Citizen Science Musings: Writing to Learn

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By Sheldon Greaves

Bookstores can be dangerous places for me. Used bookstores are even moreso, but library book sales are worst of all. This past weekend we have been staying with some friends in Southern Oregon when the local public library had its annual book sale. Naturally, knowing us, they told us about it and we went. Sometimes you just have to give in.

The pickings were fair, but one book caught my attention: Writing to Learn by William Zinsser who wrote an earlier volume called On Writing Well that gained considerable praise. For my part, as writing style guides go I am irrevocably devoted to Strunk and White, but I digress.

I have an almost fanatical devotion to the idea of learning; the process, the rationale behind it, as a life path, you name it. So I am always interested in what others have to say about the process, especially if they claim to offer insights into how to do it better. In Zinsser's case, he advances the idea that the process of writing will enhance the study of any subject, including those hard sciences so deadly to humanities majors (and, for that matter, to science and technology types who hate writing).

I've discussed the virtues of writing as a scientific enterprise before, from making good field notes to the practice of keeping an intellectual journal as a way of thinking or recording one's thoughts after one has chewed them over. But this is a different take. Zinsser includes several chapters that describe the practice of writing while you think through a problem or try to grapple with a concept, each chapter applying the approach to different bodies of thought; Physics, Chemistry, Nature Study, Anthropology, and Math among others.

Math? This caught my eye, as the subject has long been one of my intellectual white whales. Another friend of mine who does not have this problem (to put it mildly) suggested that I try writing about math as a way of learning it, although it wasn't clear to me how to go about this. Zinsser (a self-confessed math basket case) points out that to learn about math through writing, one needs to find questions to write about. He points out that in the usual math class, the teacher or text is not only the custodian of the answer, they are also the custodian of the problems. Students can easily conclude that because of this one-sided ownership of problems and answers, students aren't capable of learning anything for themselves.

Zinsser further points out that often students can figure out what they need to do to find the correct solution, but get hung up on the mechanics of plowing through the minefield of steps of solving equations. This book was first published in 1988 and talks about how even then math teachers were questioning the value of teaching all that algebra when there was reasonably inexpensive software that could solve most algebraic problems. Today that's even more true. Personally, I think it's still a good idea to learn those mechanics. Other math teachers seem to feel likewise. That said I like the idea of thinking through problems this way by

  • describing the problem
  • discuss your approach(es)
  • explain what you find out

One thing that a problem-solving writer needs to abandon the idea that one's writing must conform to the expectations of a plot line or the polish of finished work. But as you get better and better at this technique, I suspect one's writing will start to acquire those qualities.

I highly recommend this book. My suspicion is that this technique can add a new dimension of effectiveness to one's personal learning. We'll see, because I'm about to give it a try.

To be continued.

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One Response to Citizen Science Musings: Writing to Learn

  1. Jim Hannon says:

    If nobody knew the math then who would build the calculators?

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