My previous post reflected on the perils of using computer-generated response to student writing too early in the writing process. In this post I’ll argue for the proposition that such programs encourage teachers to ignore good instructional practices while deluding them into believing they are adopting good instructionl practices.
For years teachers have been using The Writing Process: a step-by-step sequence of pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Despite the nearly universal acceptance of that formula by teachers – visit any language arts classroom and the chances are good that you’ll see those stages displayed somewhere in the room–there are still a number of teachers who don’t follow it in their writing instruction. They assign writing, but they don’t teach writing. There are far more who do embrace The Writing Process but who do so in a formulaic way. “Today we will brainstorm; tomorrow we will write drafts. I’ll read our drafts overnight and hand them back to you tomorrow, and then you will revise them based on my comments and corrections. After that you will have someone check your paper for errors, and then we will tape then to the classrrom wall.” The problem with both approaches is, that’s not the way writing gets done.
Writers write lots of ways; there is no single process, and there is no single formula that works for everyone. But unless you’re a writer yourself, you wouldn’t know that. And far too many teachers aren’t writers. That’s sad, because once teachers have had the opportunity to do genuine, authentic writing, they get it. All of them have written, or they wouldn’t have gotten through college. But for most of them, that was a long time ago, and that writing was more of a chore than a challenge. (The inauthenticity of most academic writing is clear to anyone who looks–but that’s a topic for another day.) You wouldn’t send your child to a piano teacher who didn’t play the piano, but that’s precisely what we are doing when we send children to schools where the writing teachers don’t write. You can’t teach the piano–or writing–from a book.
Teachers know that–at least, they know the results of trying to teach writing from a book or a program or a formula. You hear it at every level: college professors complain that kids are coming to them lacking writing skills; high school teachers blame the middle school; middle school teachers think that elementary school teachers haven’t done their job. The failure of teaching writing-by-the-numbers is apparent to everyone. But because so many teachers don’t do much writing themselves, they don’t know any other way. So they try, every year, to assign business letters and friendly letters, expository essays and persuasive essays, literary analysis essays and, of course, the research paper. Maybe, they hope, this time it will take.
Then, along comes the silver bullet of our times, technolgy. It seems that there are computer programs that will improve students’ writing. The claims made by the education-market companies promise astounding results, and there’s a certain logic to it. Kids grow up with tablets, video games and smart phones. It makes sense that they would embrace a writing medium that seems to be a part of their world.
Perhaps the teacher responds to an advertisement from a company. Before long, an aggressive salesman calls and says, “Let me come in and show you.” He visits the school, gives a quick demonstration of how his particular program works, and sets-up the teacher with trial licenses for her students. A week later the teacher has her class in the computer lab, responding to the pre-loaded prompts and sending their answers off into the cloud. With the speed we’ve become accustomed to, the writing comes back to them with all kinds of suggestions for improvement and correction. And with a score. That’s important, because once the student makes those changes and fixes those errors and once again sends the writing out into the void, instantly it comes back with a higher score. Wow! It’s like getting to the next level of a video game. Let’s keep going!
What the teacher sees is students crouched over keyboards for extended periods of time, engaged with what is on the screen. They are revising, the teacher concludes. This has never happened before. I’ve found the answer. I’ve got to tell my colleagues. And so the fever spreads across the school and throughout the district. The salesman gets additional ammunition: such-and-such school district has adopted our program, he can now boast. Sometimes the media picks-up on the frenzy and, in their quest to capture your dime, runs enticing stories about excited students, ecstatic teachers, and delighted parents. The juggernaut is rolling.
The problem is, none of these programs substantially improve students’ writing. Numerous studies have shown that. (See the NCTE Position Paper on Machine Scoring.) Because they can attend only to the surface features of writing, that’s all that improves. There is no real revising going on, no discussion with another person about what the writing says, no development or elaboration of ideas by the writer, and no one reading it except a machine. Surface features are all that improve. Yet all involved–the student, the teacher, the parents, even the company sales rep– think that the writing is getting better. The emperor has no clothes.
Entrepreneurs have, in recent years, begun marketing programs that will actually do the writing. For a fee, the author of a technical paper in science or engineering can send his work in and get back a computer-spawned revision of it written for the layman. I have an idea. Suppose all of those those computer generated papers were submitted to a computer reader? We’d have computers doing the writing and computers reading the writing; no human involvement would be necessary. Maybe then, in the words of Richard Brautigan, we’d finally be “All watched over by machines of loving grace.”