded in the cognitive model are taught within a broader conceptualization, wherein writing processes are understood to operate within a complex of external factors relating to cultural identities, social norms, linguistic resources, power relations, and familial and environmental influences. Writing, in this conceptualization, is a situated communication practice learned through socialization, not (or not merely) an abstract skill that follows a natural developmental progression within isolated individuals.       

Socialization into the discourse community of academia is easier for some students than for others . Every student brings to their education particular linguistic resources, background experiences, assumptions, values, and expectations from their own native culture. The degrees of variance between native and academic culture differ widely, of course. Some students are better able to navigate the culture of academics from the start because it is already relatively familiar to them; the vocabulary and values characteristic of college academics are not so far from what they have grown up with. Thus, they enter college already understanding how to interpret what is being said, and how to discern and meet behavioral and performance expectations. For other students, the culture they come from bears little resemblance to the culture of college academics. Thus, if they have no prior exposure to the norms of behavior, communication, and meaning-making in academic culture, then they likely begin their college careers without apprehending how to conform to expectations or what will count as a successful performance. For example, according to Hassel and Giordano (2013), new college students who struggle with writing tend to lack experience writing in formal academic ways; they therefore do not know how to make appropriate choices given their audience and rhetorical purposes, and they are unfamiliar with academic conventions.

The implications of the sociocultural model of writing on pedagogy, compared with the cognitive model, are manifold. For example, the cognitive model tends to position writing as an isolated discipline comprised of a fixed compendium of process skills applicable irrespective of purposes and contexts. The classroom is the place where a teacher dispenses these skills to individual students, who learn and practice them through mental processes that function similarly from person to person. Instruction tends to deemphasize the cultural perspectives and personal differentiators students bring with them to their studies, and to leave unexamined the social contexts for learning and writing.

In contrast, in the sociocultural model, the classroom is a community wherein it is impossible to separate literacy from the external influences of a student’s environment — the cultural, social, economic, familial and other factors that affect them. These influences inherently produce inequalities among students, particularly students from non-dominant backgrounds. Pedagogy within the sociocultural model, then, seeks to recognize and account for these differences, rather than overlook them.

The instructor serves as a facilitator of students enjoined through their writing and interactions in public conversation — certainly among themselves, but also, in a broader sense, with other authors, critics, readers, and stakeholders engaged with their topics of inquiry. Writing is a social practice learned in concert with reading, speaking, listening, and thinking skills. Metacognition becomes extremely important, as students are given to understand that they are engaged in learning the conventions of a particular culture (academics), and that they themselves are situated within that culture in ways that bring to bear their personal backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, identities, and language resources.

While the cognitive model leads toward the production of writing in which the particulars of students’ identities and experiences are absent, their selves evacuated from the texts they produce, the sociocultural model brings their particular identities into play, examining and emphasizing the agency of writers as participants situated within particular communities. Their identities and backgrounds thus become potential resources that they can leverage in the service of contributing their own perspectives and ideas to ongoing, consequential conversations.

Writing is positioned as an empowering tool for pursuing one’s interests and advancing one’s objectives. Pedagogically, this puts a premium on students choosing and scoping their own projects, discovering the topics and issues they care about, and taking responsibility for their own intellectual engagement. But students succeed in leveraging their backgrounds and advancing their interests only to the degree that they communicate in ways that are valued and persuasive within the community — that is, by thinking logically, reasoning carefully, reading perceptively, discussing knowledgeably, communicating clearly — in short, by acquiring and exercising the literacy skills of an academically educated person.

The sociocultural perspective is closely compatible with principles of rhetoric: both situate the writer in a public context and call upon the skills of persuasion operative within the relevant discourse community. Rhetorical concepts and considerations — awareness of audience; definition of purpose; ethos, logos, and pathos — often are taught in the process-oriented instructional model found in secondary classrooms, but they tend there to be abstract and decontextualized. The sociocultural model, by contrast, comprehends rhetors in terms of their particular cultural identities and social situatedness; it configures purpose in terms of agency, audience in terms of discourse community, position-taking in terms of conversational participation, meaning-making and persuasiveness in terms of rhetorical context.

This model of writing facilitates one of the major goals of college-level writing instruction: to equip each student for effective participation within his or her discipline, with its particular text forms, language styles, customs of presentation, and modes of analysis. Where “rhetorical knowledge” and “knowledge of conventions” are invoked as necessary for college-level writing success, they refers to students’ awareness that they are always situated within specific discourse communities (especially academic disciplines), and that effective communication within those communities entails understanding and adhering to community expectations — such as supporting claims with evidence and practicing standards of academic integrity.

How college-ready writing is conceptualized determines how its instruction is strategized. The disconnect between secondary and post-secondary models of writing results in pedagogical differences that can leave high school graduates unprepared for the writing demands and expectations they encounter in college. The theory of writing operative within an educational community shapes not only teachers’ strategies for instruction, but also students’ understanding of what writing is and is for. The disparity between the models of writing at work in secondary versus college instruction contributes to students’ difficulties in producing the kind of academic writing required for success in college. 

College-bound high schoolers need preparation for college-level writing, since writing is a key, foundational skill across disciplines. Most high school classrooms to do not equip students for college writing success, because they do not emphasize extended, research-supported composition, and because their operative model of writing does not align with the concepts and assumptions students encounter in college. Changing the approach to writing instruction in high school to better align with the college writing can help more students prepare for college success.

[1] cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013; Venezia & Kirst, 2017.

Works Consulted

Applebee, A., & Langer, J. (2011). The national study of writing instruction: Methods and procedures. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning & Achievement. Retrieved December27, 2011.
Applebee, A. N., Lehr, F., & Auten, A. (1981). Learning to write in the secondary school: How and where. The English Journal70(5), 78-82.
Association of American Colleges, & National Leadership Council (US). (2007). College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise. Assn of Amer Colleges.
Au, K. H. (2000). A multicultural perspective on policies for improving literacy achievement: Equity and excellence. Handbook of reading research3, 835-851.
Bartholomae, D. (1995). Writing with teachers: A conversation with Peter Elbow. College Composition and Communication46(1), 62-71.
Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Vol. 356. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Bazerman, C., & Prior, P. (2005). Participating in emergent socio-literate worlds: Genre, disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity. Multidisciplinary perspectives on literacy research2, 133-178.
Beaufort, A. (2004). Developmental gains of a history major: A case for building a theory of disciplinary writing expertise. Research in the Teaching of English, 136-185.
Behizadeh, N., & Engelhard Jr, G. (2011). Historical view of the influences of measurement and writing theories on the practice of writing assessment in the United States. Assessing writing16(3), 189-211.
Behizadeh, N., & Lynch, T. L. (2017). Righting technologies: How large-scale assessment can foster a more equitable education system. Berkeley Review of Education7(1).
Behizadeh, N., & Pang, M. E. (2016). Awaiting a new wave: The status of state writing assessment in the United States. Assessing Writing29, 25-41.
Berlin, J. A. (1987). Rhetoric and reality: Writing instruction in American colleges, 1900-1985. SIU Press.
Binkley, R., & Smith, M. (2006). Re-Composing Space: Composition’s Rhetorical Geography. In Composition forum (Vol. 15). Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition.
Bizzell, P. (1986). Composing processes: An overview. The teaching of writing, 49-70.
Bloom, L. Z. (2003). The great paradigm shift and its legacy for the twenty-first century. Composition studies in the new millennium: Rereading the past, rewriting the future, 31-47.
Bridgeman, B., & Carlson, S. B. (1984). Survey of academic writing tasks. Written Communication1(2), 247-280.
Brockman, E., Taylor, M., Kreth, M., & Crawford, M. K. (2011). What do professors really say about college writing?. English Journal, 75-81.
Cohen, M., & Riel, M. (1989). The effect of distant audiences on students’ writing. American Educational Research Journal26(2), 143-159.
Condon, W., & Kelly-Riley, D. (2004). Assessing and teaching what we value: The relationship between college-level writing and critical thinking abilities. Assessing Writing9(1), 56-75.
Conley, D. T. (2003). Understanding University Success. A Report from Standards for Success. Center for Educational Policy Research, 720 East 13th Avenue, Suite 201, Eugene, OR 97401.
Conley, D. T. (2007). Redefining college readiness. Educational Policy Improvement Center (NJ1).
Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, & National Writing Project. (2011). Framework for success in postsecondary writing.
Duncheon, J. C., & Tierney, W. G. (2014, July). Examining college writing readiness. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 210-230). Routledge.
Faigley, L. (1985). Nonacademic writing: The social perspective. Writing in nonacademic settings, 231-248.
Fallahi, C. R. (2012). Improving the Writing Skills of College Students. Writing: A mosaic of new perspectives, 209.
Fowler, R. (1995). On critical linguistics. Texts and practices. Routledge.
Gee, J. P. (2001). Reading as situated language: A sociocognitive perspective. Journal of adolescent & adult Literacy44(8), 714-725.
Graham, S. (2013). It all starts here. Obtained online from http://www. click2start. org/C3316_It_All_Starts_Here. pdf.
Greenwald, E., Persky, H., Ambell, J., & Mazzeo, J. (1999). National assessment of educational progress: 1998 report card for the nation and the states. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.
Gutiérrez, K. D., Morales, P. Z., & Martinez, D. C. (2009). Re-mediating literacy: Culture, difference, and learning for students from nondominant communities. Review of research in education33(1), 212-245.
Hassel, H., & Giordano, J. B. (2013). Occupy writing studies: Rethinking college composition for the needs of the teaching majority. College Composition and Communication, 117-139.
Haswell, R. H. (2008). Teaching of writing in higher education. Handbook of research on writing: History, society, school, individual, text, 331-346.
Harrington, S., Malencyzk, R., Peckham, I., Rhodes, K., & Yancey, K. B. (2001). WPA outcomes statement for first-year composition. College English63(3), 321-325.
Harris, K. R. (1996). Making the writing process work: Strategies for composition and self-regulation. Brookline Books.
Heath, S. B., & Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge University Press.
Hyland, K. (2003). Genre-based pedagogies: A social response to process. Journal of second language writing12(1), 17-29.
Kellogg, R. T. (2008). Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of writing research1(1).
Kent, T. (Ed.). (1999). Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm. SIU Press.
Kirst, M., & Venezia, A. (2017). Disconnect by Design: College Readiness Efforts Still Hampered by Divided K–12 and Higher Education Systems. In Shaping Education Policy (pp. 187-207). Routledge.
Kiuhara, S. A., Graham, S., & Hawken, L. S. (2009). Teaching writing to high school students: A national survey. Journal of Educational Psychology101(1), 136.
Lee, J. S., & Anderson, K. T. (2009). Negotiating linguistic and cultural identities: Theorizing and constructing opportunities and risks in education. Review of Research in Education33(1), 181-211.
Marlink, J., & Wahleithner, J. (2011). Improving students’ academic writing: Building a bridge to success. Berkeley, CA: California Writing Project.
McComiskey, B. (2000). Teaching composition as a social process.
Melzer, D. (2009). Writing assignments across the curriculum: A national study of college writing. College composition and communication61(2), W240.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The nation’s report card: Writing 2011. NCES 2012–470.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics. Table 326.10.
Perin, D. (2013). Best practices in teaching writing for college and career readiness. Best practices in writing instruction, 48-72.
Perin, D., Lauterbach, M., Raufman, J., & Kalamkarian, H. S. (2017). Text-based writing of low-skilled postsecondary students: relation to comprehension, self-efficacy and teacher judgments. Reading and Writing30(4), 887-915.
Perry, K. H. (2012). What Is Literacy?–A Critical Overview of Sociocultural Perspectives. Journal of Language and Literacy Education8(1), 50-71.
Persky, H. R., Daane, M. C., & Jin, Y. (2003). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing, 2002.
Prior, P. (2006). A sociocultural theory of writing. Handbook of writing research, 54-66.
Purcell-Gates, V., & Tierney, R. (2009). Public policy brief: Increasing literacy levels of Canadian students. Retrieved February21, 2010.
Salahu-Din, D., Persky, H., & Miller, J. (2008). The Nation’s Report Card [TM]: Writing 2007. National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 8 and 12. National, State, and Trial Urban District Results. NCES 2008-468. National Center for Education Statistics.
Santelises, S. B., & Dabrowski, J. (2015). Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards? K-12 Practice. Equity in Motion Series. Education Trust.
Scherff, L., & Piazza, C. (2005). The more things change, the more they stay the same: A survey of high school students’ writing experiences. Research in the Teaching of English, 271-304.
Shulock, N., & Callan, P. M. (2010). Beyond the rhetoric: Improving college readiness through coherent state policy. National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education & Southern Regional Education Board.
Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. A. (2012). Digest of education statistics 2011. National Center for Education Statistics.
Sparks, J. R., Song, Y., Brantley, W., & Liu, O. L. (2014). Assessing written communication in higher education: Review and recommendations for next‐generation assessment. ETS Research Report Series2014(2), 1-52.
Spellings, M. (2006). A test of leadership. Retrieved January10, 2008.
Sperling, M., & DiPardo, A. (2008). English education research and classroom practice: New directions for new times. Review of research in education32(1), 62-108.
Sperling, M., & Freedman, S. W. (2001). Research on writing. Handbook of research on teaching4, 370-389.
Sullivan, P., & Tinberg, H. B. (2006). What is” college-level” writing?. Natl Council of Teachers.
Trimbur, J. (1994). Taking the social turn: Teaching writing post-process.
Troia, G. A., & Olinghouse, N. G. (2013). The Common Core State Standards and evidence-based educational practices: The case of writing. School Psychology Review42(3), 343-357.
Tsui, L., & Gao, E. (2006). The efficacy of seminar courses. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice8(2), 149-170.
Venezia, A, Kirst M., & Antonio, A. (2003). Betraying the college dream. The Bridge Project Stanford Institute for Higher Education, 2-12.

Zimmerman, B. J., & Risemberg, R. (1997). Becoming a self-regulated writer: A social cognitive perspective. Contemporary educational psychology.

[1]  cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kirst & Venzenia, 2017; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013.

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 3 (Authentic Composition)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 3 (Authentic Composition)

First, students need practice with extended, source-based composition. As shown above, an abundance of research indicates that most student writing prior to college is not rigorous enough to prepare them for the demands of college-level academic work. They are not getting enough experience at authentic academic composition and the interpretive reading, analysis, argumentation, and other higher order skills that go with it.

A primary goal of writing instruction early in college is to prepare students for writing in their disciplines later on . General principles of academic writing that are transferable across disciplines, therefore, are important for students to master in their introductory courses. This kind of writing generally requires students to compose multiple-page essays that engage with other sources . The essay types most commonly required in college are persuasive and informational; comparatively little narrative or creative writing is assigned.

First-year composition and other introductory writing courses ask students to produce research-based persuasive essays because they are an essential type of intellectual work that trains students to think and write successfully across a range of other courses — History, Political Science, Communication, Social Science, Business, Culture Studies, and so forth. Such courses themselves require research-supported essays because they are an effective way for students to demonstrate that they have learned about a content area in depth, are thoughtful about it, and can convey their knowledge and ideas clearly and effectively.

Colleges value good writing skills in part because they recognize that students who write well possess an array of high-level competencies that apply across many varieties of subject matter and types of projects. It’s easy for students to regard composing an academic essay as an isolated exercise that will have little value to them beyond a single English or writing course. Instead, they should understand it as an occasion for developing and demonstrating a constellation of highly valued skills and habits of mind that apply no matter their college major or chosen career.

To prepare them for the demands of college writing, high school classrooms should guide students through the process of composing authentic, extended academic essays. That means teaching them to:

●      Generate ideas and choose their own writing topic, ideally one they personally care about;
●      Identify and clearly define a researchable, debatable issue within their topic, one with a scope that can fit the time and page-length parameters of the task;
●      Research their issue by locating and critically reading relevant, credible sources;
●      Identify and analyze a range of perspectives within the conversation around their issue;
●      Arrive at their own position based on their analysis;
●      Craft an argument in support of their position, one made persuasive through evidence and reasoning;
●      Anticipate and address relevant counterarguments;
●      Skillfully incorporate quotes and citations into their own prose, demonstrating a rigorous respect for standards of academic integrity;
●      Make substantive revisions in response to feedback and their own self-critique;
●      Proofread and edit their work for spelling, grammar, and mechanics, as well as tone, style, and format;
●      Produce a polished, final draft that conforms to the conventions of academic presentation.

Practice at composing an extended, research-supported academic essay provides high school students with an opportunity to learn and demonstrate the full complement of competencies research indicates are needed for college writing readiness. Without instruction and practice at this complex task prior to college, even gifted students can find themselves struggling to succeed.

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 2 (What is College-Ready Writing?)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 2 (What is College-Ready Writing?)

There is no universal standard of college-ready writing, in part because there are such wide differences in the academic demands of postsecondary institutions, from open-access community colleges to highly selective universities (Marlink & Wahleithner, 2001; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006). Nevertheless, the large number of sources seeking to define competencies needed for college writing success agree that postsecondary students, whatever their institution, must be prepared to produce extended pieces of writing that critically engage with source materials and diverse perspectives, and that conform to academic conventions of style and presentation.[1]

The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project (2011), stresses that, to be ready for college writing, students need the knowledge and skills that go into composing an authentic, extended academic essay:
●      Knowledge of writing processes: That is, knowing how to plan, draft, revise, and finalize an academic essay;
●      Rhetorical knowledge: Understanding their writing task, their purposes for writing, and their audiences; knowing how to use language and reasoning in ways that are valued and persuasive within college academics;
●      Critical Thinking: The ability to insightfully analyze and evaluate ideas, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and to contribute their own well-reasoned ideas, arguments, and perspectives;
●      Knowledge of conventions: Understanding that there are guidelines and expectations for how their academic work should be presented; knowing how to produce an essay that exhibits correct grammar, language mechanics, and formatting, as well as effective organization, appropriate tone and style, and careful attention to accurately representing and citing the work of others.

In addition to knowledge and skills, learning to write at the college level requires certain noncognitive behaviors.[2]  Students must, for example, be conscientious in meeting deadlines, must persist at revising and improving their drafts, and must adhere to standards of academic integrity. Appropriate social behaviors are necessary, too, including a willingness to offer thoughtful feedback to peers, and to respond constructively to critiques of their own work.

Successful student writers also exhibit metacognitive awareness.[3] They recognize their strengths and weaknesses as learners, and know what their larger objectives are for acquiring an education. They also recognize how they as individuals are situated in relation to the people, institutions, and society around them.

Unfortunately, research on middle school and high school writing instruction shows that students get little training and practice at the kind of writing that prepares them for college. The vast majority of classroom assignments require little generation of text and no critical thinking. In their analysis of a national survey of high school writing instructional practices, Kiuhara, Graham, and Hawken (2009) report that “the writing activities [high school students] were assigned most frequently by teachers involved little analysis and interpretation,” and that “a sizable proportion of the participating teachers seldom assigned activities that clearly involved writing multiple paragraphs” (p. 151).

A study by Applebee and Langer (2011) found that “. . . the actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms across the United States remains dominated by tasks in which the teacher does all the composing, and students are left only to fill in missing information, whether copying directly from a teacher’s presentation, completing worksheets and chapter summaries, replicating highly formulaic essay structures keyed to the high-stakes tests they will be taking, or writing the particular information the teacher is seeking” (p. 28).

Studies of middle and high school classroom practices further suggest that noncognitive and metacognitive competencies are missing from pre-college writing instruction as well.[4]Accordingly, a great number of students, including gifted students, are not equipped with the full array of abilities needed for successful writing in college. What they learn in high school is not aligned with what is expected of them afterwards.

How, then, might writing be taught in high school to better prepare students for the demands of college?

[1] cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2003; Harris, 1996; Sparks, et al., 2014; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.; also see Zimmerman & Risemberg.

[4] cf. Applebee & Langer, 2006, 2011; Graham, et al., 2014; Kiuhara, Graham, & Harken, 2009; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013.

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 1 (Introduction)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 1 (Introduction)

Too many students find that the kind of writing they were asked to do in high school does not resemble the writing required of them in college. Their high school classes mostly assigned short answer responses, not full-length essays. If they got a chance to write more extended pieces, most were taught to adhere to a formula, such as the five-paragraph essay, and were rewarded more for their mastery of surface features than for the quality of their thinking.[1]

In contrast, college students are required to produce extended compositions that demonstrate critical thinking and the skilled use of sources.[2] They’re expected to generate their own ideas; find and analyze credible information; consider a range of diverse perspectives; craft logical, evidence-based arguments; make substantive revisions in response to feedback; and turn in a polished final product that conforms to the presentational conventions of academic writing.

The skills and knowledge required to produce a successful college-level essay develop only with direct instruction and lots of practice. Unfortunately, few high schoolers get the instruction and practice they need.[3] Even advanced high school courses do not necessarily align with the approach to writing that students encounter in college; AP English, for example, prepares students for a timed exam rather than for authentic academic composition.

Writing is the academic skill most linked to success in college, across disciplines; thus, whatever their abilities or targeted area of study, students are well served by entering college ready for the writing demands, and the approach to writing instruction, they will encounter there.

In this series of posts I propose an approach to writing instruction aimed at bridging the gap between high school and college writing. First, I draw on scholarly surveys and frameworks for success to describe college-ready writing, then identify two key changes to high school instruction that can help college-bound students succeed: an emphasis on authentic academic composition, and a shift toward a sociocultural model of writing.

[1] cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kirst & Venezia, 2017; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Perin, 2013; Spellings, 2006.

[2] cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2011; Melzer, 2009; Perin, 2013; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.

[3] cf. Applebee, Lehr, & Auten,  1981; Applebee & Langer, 2011; Graham, 2013; Greenwald, et al, 1999; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; NCES, 2012, 2016; Persky, et al., 2003; Salahu-Din, et al, 2008; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Snyder & Dillow, 2011; Troia, 2007.

At the Intersection of Creativity and Critical Thinking

At the Intersection of Creativity and Critical Thinking

Creativity and critical thinking sit atop most lists of skills crucial for success in the 21st century. They represent two of the “Four Cs” in  P21’s learning framework (the other two being communication and collaboration), and they rank second and third on the World Economic Forum’s top ten list of skills workers will need most in the year 2020 (complex problem solving ranks first).

The various lists of 21st-century skills grant creativity and critical thinking such prominence in part because they are human abilities robots and AI are unlikely to usurp anytime soon. The picture of the near future that emerges from these compilations of skills is one in which people must compete against their own inventions by exploiting the most human of their human qualities: empathy, a willingness to work together, adaptability, innovation. As the 21st century unfolds, creativity and critical thinking appear as uniquely human attributes essential for staving off our own obsolescence.

Like many things human, however, creativity and critical thinking are not easily or consistently defined. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s list of “Deeper Learning Competencies,” for example, identifies creativity not as its own competency but as a tool for thinking critically. Bloom’s Taxonomy treats the two as separate educational goals, ranking creativity above critical thinking in the progression of intellectual abilities. Efforts to pin down these skills are so quickly muddled, one is tempted to fall back on the old Justice Stewart remark regarding obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that yardstick isn’t much help to teachers or students.

Definitions of creativity tend toward the broad and vague. One of the leading researchers in the area, Robert Sternberg, characterizes creativity as “a decision to buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.” While this is itself a creative approach to the problem of defining creativity, it is not a solution easily translated into a rubric.

Definitions of critical thinking don’t fare much better. According to one group of researchers, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Again, a curiously self-demonstrating definition, but not one ready-made for the classroom.

Generally speaking, creativity is associated with generating ideas, while critical thinking is associated with judging them. In practice, however, the two are not so easy to separate. As parents and teachers know well, creativity without critical judgment tends toward the fanciful, the impractical, the ridiculous. “Creative thinking” becomes a nice way of saying that someone’s ideas have run amok.

At the same time, critical thinking gets short shrift when reduced to making a judgment, since, at its best, critical thinking is also a way of making a contribution. It is fundamentally creative in the sense that its aim is to produce something new: an insight, an argument, a new synthesis of ideas or information, a new level of understanding.

Our grasp of creativity and critical thinking is improved when we see them in symbiotic relationship with one another. Creativity benefits from our recognizing the role of critical thinking in ensuring the value of novel ideas. In turn, critical thinking comes into clearer focus when we recognize it as a creative act that enriches understanding by giving rise to something that wasn’t there before.

What does this symbiotic relationship look like in the classroom? Here are a few educational contexts in which creativity is disciplined by critical thinking and critical thinking is expanded through recognition of its creative function:

Writing. Creative writing only works when the writer’s critical judgment is brought to bear on the product of their imagination. However richly imagined, a story’s success depends on the skill with which its author corrals and controls their ideas, crafting them into something coherent and cohesive. Storycraft is accomplished by writers who discipline their own creative work by thinking critically about it. Successful academic writing—argumentative, expository—requires not just critical analysis but also creative invention. Academic writers enter into conversation with their readers, their instructors, fellow students, other writers and scholars, anyone affected by or invested in their topic. As in any conversation, a successful participant doesn’t simply repeat back what others have already said, but builds upon it, asking critical questions, fine-tuning points, proposing solutions—in short, creating and contributing something original that extends and enriches the conversation.

History. History classes lend themselves readily to creative exercises like imagining the experiences of people in the past, or envisioning what the present might look like if this or that historical event had played out differently. These exercises succeed only when imagination is disciplined by critical thinking; conjectures must be plausible, connections must be logical, and the use of evidence must be reasonable. At the same time, critical analysis of historical problems often employs invention and is (or should be) rewarded for its creativity. For example, a student analyzing the US mission to the moon in terms of the theme of the frontier in American mythology is engaged in an intellectual activity that is at least as creative as it is evaluative.

Math. Creative projects can generate engagement and enthusiasm in students, prompting them to learn things they might otherwise resist. In this example, a middle school math class learned about circuitry on their way to creating a keyboard made of bananas. Projects like this one demonstrate that creativity and critical thinking are reciprocal. A banana keyboard is unquestionably creative, but of little utility except insofar as it teaches something valuable about electronics. Yet, that lesson was made possible only by virtue of the creative impulse the project inspired in students.

The skills today’s students will need for success are, at a most basic level, the skills that humans have always relied on for success—the very things that make us human, including our creativity and our capacity for thinking critically. The fact that our defining qualities so often defy definition, that our distinctive traits are so frustratingly indistinct, is just another gloriously untidy part of us that robots will never understand.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)


Integrating Cognitive, Social, and Personal Competencies

Integrating Cognitive, Social, and Personal Competencies

Educators have come increasingly to recognize that student success depends on more than content knowledge and skills alone. After all, learning is unavoidably fraught with setbacks and discouragements, so personal traits, like “grit” and “growth mindset,” are needed if students are to keep at it. Likewise, the pursuit of an education doesn’t take place in isolation but in concert with others — so social skills, such the ability to cooperate in a group setting, are vital for success as well — even moreso when we consider what the future of the job market will look like.

Even as they gain emphasis, however, personal and social skills typically get defined and taught separately from conventional schoolwork. SEL programs, for example, tend to teach and assess non-cognitive skills quite apart from the math or reading lessons they’re intended to support. As actually applied, however, authentic academic skills are a combination of cognitive, social and personal competencies. Indeed, the goal behind inserting non-cognitive skills instruction into the curriculum is to complement and shore up cognitive performance, not to introduce isolated new constructs.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, cognitive, social and personal skills will need to be integrated to ensure students’ success. The decentralized, interconnected, collaborative contexts of 21st-century work and education demand that these skills be taught as complementary, interdependent, even synergistic.

What does an integrated approach look like? My organization, BetterRhetor, has been exploring this idea with a five-week module for high school and college students, organized around the production of a research-supported persuasive essay. In our module, social and personal competencies are part of the overall competencies framework, built into writing, reading, and research instruction and assessment.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned for successfully integrating cognitive, social, and personal competencies, include:

1) Define the classroom as an academic community. Social skills can’t be practiced in the abstract; they need an environment in which students are not merely in physical proximity to one another but in true relationship with one another. In an academic community, students bear responsibility for their peers and for the aims of the group as a whole. In meeting their community responsibilities, students learn and practice social skills necessary for academic success:

  • They understand that academic communities have their own behavioral norms and expectations; success requires learning and conforming to them;
  • They understand that they are in continuous conversation with one another; their work is available for review and response by their classmates, so must be constructive in tone and content;
  • They understand that they are there to learn from one another’s successes and failures; a lack of effort on anyone’s part diminishes everyone’s opportunity to learn.

2) Intentionally designed projects. Design projects (or, better yet, set your students up to design their own projects) that will teach and elicit social and personal competencies alongside cognitive skills and knowledge. That means designing extended projects that require student-to-student interaction and sustained individual effort. Some vital social and personal skills reveal themselves only over time.

As an example of integration, our College-Ready Writing Essentials emphasizes peer review, with students providing feedback on the drafts of 10 to 15 of their fellow students. Peer review is solid writing pedagogy, of course, but it also provides an opportunity to emphasize important social competencies. The ability to give socially and intellectually constructive feedback, and to accept critiques of one’s own work by others, are transferable competencies that can be learned and practiced in the course of learning to write.

3) Assess cognitive, social, and personal competencies together, as integrated dimensions of academic performance. Social and personal competencies can be directly folded into overall performance measures. For example:

  • The quality and extent of comments one student offers another is a measure of their willingness to put forth effort for the benefit of others;
  • The tone of a student’s contributions to the group is a measure of their ability to meet the behavioral expectations of the community;
  • The focus of their exchanges — whether relevant and on-task, or digressive and self-indulgent — is an indication of self-awareness;
  • The number of times a student revises her work or seeks help from his instructor is an indication of personal persistence;
  • Self-evaluation is a measure of students’ ability to see their own strengths and weaknesses.

The behavioral competencies needed for academic success can be improved and reinforced through assessment, but only if they are first baked in as integrated and integral parts of academic performance.

Dispositions and behaviors necessary for academic success are not constructs separate from instructional content, but are integral to it. Extended projects conducted within classrooms that have begun to feel to students like “academic communities” present opportunities to teach, elicit, and assess vital cognitive and non-cognitive competencies together, as integrated components of authentic academic performance.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)