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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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The Best Algorithm-Driven Writing Instruction You Can Imagine

It's tragic such a thing exists.

June 26, 2018
 
 

Imagine you are in the 8th grade, working on an argumentative essay regarding “censorship in the libraries.” After writing a first draft, you receive this marginal comment about one of your sentences:

“When writing argumentatively, it's often easy to use casual language when trying to persuade your reader. Remember though, it is important to continue a formal tone and style in all forms of writing.”

How would you respond?

That’s easy. You would rewrite your essay to please the teacher.

But what would you come away believing about writing? Based on this feedback, who is writing for? What does writing do? What is the author’s relationship to what they’re writing?

What would you believe about writing if this feedback didn’t come from a teacher at all, but was instead generated by an algorithm?

That prompt is one of the examples provided by Turnitin’s Revision Assistant in their walkthrough example of an essay by hypothetical student “Tessa.”

Revision Assistant is algorithm-driven software designed to give formative feedback on student writing without relying on instructor intervention. Their focus is on providing “immediate, personalized, actionable feedback” on student writing on “standards-aligned reading and writing tasks.” 

In essence, Revision Assistant is an automated coach to help students pass Common Core aligned assessments, which also provides “real-time” data to teachers and administrators as to how students are doing at improving their scores on these tasks.

If you are an administrator at an under-resourced school who is being pressured to “raise scores” but also has seen experienced educators fleeing the system, and can expect no relief from above, the promises of Revision Assistant will sound very good to you. Revision Assistant reports a 53% improvement from first to last draft for students working with their software.

If the Revision Assistant essay prompts are similar to those found in standardized assessments – and they are – we can look forward to student scores improving on those assessments which is what matters above all in this scenario.

But what are our developing writers left with when it comes to, well…writing?

I posted the Revision Assistant comment to my Twitter feed and asked whether people agreed or disagreed with this advice to writers.

Eighty-sevent percent of the voters disagreed. 

I expected a lopsided vote. My Twitter followers are heavily populated by writers, editors, and writing teachers who I knew would read that advice and respond the way I did, with incredulity and questions. What does it say when a universe largely consisting of recognized experts on teaching writing find the feedback not just problematic, but wrong.

As writer and professor Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman put it in a reply tweet, “What is argumentatively? What is casual? What is persuade? Who is my reader? What is formal? What is all forms of writing?” 

Because writing is thinking, and because our thinking when we’re writing depends on the purpose, audience, message, and genre of our writing, these are the kinds of questions a writer should be asking when confronted with this kind of feedback.

But questions like this are not allowed inside the world of Revision Assistant. Revision Assistant is a tool designed to elicit a particular manner of writing “performance” that involves very limited kinds of thinking because the assessment which will matter rewards this imitation of writing, rather than encouraging the genuine article.

In the realm of algorithm-driven educational software oriented towards writing instruction, Revision Assistant is, by far, the best I’ve ever personally encountered. I cannot imagine a more effective tool at helping students produce these writing simulations.

And yet, it is a terrible tragedy that it exists and continues to have utility in middle and high school classrooms. It is symptomatic of an approach to writing instruction that is almost entirely divorced from meaningful experiences which will help students develop as writers and thinkers.

Revision Assistant’s advice is good for helping to pass a standardized test, bad for actually learning how to write in persuasive ways appropriate to audience and occasion. It is especially bad for using writing as a tool of thinking in which the writer becomes smarter about their subject through the process of writing itself.

In my experience, this is the great gift of writing, one I was allowed to experience even in the earliest years of my primary school education. It is a gift we have almost entirely withheld from multiple generations of students.

Writing in the world is, ideally, a process of discovery, a way to develop knowledge and build agency and resilience. Revision Assistant, on the other hand, is a game in which the goal is to please the algorithm.

Revision Assistant, as a bundle of algorithms, is designed around an entirely unworthy problem. It is not the fault of the designers that we have created a system which embodies the wrong values, but there’s little doubt the software reinforces that damaging system.

Need I point out of the nth time in this space that this sort of algorithmic instruction is almost exclusively reserved for the classrooms that lack “resources?” Could you imagine the students of elite prep schools pecking away at their Revision Assistants?

Those elite schools are doing away with the AP exams because they are not sufficiently differentiating. I don’t imagine they would embrace an approach to learning writing confined to the prompts already canned by Revision Assistant.

Speaking at a conference, Allison Woodruff a human-computer interaction researcher remarked “Machine learning is good if you want the future to look like the past.” 

We are in the midst of an important shift in literacy where students should be learning to interact with and respond to sources in an interconnected world, and where some of those sources are deliberately designed to fool the audience as to their reliability. We should be requiring students to think more and harder than ever. Upon encountering that feedback, rather than complying, our students should be asking the same questions as Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman. This is how writers think. Isn't that what we want students to be able to do?

Instead we give them Revision Assistant with its templates to fill and its canned advice nudging students towards pleasing another algorithm down the line.

We have to do better than this.

 

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