Building vs. Activating Background Knowledge

writersareresearchersI spent Saturday with teachers and writers at the WNY Young Writers’ Studio. Our season is winding down, and everyone is swimming in the depths of the projects they’ve been working on for some time.

We’ve built a lot of background knowledge together over the last nine months, and yet, it’s never enough to satisfy our needs.

This is a good thing.

Great writers are researchers, after all.

They may dream big dreams, take some risks, and revise revise revise………but they read at least as often as they write, and then they often try to write like the authors they read.

The longer I teach, the more I realize that it isn’t my job to “define” Traits for writers or model them or give them strategies that can support their use.

Rather, my job involves creating the conditions where great ideas can be born, a culture that enables risk and experimentation, and the space and time for self-assessment and reflection.

This is where problems emerge, and problems are a gift.

When writers begin to identify problems, they often ask me for solutions. This is where research begins. Rather than sharing my background knowledge or inviting other writers to jump in and share theirs at the outset, I often turn struggling writers to text.

How did other writers solve the problem you are facing? What can you learn from them?

When you study varied examples of writing that does what you’re trying to do, what do you notice about them? How can you write like that? How can you write beyond that too?

Two years ago, I began realizing that when I merely activated background knowledge using talk, what learners shared was often inaccurate. Sometimes, this led readers astray and built a false sense of certainty about the text. It convoluted the meaning.

Research engages readers.

It engages writers too.

I’m finding that when I invite learners to build background knowledge by engaging in collaborative research, they remain at the center of the process. I guide their investigations and support their studies, but they own the process and they drive the dialogue by sharing the knowledge that they are gaining. When they anchor their early learning about new ideas and concepts to text, the background knowledge that is shared is pointed and accurate. It often inspires focused studies relevant to things I didn’t consider but want to learn more about myself.

This isn’t to say to learners never share their own background knowledge. They certainly do. I’m finding that when they research, doors to previously forgotten background knowledge are opened. They share their connections and all of their interpretations are guided by what they know.

This shift in practice honors more than what learners may know. It honors what they can do with text–independently and with the support of their peers.

 

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