Monthly Archives: September 2016

Writing to Argue

writingMy undergraduates are unwilling to argue, in person, or in writing. Their essays are often surveys of a scene, descriptions of a landscape. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a survey if that’s what you’ve been asked to do – but I want my students to have an informed opinion – and to have practised the art of coming to an opinion – so that they can work out when it’s necessary to change their minds about something.

So, in order to do that we’ve been presenting arguments.  This is something that I have done in the past with AS students who have often struggled in the change from more descriptive answers at GCSE to the direction and argument of an KS5 essay.  The discussion that follows will clearly show that my thinking is often influenced by my practice as a history teacher and the professional literature in Teaching History journal from the HA, or books written by teachers or academics such as Christine Counsel.  As I am still new to HE – I’m painfully aware that there is a body of evidence and practice which I’m starting to explore. On the off chance that you’re reading this and you think I should really know about something that I don’t – please feel free to let me know!

We’re coming to the end of a module that I’m teaching on “Special Educational needs and Inclusion” which has focused on the history and conceptual underpinnings of ‘inclusion’, and the tension between this and ‘differentiation’. Part of the assessment is for the students to write a short essay on an aspect of inclusion – they have a choice of questions, but each one requires them to come to an informed judgement.

The issues:

My students see essay writing as a kind of complicated obstacle course.  They like to tackle each part as it comes to them,  instead of lifting their heads to the horizon.  This leads them to focus on issues such as ‘how to write a good introduction’ or what should go in a ‘good paragraph’. I’ve been trying to encourage them to see an essay as a way of communicating with a reader – and a way of persuading that reader.

I’ve also noted that these undergrads have trouble differentiating between the big and little points of their developing argument – and will often conflate these, meaning that the paragraphs they write are sometimes ‘scatter gun’ – they will cram in all the things that they can think of to do with the topic in the question – rather than attempt to actually answer it.

I suspect that these students have not seen enough examples of academic writing, and have not spent enough time considering the style of different academic writers, let alone their own.

These are the issues I perceived from the other pieces of writing that they have done for me before this module, and from their directed task submissions.

One Line Answers

They had a choice of essay titles for this module – and in order to make them read these carefully (so that they’re not tempted to ‘do’ the one that they recognise some key words from) they were asked to look down the list and then spend 5 minutes drafting a one line answer to the question.  I explained that this was the kind of answer they might give if someone asked them a question like this on the bus, or in discussion with friends.

Model Answers

We then looked back at some model essays written in response to questions that were asked on the module the year before.  These were different from this year’s question.  I wanted them to be clear that they were reading good academic writing – not ‘good answers’ to the questions. They were asked to use highlighters to look for examples in the text of the following things:

  • Points – things that this person writes that moves on the argument in their answer to the question
  • Evidence – things that are used to support the argument that this person makes.
  • Evaluation – places where this person makes a critical point, or a judgement or weighing up of an approach or idea.

They were also asked to work out what the writer’s ‘one line answer’ to the question might have been.

A multi-faceted ‘One Line Answer’

When they’d done that, and following a discussion of some of their examples, and of the ‘one line answers’ from the model essays, I asked them to look again at their one line answers, and to re-write them, using the following words if they could:

  • However
  • But
  • Only
  • If

I wanted them to learn that their one line answer could contain a more nuanced line of argument, or perhaps an acknowledgement of another perspective or even some indication of how universal their ‘one line answer’ was.


I also decided to ask them to present their plans as part of one of their directed tasks, using a template which acts as a kind of ‘speaking frame’.   They presented these arguments in support of their ‘one line answer’ to their peers. Their peers were then encouraged to ask questions that will help them understand the argument that is being made.  I was hoping that this would act as a kind of dry run for writing the assignment itself, in that it would help them clarify their ideas.  wanted to see if their role as presenters of an argument would help them become writers of an argument.

How’s it going?

Not bad – the sessions in which we looked at ‘model’ essays were very interesting – there’s still some work to do in helping them see what the ‘big points’ are in models of academic writing.  I’m also having to think quite carefully about the kinds of things I want them to read – academic journals often are not full of ‘essays’, and ‘education’ undergraduate textbooks on these topics are often quite descriptive. I think that getting them reading more pieces of writing in which people have made and sustained arguments is the key way in which they will understand how this works.

During the presentations it was clear that whilst many had now made the leap from ‘survey’ or ‘everything I know about’, and were starting to think in terms of ‘what’s my argument’, some of these students were still hesitant in making definite and confident choices in selecting evidence or ‘little’ points to support these arguments.

Overall the level of writing has improved across the group.  Many more of these students are writing in shorter, much more focused paragraphs – even if they have not yet made the leap to argument.  Those that have made that leap are often writing sharply focused sections in support – though sometimes this is not sustained throughout.  Those that engaged more wholeheartedly in their presentations tend to be those who have gained the most in these improvements.  Next time we do this I’ll ask for permission, before we start the process, to share their work online – so that I can us it more precisely here.

Tweet tweet! That’s the sound of the police…

6364040129_125d4754ef_mI’ve been thinking about (and will probably have been writing this post) for quite a long time – collecting examples of a kind of twitter behaviour that has been interesting me for some time.

A key feature of many edu-twitter users’ online life is the seeking out of practice that they disagree with or find abhorrent, in order that they can publicise their worries and coral condemnation from their followers.  I’m writing this piece not as a form of condemnation, but as an opportunity for me to  explore why this phenomenon makes me so uncomfortable. It’s inspiration is this tweet by @mrhistoire, a brilliant and thoughtful teacher who I have followed for ages – and with whom I agreed when he tweeted:

This isn’t history – nominally it is about the past, but that doesn’t mean ‘history’.  I could imagine ways of improving this, but not without relating to wider histories of gaming or leisure. Even with much effort not to such an extent that I can imaging spending any of the precious and restricted curriculum time reserved for history in primary or secondary schools.

So, I agree – end of post?

Well, no.  I wanted to know where Toby had found this poor bullet point – so I asked him. It turns out that this was from a page that was tweeted around by @C_Hendrick – another tweeting teacher whose work I’ve long read and admired.

Carl’s tweet included more items from the list of activities that this teacher was recommending:

Carl’s comment made me uncomfortable, especially when considered in the light of a tweet that he sent earlier in the week:

I’m not getting here at Carl personally.  These are just two examples of the kinds of tweet that I’m concerned with – there are many others.  In fact they have a long (hey, everything is relative) history.  We could argue that there is a tradition which has seen followers of various tweeters present them with ‘gifts’ of tweets or webpages that they hope might be tweeted around as examples of practice, beliefs or resources that can be pronounced as ‘beyond the pale’.


There will be other examples.

Why do these things worry me so much?  Why do I find them unpleasant – so much so that I have un-followed many (not all) of those who do this?

A big part of this might be because I (like many other people) don’t enjoy having my ideas challenged.  I’m quite interested in the sociology of education, and therefore how theories such as Bourdieu’s might be used to understand aspects of it.  @JamesTheo’s post might therefore be one that I find distasteful because it challenges my own preconceptions and beliefs.  Even though I’m also someone who tries to seek out ideas that challenge my views – and enjoy reading and being convinced by others perhaps sometimes these tweets force me to face up to things that are at the core of my world view – this might explain some of the feelings they inspire.  However many of these tweets I agree with (Toby French on the value of creating a ‘history of pokemon’ for instance).  Nonetheless, it is highly likely that some of this discomfort comes from feelings of disorientation and challenge.

What partly worries me is the way that these tweets make twitter the sort of place where one comes for a duel, a spat, rather than a place to find out, explore or improve.  I’ll admit that I’m someone who doesn’t like conflict or aggression – emotionally as well as intellectually.  I just feel uncomfortable when I see others being attacked, even @philipdavies (though he seems to like it).  I can’t help wondering how they feel, what effect this is having on them.

Intellectually I fear that such tweets are counter productive – that they create feelings of aggression and being under-attack which make it hard for anyone to understand either (1) how others are to be persuaded to change or (2) why their ideas or practice might need to be re-examined.  Misapprehensions and conceptions which are attacked to aggressively tend to be un-examined and instead tenaciously defended or driven underground in silent protection.

I detect a righteousness in some of these types of tweet, and as I reflect on that I think I detect in myself another form of envy. I wish I knew what I thought about things with such confidence, such decision and righteousness – really, I do.  No doubt a some aspects of my personal history leave me wishing I was one of those people who could come up with a supported opinion about something without worrying that I might be wrong.  Perhaps I’m also envious of the groups of followers that tweets like this inspire. Do I wish my social media footprint were bigger? This might be true – though I’d probably force myself to write more controversial blog-posts if were an important ambition for me.  I always hate pressing the ‘publish’ button, and much of this is driven by anxiety about whether I’m making a fool of myself.  I certainly envy those who can do this with fluency, free of such worries.

However, what worries me much much more is the way that some of these tweets – even by the most thoughtful and inspiring teacher – have the effect of closing down the categories of what it is acceptable to post about.  We might cite Carl’s insistence that some practice be ‘eradicated’ when it is clear from a moments reflection that aspects of the work in the post above could well be viable and valuable in many classrooms.

Carl’s earlier tweet, that a Philosopher’s thought experiment about preventing parents reading to their children, was ‘beyond parody’ is a great example of this last concern.  The report was an excerpt from a longer interview about about ‘familial relationship goods’ – the things that parents can do to confer advantage on their children.   Andrew Swift considered that the benefit of reading to children at bedtime conferred a bigger advantage than sending them to ‘elite private schools’.  Their conclusions were that parental reading should _not_ be banned (the opposite of the headline) because that would interfere with the proper establishment of ‘loving, authoritative affectionate’ family relationships.  (Interestingly they decided that we _could_ prevent people sending children to private school without making a ‘hit’ on family relationships, and at the same time prevent un-fairnesses for other people’s children).

These are important questions to consider – and it is the job of philosophers to do this. Not all the examples above are those in which such important questions are at stake, but all are examples of the ways in which debate is shut down on twitter.  I bet I’ve done it myself on occasion – but I hope I think more carefully before doing so again.

[NB – there is a twitter vigilante! ]