Should Technical Writing Be Taught in High School? (Collaborative Post)

Should Technical Writing Be Taught in High School?I received the following question from a graduate student doing research in technical writing:

Right now I am working on some research with some other students, trying to determine whether technical writing should begin to be integrated more in high school level English classes so that when students reach college they have experience with writing professionally, and not solely with creative writing. As an expert in the field, I am wondering what your feelings might be on this, having been a student of English yourself and now working for such a large organization as a technical writer? Do you feel that your education prepared you well to do the work you are involved in? Do you find that those hired to work with you received relevant skills in technical writing through their education, or largely as a result of work experience? Do you feel that there is a place for the teaching of technical writing in high schools? As a technical writer with a great deal of experience, do you have any ideas on how this might be best accomplished, given the current economic climate resulting in strained budgets in education?

Sure, I’m all for supporting courses in technical writing in high school. There are some potential issues that high school technical writing courses could create:

  • If a high school student takes several technical writing courses in high school, will this become the new normal for background qualifications? (College no longer required, just a high school diploma with some tech writing courses.)
  • Will the courses be the same drudgery that is often taught in college courses on technical writing? In departments that don’t have anyone qualified to teach technical writing, these courses often require students to write a resume, outline a proposal, and describe how to make a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich.
  • Will these courses take students away from developing more critical analysis and literary skills? I’d rather have my teenager read Chaucer than try to write instructions for her iPod.

Although I would support a course in technical writing at the high school level, in my gut I kind of feel sorry for students in such a class. I think that when you’re young, you should go out and play. You should read books, write creatively, and develop your ideals. Only when you move on to another stage of life, where reality, finances, and corporate expectations take over does technical writing start to become relevant.

If you have thoughts about this topic, please add them in the comments below.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

26 thoughts on “Should Technical Writing Be Taught in High School? (Collaborative Post)

  1. Anne Gentle

    I think introducing high school students to the need and importance of technical communication is valuable. Sure, you state some classic concerns about education of that age group, but there are plenty of professional writing scenarios that can go into any part of the curriculum, professional/technical doesn’t need to be a separate class necessarily.

    If any 13- to 17-year-olds want to get a taste of technical writing in open source, the Google Code-In starts this week and there are a couple of technical writing tasks on the list: http://www.google-melange.com/gci/tasks/google/gci2011. Video, wiki, chapter updates, it’s all there. Looks like a neat opportunity for a teen!

    1. Tom Johnson

      Anne, thanks for commenting. The Google Code-In looks interesting. I agree that we don’t need a separate class to introduce students to the world of technical writing.

  2. Laura Castle

    The college where I earned a degree in Technical Communication (Cedarville University) sponsors a Writing Camp every summer for high school students to enhance their writing skills and (subtlety) introduce them to technical writing. Most of the students already know how to write poetry and short-stories (and some are writing novels in their spare time) but they have never written instructions before. We do the “how to write a peanut butter sandwich” activity and demonstrate how unclear instructions can lead to a messy sandwich! We might take a field trip to a bowling alley and tell students to explain how to get to a strike.

    Even though most of these students will not be technical writers, I think it is important to introduce them to other types of writing to make them well-rounded. If there was one elective class at the high school level in “alternative” writing styles (technical, marketing, online, sales, etc), only those students who were interested could take it.

    As a way to get more freshman students interested/informed about technical communication at Cedarville, one of the program’s professors attends every freshman composition class at the beginning of the semester to explain technical communication, since most students have never heard of it. She has doubled or tripled the size of the major by doing this. College freshman may be a better audience for new subjects like this than high school students.

    I was a copy-editor for my high school newspaper, so I learned more structured news writing and picked a college program that would teach me more about editing (but I learned much more about technical communication at the same time). Some of the technical writers I know have college-level experience/degrees in writing, but most came into the field after years in another field. I wonder if there is an age division for that (under 40 with tech writing degrees, over 40 with later career changes)??

    1. Tom Johnson

      Laura, thanks for your comment. I would welcome one technical writing assignment among a list of other types of writing as well. Exposure to it can be helpful. Perhaps it’s another question whether technical writing should be the focus of an entire high school class. That seems to be overdoing it, in my opinion.

  3. Eileen

    I think that before a high school offers technical writing to teenagers, they should be providing coursework on basic business writing. Too many students can’t write a good letter or an email message.

  4. Garrett Winn

    I teach first year writing at a state university and I work full-time as a technical writer, and the thing that strikes me the most about my students and the people I work with is a general lack of understanding of the principles of rhetoric and communication.

    I don’t really care if high school students learn how to do business writing or write instructions – although I think it could be useful for them. I believe that they need to be taught about audience and purpose and so forth. HS English teachers should be having the students write papers for different audiences instead of just for the teacher. That kind of teaching paradigm (teacher as keeper of all knowledge and information) has been out of vogue for quite a while now.

    I believe that once students learn the principles of rhetoric and how to apply them to their own writing, that the form for the writing no longer matters.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Hi Garrett, for some reason your name looks familiar. Do you live in Utah?

      Thanks for the comment. I think principles of rhetoric are important. I am not sure that many tech writers leverage rhetorical principles in a conscious way in their writing. We should do it a lot more. For more of my thoughts on rhetoric, see this post, Is rhetoric relevant?.

  5. Larry Czaplyski

    If a high school can teach students to write well, there’s no need for a technical writing course. Technical writing is about presenting complex material clearly. If you can write well, you should be able to do that.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Good point. If students are just tasked with articulating complexity, it would seem to align with the purpose of the class. But if they’re tasked with lengthy instructions, kind of more like the humdrum drudgery that some technical writers complain about, that’s a lot less useful.

  6. Jeff

    I think most high schoolers who follow a sciences stream in their course selections have a pretty good start, if the instructor has any kind of expectations for lab reports.

    Purpose
    Hypothesis
    Materials
    Prerequisites
    Steps
    Results
    Conslusions

    Physics, chem, biology looks familiar, no?

    Even my home ec course made me write out recipes before we got to cook…

    1. Tom Johnson

      In the context of a science curriculum, I can see principles of tech writing taught. I would hope that students would do more than light bunsen burners and dissect frogs in science classes. Hopefully they’re writing and doing it in a way that is clear, readable, and engaging.

  7. Mark Baker

    In my day, the vocational stream was for those kids who could not hack the very minimal rigor of the the high school academic stream. At this stage of education, vocational training is for those students who we are simply not capable of educating any more.

    There are also professions for which vocational training is required but for which a bachelors degree in an academic discipline is a prerequisite. This includes fields such as law and medicine.

    So, where do we want the next generation of technical writers to come from, the educated, or the uneducatable?

    My advice to any student is to stay in the academic stream for as long as your ability and your finances allow. Then seek vocational training only if vocational training is the only way to get into a profession that you are absolutely determined to pursue for the rest of your life.

    The great peril of vocational training is that it narrows you. That’s fine if it narrows you into a professions in high demand, or the profession that is your heart’s desire. But it leaves you prey to the fluctuations of supply and demand. Vocational enrollment trends routinely get out of sync with industry recruitment, leaving many trades fluctuating periodically between scarcity and oversupply.

    An educated person can adapt themselves to the current state of the market much more easily than someone who is trained for a single vocation.

    So no, technical writing absolutely should not be part of the high schools curriculum. Essay writing, on the other hand, should be a universal requirement for high school graduation.

  8. Burl Coyco

    Countywide, 59 percent of students tested proficient or advanced in English, Writing essays is simply not taught in a way that students can grasp or understand,and then apply.

  9. Joseph K

    No. Teach them to write well, to organize their thoughts, and everything else will follow.

    I left high school with writing abilities that have served me well. I further developed them in post-secondary education by taking everything I could that had a “writing” component. I was never exposed to technical writing specifically, but I had it in mind as a potential career. I was aware of different writing styles and purposes even without knowing “technical writing”.

    If you know how to write, you know how to adapt your writing to suit the purpose. Everything else can be learned in a more specialized environment/training.

    One thing I never had was a specific track to become a “technical writer”. What did it involve? What did I need to become one? The writing/organizational skills were never the problem.

    I think an ability to learn, rather than writing, is a more fundamental aspect to “technical writing”.

  10. Amanda

    I’m a technical writer, and I don’t think it should be taught in high school. High school should teach students how to think and write. They learn this from creative writing and Calculus courses, for instance. Technical writing is a vocation that anyone with writing and critical thinking skills can do.

  11. Homestay English Courses

    I am definately support for Technical writing in high school. Now-a-days its very important to learn this skill very soon. Technical Writing should be include in high school because if you cannot communicate well in writing you’re going to have a very tough timemaking a successful career.

    Writing well and clearly communicating your message will shape a positive firstimpression of you and the kind of person you are, and also of your technical competence.Creating a poor first impression in writing is something that you can recover from when you actually meet the person, but you will have a hard time recovering from the poor impression your e-mail recipient will form of your technical abilities.

    So, in my point of view high school should include this course that students learn this skills very soon that they can eaisly handle all these thing early.

  12. Laura Mahalel

    We did the peanutbutter and jelly sandwich exercise in the 5th grade and feel the need to speak up in its defence. I never would have guessed its relevance to my career back then, but it remains one of the more memorable exercises of my elementary school education, along with a few lines we had to memorize from Romeo and Juliette.
    Getting people to try their hand at technical writing should help consumers of technical documentation understand that it’s not that easy to get it right.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Laura, thanks for standing up for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich exercise. I guess if you remembered its impact from the 5th grade to your professional career, it must have taught you something important. I can see how it would be somewhat of an eye opener. thanks for the comment.

  13. Bob Chapman

    The point about children needing a broader background is important. Reading good writing encourages good writing, no matter the type of writing it is.

    That said, it really wouldn’t hurt if teachers in high school, as a part of other communication courses, did teach how to organize and document a process. If nothing else, could you think of a better way of requiring a student to learn to write in active voice?

  14. R.S.

    Being an effective technical communicator involves being a good writer and having common sense. In my opinion, most high school curricula prepare students adequately, at least for the writing part. Everything else can be taught in a specialized training context in later years. High school provides an opportunity for students to study a wide variety of subjects, to explore their interests, and to discover who they are. So long as there is language and writing training, I do not see any reason why there should be a course dedicated entirely to technical writing at such an early stage. A high school student’s knowledge of other subjects such as science, mathematics, the social sciences, and the arts, can be applied to a career in technical writing, depending on the nature of the employment.

    However, I agree with Garrett Winn in that high school students should be taught to write for more than one audience: not only for the teacher or other academics, in many of their subjects. In my experience, most teachers frowned upon use of colour or enhanced formatting in documents. They demanded that students kept strictly to double-spaced, 12-point font documents, and that students used only a formal tone that is appropriate for academia. This does not develop practical skills in writing for any context outside of school. There should be more exposure to MS Word and other authoring tools in terms of applying styles, and making documents easier to read.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks to everyone for their continued analysis and insights with this topic. I was surprised by the high number of responses and the longevity of the thread.

  15. Kat

    Teach technical writing in highschool? No. But I think I would have benefited from a general writing course that actually addressed some of the writing styles such as technical procedure, technical report, online, marketing, law, prose, and poetry. The different needs and to explain in more detail how writing needs to change for an audience based on their knowledge of language and the topic, how much time they have, etc.

    When I graduated from highschool I thought that people that were good at Language used English a tool for showing off how many words/obscure rules they knew and to laugh at the people that didn’t know them.

    It wasn’t until I heard about online writing for readibility (late in college) that I fell in love with language.

  16. Gretchen Hollis

    While technical writing may seem like a specialized niche for some, I’ve found that college and graduate courses in technical communication are the most practical writing courses that non-writers can take. If high school students were exposed to the theory and methodology of writing clearly and concisely to specific audiences, more students would be better equipped for engineering and technical fields later on.

    Unfortunately, many students enter college unprepared to write direct and simple sentences because they were praised for using vague and flowery language in their English courses. But technical writing doesn’t have to mean drudgery either! Instructors can challenge students with incorporating great design, writing style, and the appropriate medium to engage their audience.

    1. Tom Johnson

      “But technical writing doesn’t have to mean drudgery either! Instructors can challenge students with incorporating great design, writing style, and the appropriate medium to engage their audience.”

      Excellent points! I think that a technical writing project that was multimedia, or which involved designing something with a layout tool, or developing a graphic, would be highly appropriate — much more than writing out step-by-step instructions. Or at least the two activities should complement each other in the assignment.

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