Sunday, 19 October 2014

Solving the essay problem - Part 1

I have just returned from Southampton and the fabulous Teaching and Learning Takeover, or #TLT14, as we know it in the Twitter world. And, what an event it has been. Full to the brim of great people and great ideas. The hardest thing for everyone was deciding who to visit. Like a teacher’s version of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (and mild in comparison to the real thing), I had to pick one teacher over another. Do I see X? Or, do I see Y? In fact, I wanted to see X, Y and Z.  Still this morning I feel bad, as I missed out seeing people. Nonetheless, it was fun.

Anyway, my talk was on essay writing. I had the perfect combination of the last session and essay writing. Nothing like leaving the dynamite stuff to the end.

Essay writing is a complex thing and I don’t think any school has all the answers, but I think there are a lot of problems. Simply: how we write. From birth, we are constantly telling students to add things to their writing. Add a full stop. Add a comma. Add an adjective. Add a wow word. Add a connective. By the time students reach us in Year 7, the pattern happens again. Add this. Add that. So much that writing becomes this overloaded mess. And, it is a mess, if we are honest. We give students lists of things to add to their writing before assessments. We give them level ladders to show what they need to add to get to the next level. We even given them writing mats to help them add some more. The problem we have with writing is that it full of too many things.

Like readymade meals, there is so much added that you can’t be sure what is really in it. Thankfully, we won’t find any horsemeat in our students’ writing.

Academic writing, if I am honest, is simple and concise writing. It deals with big-complex-head-scratchy-headache-inducing stuff in a clear and formal way. Academic writing explains and develops an idea. Look at how we as teachers talk in a lesson. We talk in an academic way. We concisely explain complex ideas and develop ideas and thoughts. We rarely use vague language. We don’t list ideas. We introduce and develop ideas. But, what do our students do? They mention everything they have learnt. They list all their ideas.

What does an essay really do?

An essay will generally do all of these at some point.


       Explains – reasons

       Evaluates – gives opinions  

       Criticises - flaws

       Clarifies  - rephrases

       Explores  - how others might see it

       Analyses – highlights specific things of interest 

       Links – makes connections to contrasting elements


All can be said to be elements of our lessons. Yet, we try to force all of these skills at once, or we try to enforce a structure on to the essay writing process. We try to get students to PEE (Point Evidence Explanation). But real essays don’t follow that pattern. I checked my essays from university. They didn’t. They were a patchwork of PEE. In fact the essays had all three at sporadic moments in the essay. Sometimes, I started with evidence. Sometimes, I used evidence in the middle of something. Sometimes, I finished with evidence. Relate this to the use of evidence in a court of law. When is the best time to reveal a key bit of evidence? When it is appropriate. Or, when it will get the best impact.
Most exam boards moan about the PEE structure and they are right to. Explaining an idea in detail doesn’t take a clear form, as the idea is abstract, transient and vague. Like capturing stars, there is no known way to do it. We try to put it down on paper. To assume, a simple structure will unlock a genius or academic writing is undermining education.

Because the focus is following rigid structures of development, students stumble. They list things. And, rather than develop an idea in a more intelligent way, they add more stuff. So we go back to the additives approach again. Add some connectives.

I have read quite a few essays recently and a striking thing I have noticed: how simple some of the writing is. Not just simple. Really simple. Going to essays dating to the 1950s and earlier, I am surprised at how simple the writing in comparison to what I have got into my head ‘academic writing’ should look like. There is a collective picture of what academic writing is.

Just look at these openings to some of the sentences I found:

We must not neglect…

We are familiar with ….

This blending of….

There are striking uses of …

So prevalent is the notion that…

In one sense…

It is even conceivable …

In the view of ….

The factor above all else…

One of the real problems…

The more perceptive of…

It reminds one of …

This blending of 

This is certainly not…

But in the case of …

It may be possible to suggest …

 
I read through books of essays and the writing often features words like ‘it’, ‘this’ and ‘the’ at the start of a sentence. The subjects of sentences are often very simple too. The idea behind the sentence is the complex aspect, not the sentence.

In fact, reading the essays I discovered how rarely academics used connectives or discourse markers. In one essay, I witnessed only two examples. Only two. Yet, we insist that students use them with aplomb. We tend to think that students need connectives to develop an idea. Rubbish. The ideas need developing. The use of connectives forces students to list ideas. Moreover. Furthermore. Additionally. They do not develop the original idea. Like icing on a cake, it looks good, but the cake still tastes of poo and has a soggy bottom.  

We need to help students to develop their ideas without the need of connectives. We need to look at the drawing board of how we get students to develop their ideas. We need to get our students thinking more. Just adding things will not make the think better. It just gets them to overload things.

We all want students to be better, but are we limiting the thinking through the teaching and how we teach things? The longer I teach, the more I realise how teaching some simple things can have a greater impact than far more complex things.

Let’s teach students to use a discourse marker once only in an essay. Yes, they help create cohesion and they signal the direction of the argument, but they don’t hold an essay together. The ideas and the development of ideas are what makes an essay hold together.

I will carry on more of the discussion in my next blog.

Thanks for reading and a big thanks to Jenn and David for organising the whole event.


Xris

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  7. The rock on which we split is that mostly, people think that academic writing is more difficult than school's essay. But actually, it is just explaining complex things in easier way to make it clear for listener and reader, the amount of information in Higher Educational system is bigger than in school, so it is obviously that you need to be more simple. But there are actually situations when the context don't need to the ideal form and shape.

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