Submitted to South China Morning Post
Re: China’s schools are quietly using AI to mark studentsʼ essays ... but do the robots make the grade? May 29, 2018
If the purpose of testing student writing is to “make recommended improvements in areas such as writing style, structure…”, that is, to improve instruction, it makes no sense to use artificial Intelligence to test writing. In fact, it makes no sense to test writing at all. Writing proficiency consists of (1) mastery of the special language of writing, which includes accuracy in the conventions of writing (e.g. spelling, punctuation, grammar) and appropriate writing style. Only a tiny fraction of this can be taught. A substantial amount of research shows that mastery of the language of writing is absorbed, or “acquired,” through reading, not from instruction.
A second aspect of writing proficiency consists of knowing how to use writing to solve problems. When we write down our thoughts, we clarify and stimulate our thinking. The act of writing, in other words, doesn’t help us master the special language of writing – this comes from reading – but actual writing can help us solve problems and make us smarter. As writing expert Peter Elbow has noted, it is difficult to hold more than one thought in mind at a time. When we write our ideas down, and reread what we have written, it is easier to see the relationship between our ideas, improve our thinking, and come up with better ideas. Teachers can tell students how to do this: the strategies that make up the “composing process” are simple to describe (e.g. reread and revise, delay editing until you are satisfied with your message), but it is impossible to test to see whether writers actually use these strategies.
We can save a great deal of time and money, and also help young writers acquire the written language by not testing writing, and by investing the money in libraries. We can help young writers develop strategies for using writing to solve problems by engaging them in writing about problems that truly interest them.