Over the better part of the last two decades, my daily task has been to get students to open novels, read for comprehension, note figurative language, and finally to formulate their own thoughts on the text. If that sounds easy, it’s not; however, it’s quite rewarding to see students find a connection that wasn’t immediately obvious upon an initial reading or, even better, formulate their own informed impressions of the text without asking for the ‘right’ answer. The process of analytical writing hasn’t changed much in the last 60 years; if you walked into an English classroom today it will look much the same as did at the turn of the century. Even with the invention of the internet, an increasing focus on hard skills and STEM, and an emphasis on 21st century collaborative approaches teaching writing has changed little. Is this a good thing, or should the writing process be updated for a world that increasingly asks more of its students?
Most US high schools still run on the factory model: students go in, content is applied, and graduates emerge.
This made sense at the time: standardization was an appealing feature for a country that needed skilled labor. Complex societies require division of labor, and division of labor requires specialized training…which depends on minimum skill level. The school factory model is further complicated by confusion over its production model. Are students the users, or are they the product? I’ve most recently spent my time teaching in the independent school world, which further complicates that dilemma. How can a school satisfy parents, who are largely investing in long-term college outcomes, and students, who are interested in the same outcome but also have to use the product each day? And where does any of this fit in with the educator’s goal of creating lifelong learners by instilling processes and approaches that allow students to learn anything?
Grammarly, Google Translate — and, heck, even YouTube are getting better and better at solving problems and answering questions. Students have more means to find answers than anyone in human history. It just isn’t enough to memorize and regurgitate — computers are honestly just better at that. Any school that is honestly setting out to mold young learners into future productive citizens must look at their own processes and decide whether those frameworks are designed to meet the needs of those future grads.
So, back to writing. If instruction needs to adapt to a world that emphasizes process over product, how can the process of writing the prototypical English essay be updated and adapted? Here’s a possibility: let the process become more Agile.
If you teach high school, then you’ll be familiar with “the grind.”
The grind is is the process by which students stay up as late as necessary the night before your essay is due and write…and write…and write — or just stare at a blinking cursor and ask for an extension. After this long night spent staring at the screen, every member of the class gets to come in and brag about how little sleep was had — then, once their work has been graded, everyone gets to be surprised by either how well, or how poorly, they did. That’s the grind.
The key component to this “method” is the fact that it’s comprehensive and essentially one step long: Sit down and write. Submit. That is the entire process for many students.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, a distraught parent describes her own anxieties over the struggles her child experiences when sitting down to write an essay, a process that inevitably ends in tears and anxiety.
This anecdote confirms what I’ve been feeling about writing instruction for some time: it is mostly holistic and focuses entirely on the end goal. It’s the waterfall methodology — without any check-in’s. A student just has to sit and grind it out, while likely crying and fearing for the future. I humbly submit a more agile approach. So, how can we make education, and essay writing, in particular, more agile? Here is what could be done:
Break the writing process down into functional steps that are end goals in and of themselves.
Writing is a cohesive art wherein the whole can often be greater than the sum of its parts; however, it’s entirely likely that any given student will never again analyze literature once he or she leaves exits formal education. This isn’t to say the process has no worth, but there are intrinsically valuable components of the process that are valuable on their own. For instance, I often tell my students to begin without the end in mind.
The scientific method is predicated on observation, formulation of a testable thesis, experimentation, and result. There is no reason this process shouldn’t apply to writing. Allow students to read a text (observation), then come up with an idea of what the author’s purpose is (thesis), test that thesis by comparing different textual samples (experimentation), and then reach a conclusion (result).
The most gratifying aspect of beginning without a clear end in mind is that it’s entirely all right for the end to change. These past two days, I asked my students which of them plans to be an English major in college: literally not a single student raised their hand. This is great because it further reinforces that once they move on from their English studies, they may never write another essay. However, the ability to analyze — to form a subjective claim backed by objective evidence — and then communicate the complexities of that idea apply to literally every field.
The need to thinking critically and communicate complex ideas is more relevant than ever given the steady, even exponential, progress of machine learning and AI. Stephen Marche’s recent New Yorker article, “The Computers are Getting Better at Writing,” offers insights into what the future of “writing” might be — and it looks a lot more like editing. What will writing look like when a program can easily write a complex essay when given just a few parameters? And we aren’t talking about cheating here: so much of the written words we read will be generated by an algorithm.
Students will need to be able edit generated text and piece together their own complex theses from an even greater bank of knowledge than they have now. Teaching students to look at evidence, formulate a claim, then test that claim with even more evidence will make them more than just competent writers, it will allow them to be agile enough to adapt to whatever their future roles will require.