Let Software do what Software Can,
so Teachers do what only Teachers Can
In two preceding posts, I explored the context around evaluating student writing. Specifically, this included the time and effort expended by teachers as well as the role technology could play, and our feelings related to both. This post attempts to move past the hysteria and stagnation to gain some clarity around what we really want.
Our Real Goal
To begin with the obvious and inarguable: we want students to keep getting better at writing. As apparent as this might seem, we should never lose focus on this goal because it seems to have been lost somewhere between what we know (both research and common sense) and what we do (school-based practices around writing). The realities of the classroom and a crowded curriculum, combined with… fear of change? protecting the status quo? honest regard for the art of writing? Choose your preferred obstacle… but now, LET’S GET OVER IT. We need to begin from the clear-eyed acceptance that whatever we’re doing systemically hasn’t worked. State and national results in NAPLAN support this and our own experience highlights that for most schools writing is among the most challenging academic skills to teach and learn. Thus if we accept the premise that our goal is to improve student writing, and that new approaches are required, what do we do?
Let Software Do…
My mantra, as a devout English teacher, writer and long-time ed tech entity is simple and clear: “Let software do what software can so teachers do what only teachers can.” Can software analyse student writing as well as a trained teacher in writing? Of course not. But everyday we all rely on things that software can do, such as spellcheck our work and facilitate editing. Such functionality is second nature to us. It is also about 30 years old. As quickly as technology has changed in that time, especially in regard to crunching data into profiles, noticing patterns, and comparing disparate bits of data, can’t we imagine that the science of “machine reading texts” has evolved? It has. In little steps. Little, because communicating and language are among the most complex things we humans do.
Moves by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to trial machine reading of students’ NAPLAN writing seems to be a main cause for the recent hysteria. The argument against this is that no computational reading of a text can critique, let alone notice, such things as irony and poetic intent. Nor can it reward a particularly well-turned phrase. When we humans engage in our “labour of love”, scribbling detailed feedback on students’ papers, we are often looking for just such things. Unfortunately, we inevitably confront repetitious and limited word choice, poorly structured sentences and paragraphs that lack integrity. Things that we would hope students addressed in earlier drafts of their work. Drafts?
What Software can, so…
Interestingly, it was also 30 years ago that the Writing Process captured the interests of university researchers, writers and teachers. We noted that “expert writers” did things that “novices” did not, such as pre-writing, drafting, getting feedback, revising and editing for publication. We recognised truth in the statement that “good writing is re-writing.” Fast-forward to our present and this wisdom seems to have been squashed by the daily mountain of other tasks every teacher confronts. Reading and grading the stack of required tasks in a curriculum is burdensome enough; who would ask for more? Thus, how many students at almost any level of schooling engage in regular cycles of drafting, feedback, revision, feedback and polishing? It’s safe to say, “probably not as many as we’d like” knowing that such approaches not only develop better writing, but, in fact, can develop writers.
Teachers do what only Teachers Can
I suggest that removing some of the burden of the writing process as well as providing rich analytics and resources related to each teacher’s students is where technology can help. The fact that software can’t help developing writers craft ironic, poetic or poignant prose, doesn’t mean that it can’t help them with word choice, the mechanics of sentences or more sophisticated paragraphing and text structures. The way I see it, software can help students take ownership of their writing to the extent that when they submit their work to teachers, it represents their best efforts and warrants critical assessment. Again: “let software do what software can, so teachers do what only teachers can.”
In another article, we will explain in greater detail some of the analytic approaches we’re designing into our writing software at Literatu. A fair amount of this falls into the category of “secret sauce” so we won’t divulge too much, but enough I hope to inspire your interest in joining a group of teachers try out our beta version.