Sunday, 15 March 2020
I shot the counterargument but I didn’t shoot the argument
At the moment, I have been marking some Paper 2 mocks and the whole process is making me revise how we teach non-fiction. To be honest, I find the teaching of non-fiction really interesting. Throw a paper aeroplane out of a window – disinfect it first – and you are guaranteed to it someone with an idea about how to write a story. Do the same thing for non-fiction and you’ll get nothing.
In fairness, we teach non-fiction writing terribly. We’ll enthuse about creative writing to the extent that we will bring in sand and pebbles from the beach into lessons, just so our cherubs can find the right adjective to describe a beach. We might even play sounds of the ocean and blow in their faces so they can just get the experience right. Coffee breath and all! We might even allow Derek to eat his tuna sandwich during the lesson, because it is atmosphere building. Trish has opened all the windows to ensure the right temperature. Sharon has stolen a salt cellar and started flinging it in people’s faces. Trevor has taken it upon himself to make various bird noises until it draws the attention of SLT.
The problem with non-fiction is that we throw ideas at them. We teach students that non-fiction is about ideas and hundreds of them. That’s why when students write non-fiction they throw every idea at us. Why is smoking bad? Six paragraphs later and the students have listed four billion reasons why smoking is bad. Yes, you could teach them about Pathos / Ethos / Logos - but still they have listed a billion reasons, just with added emotion.
The problem comes with forming an argument. We tell students to list their ideas. We tell them to think of the opposite arguments. We get them to expand, list and build up arguments. We don’t get them to select, pick and identify the best argument. We don’t get them to select the one reason that is the best. That’s why non-fiction writing tends to follow the structure of:
Paragraph 1 - reason 1
Paragraph 2 – reason 2
Paragraph 3 – reason 3
Paragraph 4 – reason 4
Paragraph 5 – reason 5
Paragraph 6 – reason 6
Now, if you get students to think of opposing argument or counterargument, then you get a for argument paragraph and then an against argument paragraph. We need a cohesive argument across the whole text and that usually is achieved by building the whole piece around one reason. That reason is then developed and explored and strengthened not watered down.
Take a question from a few years ago. Parents are too overprotective. What is the one argument above all that will address this argument?
Let’s say we agree that our main argument should be:
Childhood should be about freedom and children should be carefree.
That one idea can then be a starting point. That way we can then start building up an argument rather than trying to link several disparate idea – which is what most students do.
Yes, you can go all Pathos, Ethos and Logos on me, but I’d prefer it if students look at that one argument and exploring it further. Here’s a great opportunity for classroom discussion. List as many questions about the argument.
Why should people have freedom?
What does freedom mean?
What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?
Why do some people think children shouldn’t have freedom?
What does freedom look like?
Should children have complete freedom?
Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s?
What does a carefree child look like?
What if I didn’t have freedom?
Why should children be carefree?
Is my view of freedom different to others?
Do I have freedom?
Did I have freedom when I was younger?
Then, students see if they can answer some of the questions in pairs. The questions all have a natural cohesion because they all link to the same argument, but they are different facets of it.
From that point, it is easy to build and structure a coherent and cohesive argument.
Introduction: Do I have freedom?
Point 1: What does freedom mean?
Point 2: Did I have freedom when I was younger?
Point 3: Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s?
Conclusion: What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?
You have a stage at which you can move points and build a complete argument. You have the bones to build an argument. At this stage, you could decide that you could probably zoom on one strand and repeat the process again. I’d be tempted to go with ‘What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?.
Then, students can build up the writing and add to their framework. If we look closer, we can see that the students are naturally demonstrating different skills and building on the one argument.
Introduction: Do I have freedom? - Speculative writing
Point 1: What does freedom mean?- define and explain
Point 2: Did I have freedom when I was younger? – anecdotal writing
Point 3: Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s? – comparative writing
Conclusion: What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom? – opinion
At this point, you could bring in the heavy guns. Decide when to introduce Pathos / Ethos / Logos into the party.
How does anybody deal with an idea? I sit on it – like an egg – and wait for it to hatch. That’s what we don’t do enough with writing. We search for hundreds of eggs and then pick the best ones. Ideas need cultivating, growing, tending, caring. We don’t need hundreds of eggs. Just one. One.
Let’s get students away from listing and get them exploring one idea. Talk, of course, is brilliant for this. You don’t even need a salt cellar, a tuna sandwich, a pebble and sand to do it. It is all in their heads. Oh, and Trevor can make those bird noises in his head.
Thanks for reading.
Next: Sentence Hacks for Paper 2 Q5