Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

16 May

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

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And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.


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