What do you do when you don’t know what to do? This question has become a guiding line of inquiry in my work as a teacher these days. For both me and my students, the ability to respond effectively to novel challenges has never been more important.
During a meeting on the emergency shift to distance learning last spring, one of my colleagues said in frustration, “We don’t know how to do what we’re supposed to be doing right now.” This statement sums up much of my experience over the past fourteen months.
The problems we’re facing as teachers are new in human history—just as they are new for students, parents, employees, business owners, and all who have found their lives strangely reordered by COVID-19. I think of all those in-person businesses that had to suddenly shift to ecommerce. There were no classes to take or self-help books to read on how to perform an emergency pivot during a global pandemic; people had to figure out for themselves how to evolve their business into something new.
In Monterey County, California, where I live, it was inspiring to see the creative solutions generated by our local restaurants: new menus, modified locations and hours, gift certificates, pop-ups, delivery services, themed meals-to-go. The innovation of these businesses in the face of devastating losses was uplifting and courageous.
PHOTO: Outdoor dining in Monterey, CA
Navigating the Unknown
As a writing teacher, I take heart from these examples of creative problem solving. We may not be able to help our students predict the future, but we can improve their ability to respond to new situations. We do this by cultivating the procedural knowledge and principles that help students practice effective troubleshooting when they need to do something that they don’t know how to do.
This is why I teach rhetorical thinking to my student writers. Rhetorical concepts such as audience, purpose, genre, and context develop students’ capacity to navigate the unknown, including novel communication tasks or what rhetorician Linda Flower calls a “rhetorical problem” (12). Flower says that “writers rise to rhetorical problem solving during at least three occasions: in exploring the rhetorical problem (especially at the outset), in creating a plan, and in reviewing and testing both plans and texts” (1985).
The process Flower describes is not unlike the approach an engineer might take to solve a novel technology challenge, which is also why I also incorporate design theory into my writing instruction. Using design thinking to support rhetorical problem-solving gives students an extra boost of flexibility and resilience when they need it most.
When combined with rhetorical principles, such as the importance of audience expectations or the functions of genre features, the design process helps writers to build a new text from the ground up. “Since we cannot hope to teach our students the conventions for the enormous variety of minor genres they will meet,” Flower writes, “they need to have some first principles to build upon when they encounter new tasks” (10).
Learning from Design Thinking
Students who have learned about design thinking have concrete strategies for tackling unfamiliar problems. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University identifies six phases of the design process: understand, observe, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
If you teach in a school that incorporates elements of design theory, you’ve probably already made the connection between the design process and the writing process. I adapted the following description of the design cycle from the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program to more fully represent the work involved in composing a text, but you’ll see that very few changes were needed. This design cycle works just as well for a building an autonomous robot as it does for writing a researched argument essay. The cycle of research-build-test repeats until a workable solution is produced. The Design Cycle (Adapted from the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program)
When applied to writing tasks, the design cycle invites students to consider the affordances and complexities of a rhetorical situation, including their own language resources. This puts student writers in the driver’s seat and supports them in making their own choices about content, process, style, and structure.
Jim Burke’s book The 6 Academic Writing Assignments: Designing the User’s Journey likewise makes a productive connection between design thinking and writing instruction. Teachers who think like designers enact a “recursive process of ongoing improvement” (Burke 159) that is deeply responsive to the user’s (i.e., the student’s) experience. This back-to-the-drawing-board attitude keeps us going when a composition (or a lesson plan) doesn’t work.
Facilitating Failure: Try, Try Again
I’ll say this for 2020: It helped me get better at letting go of things that weren't working. Sometimes the success of Plan B depends on how quickly or thoroughly we can ditch Plan A. Mistakes are part of the design process. We learn from researching, building, and testing a product—whether that product is an app or an op-ed letter—that failure is the path to success.
The design cycle also teaches the critical lesson that you don’t know if something is going to work until you try it. In his acknowledgments for The 6 Academic Writing Assignments, Burke shares that he wrote at least three different versions of the manuscript before landing on the ideas that would form the core of the published book—something that fills me with both courage and dismay. If a seasoned pro like Jim Burke still has to grapple with the unexpected twists and turns of the composing process, what hope is there for the rest of us that writing will be anything less than a struggle?
Of course, the answer is that writing is a struggle, but a productive one, as long as we have faith in the process and ourselves. When writers see themselves as designers—and see the composing process as an ongoing effort to understand, observe, and define a problem and then ideate, prototype, and test a solution—they are more willing to approach rhetorical problems with a spirit of resilience and resourcefulness.
Flower offers us this gem of a rhetorical takeaway, too: Some compositions may “fail” not because they were poorly written but because “they were poorly designed for readers” (9).
Cultivating Independent Learners
In an age where we’re increasingly focusing on the importance of innovative problem solving and project-based learning, it seems odd that so much writing instruction doesn’t allow for trial and error. At one local high school in my area, for instance, students have learned how to fix their broken Chromebooks by replacing the damaged screens themselves. That spirit of self-reliance and ingenuity, however, is often absent from writing classrooms.
Writing projects should be projects; they should empower students to build their own texts and try, try again when they fail. We don’t foster creative problem solving if we restrict students to only following someone else’s blueprints. Formulaic and prescriptive approaches to writing impede students’ ability to adapt to new situations.
As Donald Graves made clear decades ago, independent problem solving is essential for writers’ growth. In Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, Graves explains, “There is a long, painstaking, patient process demanded to learn how to shape material to a level where it is satisfying to the person doing the crafting” (6). Students develop this deep procedural understanding by tinkering with their writing.
Taking ownership of the design cycle can help students see that asking a teacher “What should I do?” cuts short the research and development work inherent in any writing project. Not sure what to do? Build a prototype and test it on a focus group. While it’s not easy for me, I’ve learned to let my students flounder a bit when they ask for my advice. Now I say, “Try something, and I’ll let you know how I react. But make sure to get other reactions, too. I’m only one reader.”
Testing a Prototype
We develop problem solving skills by working the problem. The secret to staying calm under pressure is having lots of experience with things going wrong. By facilitating our students’ failures and nurturing their autonomy, we prepare them to expect the unexpected. Things will go wrong, especially when we’re dealing with radical novelty. The past year has taught us that lesson if nothing else. But failure is an opportunity to improve our design, as engineers would say.
Writers who approach rhetorical problems through a flexible, iterative, and principled process develop faith in working the process because the process works for them.
About the Author
Jennifer Fletcher is a Professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school English teacher. She teaches courses for first-year college students and future teachers and leads workshops on rhetorical literacy skills throughout the country. Her books include Teaching Arguments, Teaching Literature Rhetorically, and Writing Rhetorically.
Burke, Jim. The 6 Academic Writing Assignments: Designing the User’s Journey. Heinemann, 2019.
Flower, Linda, and Carnegie-Mellon University. “Rhetorical Problem Solving: Cognition and Professional Writing.” Writing in the Business Professions, edited by Myra Kogen. NCTE, 1989.
Graves, Donald. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Heinemann, 1983.
Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. “The Six Phases of the Design Thinking Process.” https://hpi.de/en/school-of-design-thinking/design-thinking/background/design-thinking-process.html \
International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program. “Design.” https://www.ibo.org/programmes/middle-years-programme/curriculum/design/