Sunday, March 13, 2016

Building Recursive Processes for Essay Writing

Writing passage-based essays and other synthesis tasks are important for students. However, these tasks can be very frustrating for teachers! The frustration comes from the issue of how classroom work is accomplished versus how creative work is accomplished.

Linear Process

    In the classroom, a linear workflow rules. I write these kinds of directions on my board every day: First complete step one, then go on to step two, and so forth.
    Linear processes work well for managing many students and many assignments. A linear workflow shapes a task into approachable chunks.
    Unfortunately, a linear process just doesn't work for high-quality writing. In fact, a study of synthesizing found that a linear writing process is associated with lower quality synthesis (Sole et al, 2013). Readers who follow a linear process, with each step following the other, miss connections between ideas. They fail to follow up on key concepts and don't show as deep of an understanding of the text.

Recursive Process
    The best process for a synthesis task like a passage-based essay, as it happens, is a recursive process. A recursive process sees a student shifting flexibly back and forth between tasks. Step two doesn't always follow step one, and sometimes step three leads back to the beginning.

    It's easy to see how this kind of process can be tough to manage in the classroom. Many traditional classrooms are built on an assembly line model: Get a task, finish it, get the next.

   But it's worth the time and effort needed to move to more recursive processes in the classroom. It's worth it to think about:

-How can I help students to revisit key steps in the writing process?

-How can I model a recursive process as a reader and writer?

-How can I structure my classroom to allow more time for synthesis tasks?

    The answers to these questions aren't easy! I'm still struggling with them myself. I like to think that this productive struggle on my part as a teacher will lead to productive struggle--and creative benefits--for my students.

Sole, Isabel, Miras, Mariana, Castells, Nuria, Espino, Sandra, Minguela, Marta. 2013. Written Communication, v30 n1, p 63-90.

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