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.
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.
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.