I had some INSET training this week about pushing A*s and two of these questions came to the front of the empty, vacuous space I call a head (trading standards would have me if I called it a mind). The training session was good, but I sat there and thought of a question, well two to be precise. Questions that challenged the common accepted norm of education. Things that everybody has accepted as being the norm. Joe Kirby and David Didau have recently done similar things in their blogs. They have questioned about ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’ teaching methods. I too have had similar thoughts about this topic, but when mentioning such thoughts on Twitter I was virtually pelted with eggs. It was as if I had taken kitten kicking as a hobby – I haven’t! I don’t even own a kitten. Furthermore, there are no kittens in my street. You could say that there is a deficit of kittens in my town. So, if I wanted to kick a kitten (which I don’t), I couldn’t find one. Anyway, I was shouted at by some people over this idea so like the big baby that I am I walked away from the discussion/argument. Some people are never going to be convinced.
So what are the questions? Well, I will share one now and one at a later date. The question was about essay writing. Dull. I know, you are thinking: he spent all that time on preamble and this is what he gives us – essay writing. Now, hear me out! Shouting isn’t going to help you. Well, there’s no need to use language like that. Fine. Suit yourself. Yes, essay writing. I think this is a major problem in the education system. It is a problem for everyone, but it isn’t really addressed or approached, because we have clouded the issue.
Why do we spend all our time exploring different styles of writing when students struggle to write a simple essay?
Before you consider leaving a comment, or writing a critical comment on Twitter, listen to this. None of my students have ever gone on to write a novel. None of my students have ever gone on to work for a newspaper. None of my students have gone to write a script for a theatre. Their success has varied. They have gone on to succeed at something nonetheless. Yet, year after year I get them to write these different styles of writing. In fact, I have the market cornered in this area because I have made students write blogs, packaging, letters, radio shows, fact sheets, leaflets, charity letters, speeches, magazine articles, podcasts and numerous different types of writing. With each type of writing comes a different set of rules, techniques and devices. With each type of writing students practise different skills. With each type of writing students don’t get bored. Yet, I am not producing novelists, journalists, bloggers and scriptwriters. I do, I think, produce students who enjoy literature and who can write well when prompted, which is the result of our current approach to teaching writing.
It could be argued that by writing in these different styles of writing students are learning how to craft and hone their skills. Furthermore, writing in these different styles of writing helps students to develop their reading skills of the texts. However, are we really watering down the experience of writing? Are all these different styles preventing students from writing in a formal, clear and logical style of writing? Are we doing lots of ‘whizzy things’ because teaching writing can be dull?
I am in a privileged situation as I teach English and I have been a Literacy Co-ordinator, so I have seen how writing is taught across schools. Originally, I was concerned about consistency and sharing the conventions of writing across the whole school, but now I think something monumental is needed to improve literacy: a shift away from different styles of writing and a focus on essay style writing. Currently, we have adopted a Frankenstein’s monster approach to teaching writing. In History, students might write an essay, a letter, a newspaper article and a report. In primary schools, students are taught on a carousel the different types of writing. The whole is made up of different components of writing. A short story foot. A newspaper leg. A leaflet arm. Alright, I will stop with the extended metaphor. The whole body is the issue. We keep asking ourselves: why don’t the students do what we ask them to do? The problem is our message. We are expecting students to be good at lots of things, rather than be good at the basics.
Frankenstein’s monster can be a beautiful thing. As the novel goes, the monster is a thing of beauty. It has the best of everything. The sad thing is that the monster cannot function and survive in society. Are we really doing the best for our students by giving them a diet of different types and styles of writing? Or, are we setting them up for a fall? A teenager might be able to write a great newspaper article or story, but will they be able to write a report for a manager that makes sense? Will they be able to write a letter of application that gets them a job? The might, but I tell you what: they can write a great description of a beach on a hot sunny day. You’re hired! They are experts at niche writing, but not always experts at the basics of writing.
Some people might read this and think that I have finally flipped. I haven’t: I am just raising the question. Should we be focusing on writing essays rather than other types of writing? What would happen if every department concentrated on writing essays instead of newspaper articles, factsheets and letters? Would the overall writing improve? Would standards be raised? I don’t know, but it is an interesting viewpoint. I can feel the queasiness that some people might have with this idea. Yes, it could make the teaching of some aspects difficult. However, if a student can write a good essay, it stands to reason that they can write a good letter and a good report.
As an English teacher, I find this all tricky. Engrained in English curriculums across the country is the chunking of writing styles into units of work. This term we are looking at writing to persuade. This term we are looking at writing to inform. The titles might change but they are still the same thing. An essay can be a thing of beauty. Ultimately, it is form that allows people to form and develop their ideas. It helps them think and communicate. One of the criticisms of an essay based curriculum, as opposed to a Frankenstein’s curriculum, is that is prevents students from finding their voice. But, the essay allows for a student to develop a voice in an uncluttered form. Stories are cluttered by narratives. Newspapers are cluttered by bias and sensationalism. The essay is about explaining and developing and extending an idea. It is about showing a person’s thinking on paper in a clear and precise form.
I am currently preparing my Year 11 for the AQA GCSE exam and the Unit 1 exam is the equivalent of six essays in two hours and fifteen minutes. They struggled with a recent piece of controlled conditions assessment. It is entitled: The Oscar goes to… They struggled with it because they hadn’t a clear form to focus on. I said to them: ‘It is like an essay and you are persuading them.’ Cue a lot of vacant looks. This is partly linked to David and Joe’s idea of teaching not always being fun. The essay isn’t fun, exciting and engaging for students. Stories, newspapers, blogs and other types of writing seem so much more fun. Surely, putting essay writing at the heart of what we do will raise standards.
When planning our new curriculum for our subject, maybe we need to consider the role the humble essay places. By all means, invite Frankenstein’s monster to the table, but do consider if his inclusion comes at a price. Why do we spend all our time exploring different styles of writing when students struggle to write a simple essay?
If I get time, I will share my other question next week.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. No kittens were harmed in the writing of this blog, but a few Frankenstein’s monsters have had a kick in the unmentionables.