The Writing (In Science) Revolution

This is the blog version of my part of the joint #CogSciSci talk on Writing In Science with Pritesh Raichura and Matt Perks. The inspiration for me thinking about the writing of my students came from the Writing In Science Symposium hosted by Pritesh with great blogs by a whole host of amazing teachers. This blog is based on a couple of techniques from the amazing book The Writing Revolution (TWR) by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler, namely ‘Because, But, So’ and ‘Appositive phrases’.

My overall idea is that the improvement in students’ writing that comes from being an active part of their writing education allows you to glean more effectively the current understanding that students have of a particular topic. And by understanding, I don’t just mean the recall of individual ideas or facts (although this is naturally part of it), but the expression of the links between them. The benefits of better student writing to your assessment of students’ current understanding of a domain far outweigh the additional time required (which can actually be very small as I hope to show) to teach the skill of effective writing.

I’ve started by looking at just sentence level activities, to help students create detailed and complex sentences before they go on to write anything longer. Extended writing shouldn’t be the immediate goal; getting the sentence right is vital.

In my mind, I have a simple model of the schema (or schemata if that’s your plural flavour of choice) that students are forming, shown below. Facts/ideas are represented as the circles with the links between them as the lines. All students are naturally forming their own unique schema which differ from both your plan and frl. one another in spite of your carefully crafted instruction. I wanted a technique to allow students to express the current state of their schema. So, for a given fact/idea (the grey circle), I might hope a student has formed links to specific other ideas (the yellow, orange and green circles) such as the cause and effect of the ‘grey circle’ idea. But what links have they actually made and what links have they missed out? To give my students the opportunity to express the current state of the links within their schema, I use an activity called ‘Because, But, So’.

‘Because, But, So’ is a technique, lifted straight from TWR, where students are presented with a simple kernel sentence that they complete with three separate connectives (because, but and so) to emphasise the reason for the idea in the kernel sentence, a contrast to it as well as a consequence of the idea. The crafting of the kernel sentence is key, it needs to give sufficient scope for students to be able to give a reason contrast and consequence based on their instruction so far.

I first used this technique as a form of formative assessment at the end of a lesson with year 7 students studying igneous rocks:

It appeared that my students had formed the links that I was hoping for, with these examples being fairly representative of the entire class. The worry for me, though, was the similarity in their sentences. This made me reconsider the use of ‘Because, But, So’ after such a short time interval from the initial learning. Was I seeing schema formation here (and hence learning) or just performance on the day based upon the explanation I’d given less than half an hour earlier? Or, had my kernel sentence been too limiting?

With this in mind, I altered the time frame with which I use ‘Because, But, So’, to have it as an interleaved task on a worksheet a few lessons later (in the example, I’m asking about reflection of waves two lessons later during a lesson on the uses of echos) or in the very middle of a topic as a hinge point for future lessons.

These two examples highlight much better, in my opinion, what has been learned because it’s no longer the seemingly perfectly formed ideas of the first example. Leaving time has meant I’m witnessing the more realistic schema that have been formed by students. There are blanks where students can’t express a consequence of reflection, confusion about cause and effect, and major misconceptions about what a potential difference does. This allows me to either reteach these ideas completely, do a refutation activity (, or incorporate some form of recap into a future lesson.

I can’t stress enough though that writing good kernel sentences is difficult. You need to spend a long time anticipating possible student responses. The best way of doing this is through discussion with other teachers (and incorporating the feedback into writing better ones). Just chatting to Pritesh and Matt over lunch at CogSciSci (and during our Oscar worthy live modelling section of the talk) was useful to me in thinking about kernels. Not only does the activity get refined by such discussions, but me and Pritesh both had moments of saying “actually I should be teaching them concept X in a different way to avoid that misconception” before the students even get to the writing.

A second technique I’ve used from TWR was to alleviate an issue that my year 11s were having in their writing that meant they were quick to try to highlight links between facts/ideas without first elucidating the detail of the fact/idea itself. With this in mind, I first banned the word ‘it’ from their writing to force them to use the nouns that they were attempting to refer to. Then I introduced appositive phrases to highlight their understanding of a given fact within their writing (without preventing them from writing about the links).

You might have guessed from my writing that I’m still working on my own grammar. It’s only recently that I’ve realised how important my understanding of grammar is to giving effective feedback on students’ written work. My understanding of aspects of grammar, therefore, might be a little basic. In my head, I view appositives as subordinate clauses for nouns (with a caveat or two). Appositive clauses are definitions or explanations of nouns which immediately follow the noun but surrounded by commas. The sentence can be completely understood without the appositive, but the appositive gives the opportunity to add extra detail to an explanation to show an understanding of the factual knowledge. As an example, the banning of ‘it’ and the subsequent inclusion of an appositive transitions an answer like this:

One of the caveats is that the appositive cannot include ‘which is’ (e.g. “An alpha particle, which is a helium nucleus, has a charge of +2” isn’t technically an appositive) as this would in fact be a relative clause. I’m not necessarily that pedantic about it when it comes to students work at a later date, but it’s important to ensure students know accurately what an appositive is so as not to ruin their own understanding of grammar.

To bring this technique to the class I took the following steps:

I introduce them using a simple non-scientific domain, allowing me to use incredibly simple examples (a dog, a mammal with four legs, chased the cat) without students worrying about the content itself.

The following matching activity is to ensure students experience the kinds of phrases that can be used as an appositive. There’s an element of challenge in that there are more noun phrases than definitions and so students need to realise which phrases are (sort of) equivalent. These matchings can be used immediately in their writing to scaffold their usage of appositives.

In the next step I would also scaffold through worked examples and faded examples.

Finally, I’d get them adding additional appositives to a sentence for other nouns within the sentence (using the definitions from the matching activity). This would demonstrate that their understanding of the usage of appositives was correct.

Not necessarily in the first lesson of using them, but not too long after, I’d start to have conversations with the class about when an appositive is appropriate. Having multiple ones in a single sentence can be clunky, and I’m striving for good writing from my students, so I would highlight to them that it’s important to be selective. Which noun phrases are the most key to define? Do we need to define any at all in this sentence? Have I defined them elsewhere already or is it already clear? These considerations need to be modelled to give students the ‘expert view’ of writing.

In conclusion, giving structure and explicitly helping with students’ writing shouldn’t be seen as some additional workload that we have to do in the classroom. Writing is a powerful tool with which to ascertain a student’s current understanding of a topic that can push beyond the recall of individual facts (which is still vital). Reading TWR and the Writing In Science Symposium posts has made me really think about whether a ‘bad answer’ in written work is demonstrating a lack of understanding of the domain, or a lack of adequate writing skill to express what students truly know. Only by playing a role in the teaching of writing skills can we be sure that students are successful writers so that any ‘bad answers’ highlight misconceptions of the domain rather than inadequate writing skills.

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