What if you read the following in the sports section: “WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3.” As reported in the New York Times, “those words began a news brief  written within 60 seconds of the end of the third quarter of the Wisconsin-U.N.L.V. football game earlier this month.”

What’s the fuss? The story was written by a computer using new narrative software!

“The Narrative Science software can make inferences based on the historical data it collects and the sequence and outcomes of past games. To generate story “angles,” explains Mr. Hammond of Narrative Science, the software learns concepts for articles like “individual effort,” “team effort,” “come from behind,” “back and forth,” “season high,” “player’s streak” and “rankings for team.” Then the software decides what element is most important for that game, and it becomes the lead of the article, he said. The data also determines vocabulary selection. A lopsided score may well be termed a “rout” rather than a “win.”

It surely won’t be long before students have access to such software, just as they now have access to ghost-written reports and SparkNotes. This will naturally further stress former and current English teachers such as myself. But a moment’s thought should make us realize that such software is no different than the advent of hand-held and graphic calculators. Math teachers have in general adapted to the technology by helping students learn to use the tools intelligently rather than use them as a crutch to hide deficiencies – and such approaches will soon be needed in English class for writing (as they now are for reading).

As a professional writer I don’t find this prospect of machine-written writing unnerving. The hardest thing in writing is getting going. I do my best “writing” while editing and responding to Author Queries from my editors. This is an under-appreciated and still under-taught skill: learning how to revise writing by looking at the draft and feedback in light of a performance goal. (Far too much process-writing editing is devoted to cleaning up the text instead of completely rephrasing and reordering to achieve purpose).

P. S. In the next day’s Washington Post, there is an article on the graphing calculator becoming obsolete because of software on cell phones!

In the same issue of the Times is an excellent summary of the research on homework and how to improve its benefit to students. The findings in the article are not new but the author has done a nice job of making clear that the issue is not “to homework or not to homework” but how to improve its quality.

The key findings: don’t just read the same information in one assignment; used “spaced repetition” of the same chunks of text, over various days. Seems like a no-brainer as soon as you hear it: we are unlikely to recall most things read once: make the key information read multiple times, over time. You want students to understand F = ma? Have them read that chapter of the Physics text a few times in a month. (Though the author doesn’t mention it, I am also sure that this will help students get rid of predictable misconceptions of the ideas they read about.)

The second finding which has been widely written about recently is that more testing equals more retention. That doesn’t mean you have to grade every test; it only means a student learns more if you have to “practice retrieval” of information. Again, a no-brainer if you have personally used Flash cards or computer tests to help you study. Finally – and counterintuitively – information should be slightly difficult to find and organize: make the brain hunt, think, and organize a bit. Don’t group all the same kinds of problems and information together; mix it up. This facilitates transfer of learning – and, ironically, helps students prepare for standardized tests where the items are similarly mixed up by design.

I would add a final note about homework, as a veteran educator and parent of 4 children. Homework should do one of three things: reinforce recent learning, set students up for the next day’s learning, or provide an opportunity to pursue an interest related to the current work. It is a bit unfair and often ineffective to ask students to take on brand new learning, completely on their own, with no opportunity to ask questions or get feedback – yet, be held accountable for the results when the work is turned in and graded.

Advertisements