Unlearning to Write

In my foundations of education course, we discussed the role of evidence and research in education, highlighting the problem with experimental/quasi-experimental research and its use in the so-called real world of day-to-day teaching. I always use medicine as an analogy—such as the recently development of the Covid-19 vaccine.

What I hope to accomplish is to offer students a more nuanced understanding of evidence and research. I stress that based on my nearly 40 years of teaching, gold-standard research matters, but it rarely matters in teaching (versus medicine) the way that many people think.

Teaching and learning, I explain, are extremely complicated.

In the article we examined, Seven ‘great’ teaching methods not backed up by evidence, one of the “popular” teaching practices Higgins and Coe claim there is “no evidence for” is discovery learning.

As someone who has spent four decades grounded in discovery learning and using workshop structures when teaching literacy, specifically writing, I find such claims to be condescending and off-base because they are overly simplistic.

In the listing of educational practices there is “no evidence for,” I ask students to consider how research in education often defines “works” or “doesn’t work” (test scores, for example), and I also invite them to consider the limitations of isolating any teaching or learning practice in order to examine causality (common in quantitative experiments).

Higgins and Coe make one fatal mistake in their claim about discovery learning by setting up a false dichotomy between discovery learning and direct instruction (a mistake made by many progressive educators who discount direct instruction).

Instead, I offered to my students, of arguing whether or not direct instruction or discovery learning work alone, I have found that the two do work in conjunction if paired effectively. Over my first five or so years of teaching, I discovered that a great deal of direct instruction was often wasted when students were tasked with authentic performances of learning (such as writing essays).

Placed in difficult and/or new tasks, students often revert to their known (see more on this below) regardless of the teacher’s direct instruction and, more importantly, regardless of that known being relevant or not to the task assigned.

I adjusted my teaching, then, by offering less up-front and shifting my direct instruction after students had produced an artifact of learning (again, such as an essay) that gave them context for that instruction.

This new process (for me) fit perfectly into my workshop approach to teaching writing since it gave even more significance to requiring and allowing students to revise their essays after I provided feedback (both in the form of comments on their individual essays and mini-lessons/direct instruction to the entire class).

Along with my foundations class this spring, I am teaching first-year writing and upper-level writing/research. These two writing-intensive courses have different goals (first-year writing is broader and more transitional and introductory while the upper-level course is specifically focused on disciplinary/academic writing in the social sciences [education]), but offer the sort of teaching/learning problem noted above; in other words, for students to write well in college, they must unlearn to write first (cast off that comforting known).

The Known/Misconception: The Research Paper

In the upper-level writing/research course, I have students read two main texts, one on navigating educational research and the other addressing rethinking how to write as a scholar. The three main writing assignments are scaffolded so that they build and inform each other, moving from annotated bibliographies to a cited scholarly essay and then to a public commentary.

I want to focus on the problems students and I face with the cited essay; here is the assignment and the support material I provide:


Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

Checklist for Creating Bibliographies and References List Using APA

Sample APA Bibliographies

References Sample

Sample APA 7e with comments

Checklist for Revising Cited Essay

What happens fits exactly into the dynamic I discovered in those early and challenging years of teaching; students faced with a new and difficult task revert to their known and mostly ignore my instruction and even the assignment.

The essay students are tasked with writing is an analysis of media coverage of an educational topic. In order to analyze the quality and accuracy of that media coverage, students do very short literature reviews (the first main section of the essay) of their chosen topic.

While I focus my first-year writing essays on giving students a great deal of choice, in the upper-level course, we confront that writing in academia is often highly structured, a bit more “artificial” and scripted than so-called real-world writing of essays. I, therefore, offer (see above) some guidelines for subheads and sections. I also emphasize that the essay is primarily about building to an analysis of media coverage and identifying the relationship between the media claims and what research shows on the topic (in other words, I stress that the essay is 2/3 about the media).

After doing their library research and submitting their annotated bibliographies (on 8-10 peer-reviewed articles) as well as submitting their working references lists for the cited essay, guess what these students turn in for their cited essay (despite the assignment and detailed support material I provide)?

A high school research paper on their educational topic—which I specifically and repeatedly tell them not to do—and not an analysis of media coverage of that topic.

But that is their known.

Researcher Howard Gardner, often associated with multiple intelligences (another popular idea in education that researchers enjoying saying there is “no evidence for”) made a huge impact on my teaching when I read about the need to consider three aspects of students when teaching: their known, unknown, and misconceptions.

Teaching should build on the known, provide the unknown (direct instruction), and confront the misconceptions. As Gardner notes, misconceptions are incredibly robust, and as I have discovered, misconceptions sit inside the known for students who have no context for distinguishing between the two.

What’s wrong with the high school research paper? It creates for students a number of bad habits that they must unlearn in order to write well and credibly in college. Here are some of those bad habits to unlearn:

  • Known/misconception: Students understand the “research paper” to be a distinct (and special) kind of essay. Instead, they need to recognize that doing scholarly research and using citation are common expectations for almost all different types of disciplinary writing (essay conventions that vary widely among different fields).
  • Known/misconception: Students understand MLA style formatting to be universal, and not disciplinary based. Instead, as above, students need to apply the style and format appropriate to the discipline; for example, we write differently and cite differently in education as a social science than scholars who use MLA in literary analysis.
  • Known/misconception: Students understand their “job” as a student is to write about research in ways that prove they did research. As a result, students writing research papers (inauthentic forms) dutifully cover one source at a time until they have worked through their sources; this is writing about your sources, and not your topic. Instead, as I implore my students often, students need to use their research and sources to support their own original discussion by writing about their topic and not their research (see more about this here).
  • Known/misconception: Students understand a script/template for the “essay” and write clunky introductions and conclusions while struggling to develop beyond three body paragraphs. Instead, students need a much more organic and authentic perception of the essay form, again in the context of disciplinary conventions. Despite this course using a main text encouraging students to incorporate scholarly personal narrative (recommended as their opening), many students wrote their known, the clunky introduction with empty overstatements.

After responding to the essays, I returned to the essay prompt and the support materials I provided. I walked through the direct instruction addressing much of the above while asking students to look at their essays and my feedback as I taught. Students then began in class revising.

Student after student asked sincere questions that highlighted the difficulty they faced trying to move beyond the known/misconception (unlearning) in order to write the essay assigned.

Synthesizing research (instead of quoting or paraphrasing one source at a time; see here) continues to overwhelm them since they want to write about their sources, for example:

According to The Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, anything more than twenty work hours a week can result in problematic grades or psychological well-being (Fuller, Lawrence, Harrison, Eyanson, & Griffin, 2019). 

Most of the sources used tended to use the definition of disparity provided by the institute of medicine (Cook, et al.,2012; Williams & Wyatt, 2015; Wang, et al., 2013).

Many articles and papers done on these topics jointly don’t go far enough when splitting up classes to paint an accurate picture of disparities faced by different persons at various levels of class with varying races (Braveman, et al. 2010).

If we think carefully about this known, we can see that students are avoiding themselves and being specific (writing out of fear of mistakes rather than producing their own claims and original writing). This type of writing is performing as a student, not writing as a scholar or academic.

Learning to write, then, is in part unlearning to write.

Developing and growing as a writer is a daunting task, and it also exposes the problem with oversimplifying complex tasks for students (the five-paragraph essay and research paper do not serve students well).

Students as writers and scholars have much yet to discover; they will have much better success if teachers are there to offer direct and expert instruction as they become bogged down in the known that are in fact misconceptions.