Writing to engage stands between the two most common approaches to writing across the curriculum: writing to learn and writing in the disciplines (sometimes referred to as writing to communicate). John Bean, through his book Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, has done much to advocate for the use of writing as a form of engagement with knowledge and ideas.
Writing to engage relies a great deal on viewing writing as a means of engaging students in critical thinking. Certainly, writing has long been viewed as a useful means of demonstrating critical thinking and, through the work of scholars such as Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter, even as a means of transforming knowledge. Writing to engage takes this view of writing and applies it to WAC.
As with any educational approach, there is a great deal of variance in how to approach writing to engage. Bean, for example, approaches the idea of linking writing and critical thinking through what might be characterized as a problem-solving approach. In this guide, we view writing to engage through the lens of Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive learning objectives. The taxonomy, originally developed in the 1950s, was modified by Lorin Anderson and David R. Krathwohl and their colleagues in 2001 to include a more accessible set of terms for describing learning objectives in the cognitive domain.
Our approach to writing to engage relies heavily on the idea that students can benefit from engaging in writing activities that help students work with and develop greater control of the concepts, conceptual frameworks, skills, processes, and issues addressed in a course. Following the work of Bloom and his colleagues, we view the kinds of thinking in which we hope to engage students as:
While these activities are often viewed as increasing in complexity, it is important to note that Bloom and his colleagues presented these activities as a taxonomy and not as a hierarchy. Nonetheless, Bloom's taxonomy has typically been presented in a form of a pyramid, with remembering (initially "knowledge" in the early publication of Bloom's taxonomy) and understanding (initially "comprehension) at the bottom and evaluating and creating (initially "synthesis" and "evaluation") at the top.
Because hierarchies tend to imply value, Bloom's taxonomy is sometimes presented in terms of "higher order" and "lower order" thinking skills. (For an example, see the higher-order thinking chapter in the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development book, Literacy Strategies for Grades 4–12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading). Viewed as a taxonomy, in contrast, we see these types of thinking as value neutral. One might ask, for example, whether it is more useful to understand a complex knowledge domain such as genetic engineering or to create a limerick (and we might add that we intend no disparagement of limericks; indeed, we find great pleasure in them).
Following Bloom's taxonomy, we characterize writing to learn, writing to engage, and writing to communicate (writing in the disciplines) as focusing on different parts of Bloom's taxonomy:
We've seen a wide range of activities that can be used to support writing to engage. For example, a colleague in sociology created an assignment in which students viewed a video on YouTube, wrote a summary of the video that called out salient elements in terms of their previous class discussions, selected one of three conceptual frameworks to apply to the situation presented in the video, briefly applied the conceptual framework and recorded their findings, and then explained their decision to choose one conceptual framework instead of one of the others. The assignment was designed to be about three pages in length and students were provided with an outline that they could follow as they planned their document.
You might consider several types of writing-to-engage activities, including the following:
Anderson, Lorin W., & Krathwohl, David R., et al. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, NY: Longman.
Bean, John C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.