Sunday, 9 November 2014

Essays Part 3: Making students think

The question that I often asking myself when marking is: ‘Why don’t they think for themselves?’ Thinking, or more precisely, original thought is gold dust in lessons; yet, it often rarely seen. That’s not without me trying. Try as I might, they rarely seem to step-up to the next level. At the recent TLT, someone asked me: ‘How do I get students to think for themselves?’ Again, I go back to A* essays I have marked and go all misty eyed. If only I could bottle what they do. Bottle it! I’d inject it daily. Or, inject them as my starter. Bring back daily milk too. I’d put it in that.

I often say to students that English is thinking. They look at me slightly bemused and a bit agog. Some get it. Some don’t. The problem we have with English is labels. The subject’s name, English, means students label the subject as reading stuff and writing long stuff. Rarely do they see reading as exploring how other writers think. Rarely do they see writing as showing what they think. English, for me, is the communication of thinking – I know, it doesn’t have a ring to it. But, the lesson is about thinking. What I think? What they think? What others think? What a Victorian lady thinks? What a repressed Edwardian man thinks? What their partners think?

Why don’t student see it as thinking? Could it be our insistence on analysis all the time? Could it be our insistence on labelling things? Could it be the pace at which we teach? Look at the English AQA GCSE paper, there is only one question that addresses thinking. What is the writer’s attitude to blank? The rest of the reading questions focus on spotting and picking apart things. It does focus, in part, on some thinking – what the reader thinks – but its starting point is always techniques. The exam paper isn’t really focused on thinking. It is about spotting language points and then talking about the reader’s feelings. Things have a knock on effect. The percentage time in lessons spent on thinking is reduced due to the insistence of students looking at techniques.

But thinking is hard to teach, isn’t it? I mean it is easy to teach a technique. They learn its definition. They comment on its use. They spot more examples. They have a go at creating their own example. In the terms of progress, it is great, because an outsider can see that a student has learnt said technique. Well, they didn’t know that at the start of the lesson. Brilliant, they do know it now. In fact, they know it so well they can even use it themselves. Outstanding progress.

Now, apply that to thinking. Observing lessons for thinking is a totally different ball game. The fruits of a lesson cannot be seen at the end of a lesson. They might not be seen in the next lesson, or the week after. Sometime, it might not show itself until one time it pounces out and shocks you. That’s why I struggle with non-specialists observing lessons. I admitted to a friend if I observed one of his lessons I wouldn’t know if it was outstanding or not. I wouldn’t, because I don’t know that subject. There might be some markers like students listen attentively and do the stuff they are told, but I wouldn’t really know whether it was outstanding or not because I am not an expert in how students think in that subject. Just as much as he wouldn’t be able to do the same with me.

An essay is a symbol of a student’s thinking. It shows the depth of their understanding and application of an idea.  The problem is knowledge and writing style get in the way of a good essay. A student’s insistent on copying everything off Google makes an essay focus on telling rather than explaining. A student’s insistence of impressive vocabulary, connectives and techniques clouds a clear point. Essays have been morphed into something else. They have moved away from being about detailed thought and moved to being these strange chameleons. Gaudy pieces of writing that repeat obvious and benign things.

How did I learn to write an essay? I think A-level English taught me how to write an essay. My teacher would give a weekly or fortnightly essay to complete. The teacher would give it back marked and I would then do the same thing again with a different essay title. I cut my teeth on writing essays with repeated exposure of essay writing, not explicit structures or approaches. I don’t even think my teachers referred to plans, example essays, connectives or any other gubbins.  Just write one essay after another. They were appalling at the start, but after a time I improved. I learnt how to form and develop an argument over time. My wife joked that she hated English and that she only did well with her essays because she learnt a formula and stuck to it.

Here’s the crux for me: Does drafting the same essay make us better writers of essays? I can understand drafting pieces of writing when the impact is important. Let’s make this horror story even more atmospheric. But, when has an essay ever been written for impact? It hasn’t. It is about clarity of thoughts and ideas and not about impressing the reader and ‘making them want to read on’. Drafting as a process is important, but is it misguided with essay writing? Essay are about writing down thoughts into a logical argument. Drafting often involves changing, adding or removing things. Yes, it can be used to clarify things, but students don’t see it as that. Drafting is about making things better, not about clarity.

Recently I have tried my ‘A-level days approach’ with a GCSE class. Before a big assessment, I, for several weeks, got them to write a two page essay on an aspect relating to the text being studied. I wasn’t drafting their final assessment. I was getting them thinking about unrelated aspects. Each essay focused on a different aspect. Was Shakespeare racist? Does Shakespeare define good and evil clearly in his play? Each subsequent essay showed progress. They got better. In fact, they were much better than the old way of drafting GCSE coursework, which amounted to copying things up and fixing the spelling mistakes. Now, I have always done this thing with A-level teaching, but never with GCSE. I have always printed off a sheet of common problems and great ideas to share with students. Has my obsession with the end product (coursework) at GCSE lead to me not using this approach? I think: yes.

Could also the problem be two-fold? How we teach essay writing. And, how we teach thinking in a lesson. A lot of teaching in English is towards the end product. Tasks are leading students along the merry path to writing a decent essay at the end. Along the path they pick up some ideas from the teacher. They also pick up some ideas from their friends. In effect, the student hasn’t had to do too much thinking, as I have merrily led them to some ‘answers’ without them having to apply their own thinking. Their writing is just a filtering of good ideas and great ideas. They cherry pick their ideas. We are teaching students to plagiarise ideas. We like to think this is them thinking, but it isn’t. Some will think. Some don’t.  You could say without others they would struggle to write anything. True. But, without them attempting to think, they will never think for themselves.  I mentioned in a lesson how some critic suggested Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ sounds like the word ‘dungeon’. I know almost every student will try to crowbar that point in because it sounds good to them.  

Essay writing can be a tool for a teacher to see how a student thinks independently. Without the teachers input. Without their best mates input. A blind essay, an essay the teacher hasn’t prepared students for, could help us to understand their thinking more. Without putting chances for students to independent thinking in lessons, we will not create independent thinkers.  Maybe, our insistence on verbal discussion of ideas has neglected the emphasis on an individual’s thoughts. Good things can come from group discussions, but surely students must come up with their own ideas first.

We have so much discussion about skills and knowledge over the last few years that it is easy to see how thinking has slipped through the cracks. It is a fine balance we tread every lesson between skill, knowledge and thinking. Perhaps, we need to build more independent ‘thinking time’ to lesson. Not a daft starter, but real time dedicated to problem solving without getting your mate to do it and copy off them.  Possibly put more problems in a lesson for them to solve rather than a glut of differentiated resources to alleviate the difficulty of a task.    

Why don’t they think for themselves? Maybe I am part of the problem rather than the solution.  My fear of them doing badly has meant that I have protected them from failing. I have structured the writing too much for them. I have given them ideas through discussions. I have offered some ideas to them. I have done everything, all designed to help them, and then I am expecting them to think for themselves.

If I want them to think, I need to be prepared to let them think in lessons.


  1. Very nice and informative post for essay writing. Thinking is a must for essay writing. A person who can think well, can write a good essay. Thanks for the post.
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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. Good morning teacher.I am a PT3 student.Can I send my essays to you for marking through email.Hope to hear from you soon.

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  8. Incredible story there. What happened after? Take care!
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