Writing has been known through the centuries as a tool for introspection (Britton, 1970). Forms of writing frequently used to enhance thinking include journal writing, autobiography, formal paper, or learning log (notes from class). However, I can not be so naive as to think that these techniques – or any techniques for that matter – will make a great deal of difference without the ‘cultural surround’ to support deep understanding. We don’t want journal writing to become just another worksheet!
But let’s look at writing for the moment.
Journal writing, the focus here, is a form of writing in which the individual usually free writes a running account of one’s work or task. And although there can be many variations on journal writing, or activities surrounding journal writing, it tends to be an informal style of writing. Fulwiler (1987) characterizes the students’ entries by both language features and cognitive activities. The language of journals tends to be personal and conversational. Many feelings are expressed. Punctuation and spelling are relaxed. The style is experimental. Here are several examples (Countryman, 1992).
“Algebra is math with a bunch of letters that stand for numbers. They are mystery letters. When you finish the problem the letters usually turn into numbers.” – James
“I think algebra is very hard and confusing. It builds on itself. What may seem easy grows till it becomes very hard.” – Lisa
Good journals also exhibit indicators of varied thinking skills and strategies that consist of speculation, doubt, confusion, questions, new problems and solutions. Countryman (1992, p. 33) provides these examples.
“I figured out the meaning of life. Life is a three dimensional picture show and what matters is the perspective you choose to observe it through. Sometimes you should look at ‘the big picture’; in fact, most of the time you should. Other times you can involve minute aspects of the movie in your everyday affairs. BUT!! Don’t take it too seriously because life is a comedy. 2 is a very simple number. √¯¯¯ is a very simple idea. But the two simple things, when mixed together, become excruciatingly complex (√2!!) Too many people think about √2 and forget about 2 or √. That’s a no-no. Like calculus, another important aspect of life is not A or B but the change (∆) from A to B (or vice versa). We change so much in life it is far better to accept its inevitability than to fight it. The hard part is accepting it when you are happy because the common assumption is that it can only be a change for the worse. If you are at the top of a mountain you can only go down, right? Wrong!! You can also jump to the top of a new and different mountain” – a twelfth grade calculus student
Journal writing supports intentional or mindful behaviour in a variety of ways. Firstly, its very presence acts as a tool to predispose people to think – to plan, monitor, and reflect. This helps overcome the difficulties of not even thinking about performing these tasks.
- Sometimes it is not that the student doesn’t know how to plan, it just isn’t a salient option. It does not come to mind to do so. The journal, therefore, reminds students to think.
- In addition, it has been noted that students often jump at the first solution strategy that comes to mind. They often “are not allowed sufficient time to ponder a problem” in advance (Cappo & Osterman, 1991, p.35). The presence of a journal, not only reminds them to think ahead, but also affords them the opportunity to do so.
- Novices also, by nature, don’t pause and reflect upon completion of a task, whereas experts do. The journal, therefore, can serve as a cognitive trigger both before and after a task.
Secondly, journal writing allows for the externalization of knowledge through language. Language plays an important role in making knowledge explicit by objectifying experience (Valtin, 1984; Vygotsky, 1962; in Dickinson, 1986, p. 358). So as students engage in writing about their knowledge they are indeed exploring, stating and questioning what they know (Britton, 1970). Journal writing is a form of self-assessment (Zuercher, 1989). As students communicate their ideas, “they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking (Cappo & Osterman 1991, p.35). Journal writing allows students to state their ‘understanding’ of a topic or problem replete with all the associate ‘bugs’. These buggy statements are then explicit and can act as a medium for mediating new understanding. This, I believe, is somewhat analogous to writing programs and as Psotka (1985, p. 4) says,
“In order to debug in such an environment (programming), the proper metaphor seems to be one of ‘tiptoeing’ through one’s knowledge structures, carefully trying not to destroy what one steps on…Given this metaphor, debugging is very closely allied to self-reflection, since being able to examine clearly what one knows (the existing code) is a precondition for further learning and restructuring.”
Journal writing encourages the consideration and expression of strategies, ideas and plans that one brings to the situation. Brown, Collins and Duguid (89, p. 36) suggest that school generally disregards the inventive heuristics that students bring to the classroom. Journal writing allows for expression and social sharing of these. On the other hand, Lave (1988c) tells how some students actually hide the strategies they use because they are not the ones of the predominant culture. Journal writing can serve to encourage expression of these strategies – perhaps through sentence starters.
Forms of Journal Writing
There are many forms of journal writing that may lead to very different experiences for the writer (Langer & Applebee, 1985). Many mediated and non-mediated journal activities benefit the students’ acquisition of cognitive and metacognitive skills.
- The simplest form of journal writing would be a blank format where one documents freely and without particular focus or restriction.
- Some journals are written in conjunction with prompts, metacognitive guides or questions simply to stimulate journal entries (Countryman, 1992). This may change the focus of the activity within the journal.
- A dialectical journal is one in which the teacher carries on an asynchronous conversation with the student (Fulwiler, 1987).
- Or consider an activity which requests that students pick some number of their favourite entries and create a table of contents, an introduction and a conclusion based on their journal writing over a certain period (Countryman, 1992).
Personal or Public?
Journal writing is usually a personal event. It may, however, acknowledge both the personal and public nature of journal writing. It is expected that collaborative journal writing will lead to unique experiences that may have effects that are not just quantitatively different but different also in quality. For example, one may be able to speak more eloquently on a topic having previously written about it for communication to others.
Andrews (1990, p. 6) had students share their journals with their peers and herself, and found that her role was as “an active mirror for their voices, helping them to bring their tacit understandings of the process to conscious awareness to be discussed and applied”.
Cappo & Osterman (1991) believe that math publishing or writing:
- enables students to take ideas from the specific to the general;
- provides a means to share their thinking, and;
- allows students to witness the growth of their mathematical thinking.
Does Journal Writing Lead to Engagement?
Is it to be assumed, then, that if students write in their journals on a regular basis that they will become intentional learners or that their success on academic tasks will improve? Certainly, as Fulwiler (1980) noted, journal writing cannot guarantee that the student will be actively engaged in learning, but it decreases the likelihood that the student will be passive. Much depends on the activities which are required of the students (Ruggles, 1985). The evidence in support of journal writing is overwhelming and is generally anecdotal and descriptive (Fulwiler, 1978; Moffett, 1984; Schlawin, 1980).
My own experience has been when journal writing becomes routinized – like yet another ‘worksheet’ – it becomes ‘something to get done’ and is, therefore, not done mindfully or intentionally and the intended benefits are lost. Once again we need to understand that learning is strongly affected by the predominant culture of the classroom. “Thinking” needs to be a highly valued activity and that should be explicitly and implicitly understood by all in the classroom. John Seely Brown has eloquently stated that learning is often a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.
I believe this culture of deep & reflective thinking, and effective journal writing environments, can be encouraged and supported through collaboration and scaffolding. In addition, I think that various computer technologies can be brought to bear on these challenges.
We’ll examine the case for collaboration in a subsequent post! I wrote a little bit about it in a previous post on Project Based Learning, but wish to elaborate.
What are your observations or experiences?
Britton, J. (1970). Language and Learning, New York, Penguin Books.
Cappo, M. & Osterman, G. (1991) Teach students to communicate mathematically. The Computing Teacher, Feb. 1991 p.35.
Countryman, J. (1992). Writing to Learn Mathematics, Heinemann Educational Books, Inc., Portsmouth, NH.
Dickinson, D. K. (Dec., 1986), Cooperation, Collaboration, and a Computer: Integrating a Computer into a First-Second Grade Writing Program. Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 20, No. 4 pp. 357-378
Fulwiler, T. (1978). Journal writing across the curriculum (Report No. CS 204 467).
Fulwiler, T. (1980). Journals across the disciplines. English Journal, 69, 14-19.
Fulwiler, T. (1987). The Journal Book, Portsmouth, N.H., Boynton/Cook Denver, CO: Conference on College Composition and Communication. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 161 073)
Langer, J., & Applebee, A. (1985). Learning to write; learning to think. Educational Horizons, 64 (1), 36-38.
Moffett, J. (1984). Reading and writing as mediation. In J.M. Jensen (Ed.), Composing and comprehending (pp. 57-65). Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse.
Ruggles, A. (Ed.) (1985). Roots in the sawdust: writing to learn across the disciplines. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Schlawin, S. (1980). Writing across the curriculum, K-12 (Report No. CS 206 154). Poughkeepsie, NY: Duchess County Board of Cooperative Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 199 700)
Zuercher, N. T. (1989). Students’ self-assessment. Paper presented at the Seventh Annual Conference on Writing Assessment. Montréal, Québec, Canada.
(My apologies for a few missing references – but this is a blog post, not an academic paper – so cut me some slack! :-) )