Writing as a Problem-Solving Strategy

I read the introduction to the August 2007 issue of Learning & Leading with Technology by Anita McAnear, but the short piece had me at the title. Writing as a Problem-Solving Strategy. McAnear is the magazine's acquisitions editor and the national program chair for NECC, but more importantly, she was a middle school math and language arts teacher. Been there, done that, know that it can be an incredibly creative place to be.

I think I have always thought of writing as a problem-solving activity, but I'm not sure I would have said it without her prompting. She was introducing an issue where contributors are talking about blogs, wikis, social networking sites, Google docs and other Web 2.0 tools as instructional strategies.

Perhaps, it is this new way of writing online, along with digital images, hyperlinks, embedded video, attached audio or podcasting and RSS feeds, that really makes me take notice of the problem-solving aspect of writing.

My own grad students are blogging this semester (most for the first time) and when they begin to get comments and feedback, I know they will get that same jolt of encouragement that a new writer once got only when the envelope finally contained an acceptance rather than rejection slip from a publisher.

When I taught writing in middle school back in the 1980's, I was always trying to find places my kids could submit their poems, fiction and essays. They weren't looking for money or awards. They were looking for an audience and the idea that someone might be reading their words across the country.

I still recall very clearly the day in my freshman year when my first story was published in the Rutgers literary anthology. I saw two women in the student center reading the issue and they were on my story. Major adrenalin rush. Hearing turned up full.

"I really like this one," one of them (I recall her as the prettier and more sophisticated of the pair.) said to the other.

"Yeah, but so predictably written by a guy," countered the other.

It was all I could do not to walk over and introduce myself as the author. I wanted to ask Miss I Really Like This One out on a date. I even liked the half & half comment, because she had read my story.

I wanted to write more stories.

And with the Internet, the long tail effect is powerful for writers. Somewhere in that huge user base there is an audience for what you have to say. It's not The New Yorker or Poetry magazine in size, reputation or payment, but you can have readers.

"Writing is problem solving of the messy, ill-defined kind, in which you do not know the solution or have a specified method of arriving at a solution as you do in many mathematics problems. In writing, many solutions are often possible and acceptable, and you have to develop your own criteria for making choices. Once you start writing, the cognitive processes you go through are many, complex, and recursive. Cognitive processes include thinking about content, audience, spelling, and grammar; making choices about what to say, who you are saying it to, and how to say it; and evaluating what you have said, and often rethinking and redefining your ideas all at the same time."

Talk about the recursive aspect of writing - lately I've been thinking of this very blog as a rough draft for some book on education and technology, and in each post I'm revising my thoughts about it and updating the references.

Maybe we need in classrooms to be thinking that the problem-based learning that we see in asking our students to build a robot to simulate a surgical procedure is not so different from having a student respond to a poetry writing prompt.



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