Back in my early years of teaching- in the high-pressure ‘Special Measures’ school where I cut my teeth- I spent hours planning lessons that aimed to get kids through the GCSE as quickly as possible. I think lots of teachers are in the same boat. The high stakes accountability system puts the pressure on, and in many cases this can warp the curriculum and the way that we teach.
In the mad rush to get pupils better at the skills required for the GCSE, we teach the skills required for the GCSE directly. In my subject, English, this might mean getting pupils to practise writing a paragraph every lesson with the longer term objective being to improve their paragraph writing skills- a skill they need to demonstrate in the exam.
But isn’t this a bit like suggesting that, in order to get better at marathon running, you should run more marathons?
Not all forms of practice are equal
In my earlier teaching years I was under the illusion that the skill of writing good analytical paragraphs could be developed by practising writing lots of analytical paragraphs. But this, as Daisy Christodoulou makes clear in her excellent book ‘Making Good Progress’, is ineffective. Counter-intuitively, as Daisy explains, practising a skill directly doesn’t do much to develop that skill.
In the same way that a couch potato isn’t going to get up and run a marathon without any training, a weak writer isn’t going to be able to write a perceptive, analytical paragraph without a lot of baby steps beforehand- no matter how many times they’ve been shown to write a perceptive, analytical paragraph. Literary analysis is a complex skill made up of lots of smaller pieces of knowledge (and indeed, other, less complex skills, themselves comprised of more knowledge).
After a lot of thinking, this began to make sense to me. But why is it the case that practising analytical writing won’t actually do much to develop analytical writing skills? What makes someone a ‘weak writer’? And for that matter, what makes someone a good writer? In this post, I want to explain why I think it’s a bad idea teach skills directly. In my next post, I’ll discuss some alternatives.
Analytical writing skills aren’t transferrable
I’d say I have written a couple of reasonably good literature essays over the years. Does that mean I could write a decent microbiology essay? Unlikely!
Okay, I admit that example could be written off as a straw man, so how about this: I could probably write a good Othello essay, but could I write a good Much Ado about Nothing essay? Probably not- I barely know Much Ado. I’d need to spend a long time reading it, watching different versions, reading around it, thinking about it deeply, and so on. And I would wager that I wouldn’t be able to write as perceptively about Much Ado as I would about Othello because I haven’t been thinking about it in as much depth for as long. I know Othello pretty well, and the more I think about it, the more I see in it. It’d take me years to bring my Much Ado knowledge up to the level of my Othello knowledge.
In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I can write a better Othello essay now than I could when I studied it for A level. And I wouldn’t say that is necessarily because my analytical writing skills have improved (like I say, I’d still write an appalling Much Ado essay)- but rather, it’s largely because I have read and thought about Othello several times since then, and so my knowledge and understanding of the play have deepened.
Similarly, if writing a good Much Ado essay was dependent on my essay writing skills being good, then I’d be able to write one just fine because I’ve already proven that I can write a good Othello essay. But again, that seems unlikely.
It is difficult to transfer skills between domains. Knowing what the text is about is crucial to being able to write about it. This is why pupils struggle so much with ‘unseen’ exam questions: if they are given a text that they really don’t understand or know anything about, they are far less likely to be able to write something perceptive about it- even if they have been drilled and drilled and drilled in analytical paragraph writing skills. They could have written a brilliant essay on another text, but on a text they don’t understand, they are scuppered.
The other downside of teaching skills directly is that pupils miss out on the opportunity to practise getting to know the content better. In English, I’d much rather pupils spent time discussing and thinking about the characters in Macbeth, or getting to grips with complex Shakespearean language, than practising writing exam-style paragraphs. Knowing the text inside out is far more likely to yield results than pumping out PEE paragraphs every lesson.
Content matters most
We shouldn’t let the pressure of impending exams shift our focus too far from the content itself. If we prioritise knowing the content inside-out, our pupils stand a much greater chance of succeeding in the exam when the time comes.
This has massive implications for assessments and for teaching. Next week, I’ll have a go at offering some suggestions for more focused practice activities.