Algorithms or heuristics?

People often ask me where I get my blog ideas.  If you followed me around for a few days, you would probably see that I’m engaged in all sorts of interesting conversations with really smart people who make me think and see the world differently.  This week’s post comes from a recent faculty meeting where advanced writing strategies were being discussed.  One faculty member contrasted teaching writing as an algorithm versus teaching it as a heuristic.  To loosely paraphrase my colleague’s position, students need to know that writing doesn’t follow a simple formula or equation.  Writing is an organic process that is informed by practice and guided by strategies.  People become better writers not only by understanding conventions and grammar rules but by writing in different genres and gaining real experience with the art and craft of writing. Heuristics can help guide the developing writer and foster a better sense of what writing as a process is.  While I don’t know whether my colleague’s view is that revolutionary to the writing scholars of the world, her position certainly stands in stark contrast to the programmatic, five paragraph essays that many schools have their students writing these days.  While some schools are embracing a robotic, flow chart method to writing, my colleague sees the writing process much differently.

I’m not an expert on writing. While I write a weekly blog and I’ve been able to get a few manuscripts published, I don’t really see myself as being the best person to judge my colleague’s position on writing.  But her position made sense.  Not just for writing, but for a lot of other activities and processes that we teach students.   For example, last night I was helping my daughter study the scientific method.  Presented in a formulaic step-by-step process, my daughter attempted to memorize each step.

Question. Hypothesize.  Experiment.  Analyze.  Conclude.

While we teach science as being a simple algorithm to follow, is it?  Although I’m not a writing expert, I think my undergraduate degree in physics helps me lend some insight into this presentation of the scientific process.  In my experience, real science is a lot messier than some simple, five step recipe.  Scientific practices can be complex, frustrating, confusing and muddy.  It’s not always governed by the classic “scientific process” that many middle school students learn.  Wouldn’t students have a better idea of what science as a field represents if we taught the nature of science differently and less procedurally?

This algorithm/heuristic discussion can also relate to teaching and learning more generally.  For example, in many teacher preparation programs, teacher candidates learn to plan lessons following some formula.  In 1992, I learned the step-by-step process of the Madeline Hunter lesson plan.  “Every lesson should start with an Anticipatory Set followed by…”  In practice, I hardly ever taught a lesson that incorporated all of the steps or followed the steps in sequence.  While I was taught to use a teaching “algorithm,” it didn’t really reflect what I encountered in practice.  The chaos of authentic classroom contexts laid waste to the Madeline Hunter algorithm pretty quickly.

If we look at the world of online teaching, do we see some of the same challenges?  Last week, I wrote about Google’s new Course Builder.    Looking at the educational materials offered on the Course Builder site, it’s clear where Google stands in the algorithm/heuristic discussion.  For example, they offer a colorful flow chart to help guide the online teaching process.  I can only wonder how the online instructors taught through this model will fare when they encounter real students working in real situations.

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3 thoughts on “Algorithms or heuristics?

  1. Huh. I thought when I read your title you might be talking about the AW discussion. The distinction between algorithm/heuristic is the best thing (out of many!) that I got from Dan Pink’s book on motivation. It’s called Drive: The Surprising Science of What Motivates Us.

  2. Ollie,
    This discussion relates to the creative process, an equally messy and iterative experience. What none of the formulas (five paragraph essay, scientific method, or lesson plan) seem to include are the two most important non-steps that make the difference between cookbook and brilliance: jumping the tracks and circling back. The best writing jumps the tracks along the way, somehow changing modes to find a new path or even a new, more interesting destination. Many writers throw away their starting paragraphs and chapters after they have found that new destination. As we grow as writers, we become more willing to circle back and even discard what we’d once thought was the Very Important Thesis. Good teachers do this every time they teach. As we watch the direction of a lesson or discussion jump the tracks, we find ways to circle back and forge newer, often more powerful connections. Formulas are a useful start, but only as a pattern to vary, alter, and possibly toss out when we find something better. What we hope our new teachers will learn is to NOTICE the new possibilities, just as a writer or an artist does (and our best scientists do).

  3. Ollie,
    You may not be a teacher of writing but you got it! You understand how organic and messy not just writing or even teaching is (not to mention science) but also LIFE. I think Sir Ken Robinson addressed this last week in his conversations about creativity and divergent thinking. We need to upend old paradigms on learning full stop and breathe life and new ways of thinking into the world around us. Let us revel in the chaos and messiness of life and find beauty therein!

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