This much I know about…teaching students how to plan stonkingly good essays!

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about teaching students how to plan stonkingly good essays!

The art of essay planning is difficult to learn. Too many students get to A level and claim that they’ve never been taught how to write essays and that they don’t like to plan, I just write it.

Maybe too many students can’t plan essays well because they have never been taught how to do it well. Teaching the art of essay planning is often a case of training students to:

Underline the key words in the title;
“Thought-shower” their ideas;
Group together similar ideas;
Take each group of ideas as a paragraph;
Put the paragraphs in order;
Write the essay…

all underpinned by the ubiquitous PEE paragraph structure: Point-Evidence-Explanation. The odd  Mind Map might be thrown in amongst the spider diagrams. Of course I generalise, but I bet I’m not far off the mark.

Sometimes in teaching you have a moment of originality. As I write that line I realise that when I publish this post dozens of readers will add a comment which will point out they had my moment of originality way before I did. No matter; I’ve never come across this idea before and that’s good enough for me.

Work backwards from the finished artefact in order to understand how it was constructed and replicate the writer’s original essay plan. To help my Theory of Knowledge IBD students learn the art of essay planning I presented them with a beautifully crafted essay and asked them to uncover the author’s essay plan. The essay is written by Magdalena Lomacka from the American International School, Vienna and is one of 50 exemplary Theory of Knowledge essays available from the IBO website. The essay title, Compare and contrast our approach to knowledge about the past with our approach to knowledge about the future, invites open, rambling responses and such a response would gain very few marks. Now, the essay is restricted to 1,200-1,600 words and anyone who writes seriously realises that’s very few words to shape a response to such an open essay title. But such a constraint is a real advantage; such a constraint means the writer has to waste not one word. Magdalena’s essay isn’t word perfect; however, if you work away at the essay like an archaeologist works away at a delicate structure hidden in the ground, you’ll unearth a priceless literary treasure.

In a well-planned essay you will find its argument summarised in about ten sentences. I asked the students to use a dreaded highlighter pen to identify the key sentences which, when strung together encapsulated the essay’s argument. Again, I imposed a limit of no more than a dozen sentences. Here’s the essay reduced from 1,600 words to fewer than 400 words:

In order to compare and contrast our approach to knowledge about the past and the future, I shall consider the methods and limitations of understanding them through the study of history, science and the arts.

If essential information regarding the same event varies depending on location and the time period in which it is studied, we must ask to what extent we really depend upon history to give us the truth. Yet being acutely aware of one’s history is so important, because from it we can extract wisdom valuable for making new decisions and predictions. [However] the limitations of forecasting include not only those already associated with attaining the knowledge of the past, but also the practical issues that can arise in the future and that currently simply cannot be accounted for.

However, more precise forecasting seems to be possible by means of science, as scientific method allows us to make predictions that must be true if specified conditions are justified. In order to say that I know [something scientific], not only do I have to completely rely on the authority that has made the conclusion, but also assume that all its underlying assumptions are correct. Our approach to the knowledge of the future also relies on the predictions made by scientists, but these, just as the theories discussing the past, tend to alter due to new insights and are hard to rely on due to complexity.

Having discussed the methods and limitations of history and science, it is valid to discuss a more imaginative approach to our knowledge of the past and the future. [Human achievements] would never have happened were it not for abstract ideas of creative minds; in that sense, our creative approach to knowledge about the future creates it.

Ultimately, just as in history we use reason to assess evidence and try to limit emotional and cultural bias, so does scientific method aim to obtain objective knowledge of the past and the future. A final distinction could be made by the means of emotion, as our approach to the future can possibly be that of hope and determination to shape it.

It’s a beautifully constructed argument; these 355 words are the essay’s thread and taken almost verbatim from the original essay. All Magdalena has done to complete her essay is provide specific, relevant examples to evidence her points, using a very light touch; she hasn’t got enough words to allow herself to get bogged down.

Janus

Now the students can identify two other features of the text. One of the two original thoughts I’ve ever had is the concept of Janus-faced sentences. In order to signpost the argument’s thread, I teach students to begin each paragraph with a sentence which looks back to the previous paragraph’s point and forward to the next point in this new paragraph. Magdalena’s essay contains a number of such sentences which help build the skeleton of her argument:

Having discussed the methods and limitations of history and science, it is valid to discuss a more imaginative approach to our knowledge of the past and the future.

Furthermore, at word/phrase level there are a number of lexical choices which help the reader to follow the argument: in order to; if; yet; however; also; having discussed; ultimately. This close level of analysis focuses students even more intently upon the art of arguing a case.

Exemplify each point and you have the plan. Nailing the argument-thread in 355 words means that Magdalena has 1,244 words left to write about the well-chosen examples which evidence her key points. At this point the students are set the task of writing the essay plan, linking the key points in the argument-thread to the examples. What they end up with, having dug carefully beneath the finished artefact, is the structure which holds it together and the place where the writer began. I think Magdalena treats her examples with a beautifully light touch: Picasso’s painting of Guernica surely is not an accurate account of how many people died in the massacre or of what they looked like. What she assumes here is that the reader is on the same intellectual plane as her; she doesn’t waste precious words explaining Picasso’s Guernica, she just assumes anyone reading her essay will be familiar with the painting.

guernica-full

How can students produce truly excellent work if they don’t understand the process by which such works are produced? Reading exemplar texts is one thing; digging away to unveil the original essay plan takes the students’ understanding of how exemplar texts are constructed to a significantly higher level. Magdalena’s clarity of argument is rooted in a thorough plan; the plan means that actually writing the essay is the easy bit! I think that it is only when they have an understanding of the planning process of the best essayists can our students begin to produce work which reflects their own very best writing skills. Now, after my moment of originality, my TOK students’ first task when writing their own essays is to write their c.10 sentence argument-thread…this isn’t bad for starters:

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nail.” How might this apply to ways of knowing, as tools, in the pursuit of knowledge?

To what extent does inappropriate use and the limitations of the ways of knowing hinder the pursuit of knowledge? The only way to overcome indiscriminate application of the ways of knowing is through the synthesis of all of the ways of knowing when in the pursuit of knowledge. The limitations of emotion as a way of knowing hinder the pursuit of knowledge because strong emotion alters perception, can distort logic and inflame language. However courageous and brave acts cannot be explained in any other way but through emotion. Human perception is limited and therefore sense perception prevents us having a full understanding of the world. However it’s the most immediate way that we gain knowledge and it can help us to see the same patterns repeatedly which can help in the pursuit of knowledge. Reason is not always logical and therefore it can alter our understanding and knowledge making it untrustworthy which can hinder in the pursuit of knowledge. However intellectual enlightenment allows us to be consciously aware of our choices to improve our rationality. Language is flawed in as much as that it is the only way we can communicate our feelings and ideas. But what else is there? And the most sublime literature can stir emotion and capture truth. It is important that we know about the limitations of the ways of knowing in order to develop a better understanding of the world around us and become more rounded human beings with the ability to understand many different perspectives and use them to reach a reasonable knowledge of the truths of existence.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to This much I know about…teaching students how to plan stonkingly good essays!

  1. Fran says:

    Great post and ideas. A similar technique can be used to deconstruct opinion articles or letters to the Editor in newspapers/magazines, even at Key Stage 3, in preparation for writing their own.

  2. David Didau says:

    Bravo! for your original thoughts: may you have many more of them. Add the explicit teaching of nominalisation to this approach and we might have a fairly complete essay writing toolkit.

    Many thanks

  3. julesdaulby says:

    Love this, thank you. I totally agree about teaching how to write essays. I hope you don’t mind me adding:

    Highlighting key words – I find for some learners this is still not enough. I will sometimes use three colours and highlight one for direct instructions, analyse, describe etc – one for the subject, king Lear for instance, and the last one for what question is asking of the student e.g. Mood linked to weather and pathetic fallacy or something. It really makes them analyse the question in more depth. These colours can also be linked to a spider diagram or coloured columns which help those who like to work like this.

    I like PEE but draw it as a triangle and call it a triad approach as it may not always be so linear – good for marking too as I will often mark a triangle to ask for more detail in a draft. It seems to help my students to link PEE to the court room and a defence lawyer….presenting, defending, evidence. For students with ASD, this can sometimes help them understand the structure.

    I will use the theory of knowledge essays – great idea to work backwards to their plan and modelling is so important. Thanks so much – now back to the weekend I am cooking scrambled eggs…

  4. Dan Lyndon says:

    Over the last 6 months I have been honing my approach to teaching writing skills to my History students, based on my training on genre analysis and working with fluent bilingual speakers (I am a trainer of the LiLAC / TEMSC course). Last week I was working with an EMA advisor from my local authority (thankfully they still both exist!) and we devised a really effective but simple lesson to improve my students’ writing: we focused on qualifiers getting the students to sort piles of words that modify the position that they are taking – this enabled them to effectively prioritise their arguments. We then worked on the double connective to really hammer home the key point they were making – ‘Therefore …. because …’. This was followed up by a model answer and more importantly deconstruction of the model themselves before getting a chance to redraft their answers. Some of the students jumped by two grades in one rewrite, but the vast majority were far more secure in their ability to construct a strong argument, which was very exciting!

  5. Ian Lynch says:

    How does using a word processor change the approach? Is it sensible to have hand written exams when no-one is likely to need to handwrite anything of length except in an exam? Those with slow handwriting (me for example :-) ) are put at an immediate disadvantage that is not going to be reflected in their “real work”. Even if the differences are marginal going up or down a grade can mean a completely different career. I did a maths and physics degree so I didn’t have to do joined up handwriting any more.

    I’d also add being aware of audience. Who will read this and what do you want them to feel when they read it? I wrote 200+ specialist schools applications. One of the main weaknesses of schools writing their own was lack of appreciation of their audience. Talking up the school was a very common reason applications were failed. The assessor was looking for humility and recognition of weaknesses that the grant would fix. Tactically identifying weaknesses they think are hard to fix and you know are easy are is the best thing to do. Not quite essay writing but a similar reason why newspapers often write incorrect and exaggerated stories – it appeals to their audience.

  6. Andy says:

    I was really interested to read this post, as I have spent the last 3 years teaching a first year introductory module, for management and accounting students at the University of York, which aims to be an ‘essay writing bootcamp’ which gets all students up to the level required to do well at university. One of the reasons why we developed the course was a general cluelessness among students about how to write a good essay. Partly this was a reflection on a diverse student body – some students had not studied subjects at A level (or equivalent) without much essay writing, so didn’t even understand the basics, but we found that even students who had got As in subjects like History or English at A level struggled to get above a mid 2:1 level mark, and even then struggled to do this consistently.

    Having looked at the approach you advocate, I think a key issue is with the first two planning phases (underline key words and thought shower). It is not that students shouldn’t do this, but that they need to do more than this, but often don’t. As you say, this essay title invites opening and rambling responses, but I believe that open rambling responses are likely to reflect the fact that students do not feel confident about precisely what the question is asking them to do.
    In this case, confusion could stem from the fact that the question isn’t actually a question. If it were to be rephrased as a question for planning purposes, it would be something like “How do approaches to knowledge about the past compare to approaches to knowledge about the future?” Rephrased in that way, it becomes clear that to answer the question, you need to come up with an argument, and you have some clues as to what possible arguments might be, but it seems that students often miss this point.

    The related second point that I try to hammer home, is that once students have deciphered the question, they need to answer the question “why am I being asked this question?” at university, the answer to this will (usually) be in the reading list – there are specific debates, ideas or disagreements within the articles and books on the reading list which a student would need to demonstrate an understanding of, and come to a judgement about in order to put together a coherent argument that answers the question – (I’m not sure this would apply to the IB module you are discussing or whether it is designed to be more general?). Once they are clear about the answer to these two questions, they can proceed to thought shower, mind map etc., but unless they are clear on the answers to these two questions, they aren’t going to be come up with the right points or make sensible judgements about which of the many points they have come up with, they should prioritise.

    The other thing I have discovered is that students often have an almost mystical belief in the essay plan as a basis for getting a good mark, when it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Execution of the plan matters a lot, and students have all sorts of bad study habits which turn good plans into poor essays – but I guess that’s a whole other topic!

  7. Clare Murgatroyd says:

    I am writing a compare and contrast essay now. This is really helpful. Thanks.

  8. Pingback: Edssential » This much I know about…teaching students how to plan stonkingly good essays!

  9. Pingback: Challenging times | Little Miss Lud

  10. Pingback: The Everest writing scaffold | Reflecting English

  11. Pingback: 25 practical blogposts for the English teacher | Reflecting English

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s