‘William was a bastard and wanted to prove it.’ Prioritising substantive knowledge in a process of ‘rewriting’ to help pupils improve their essays 

This is one in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how an article by King (2015) inspired me to try and improve my pupils’ understanding of the essay writing process.

You are probably not a terrible human being like I am, and therefore have never had the conversation in which you discuss the percentage pay cut that you would tolerate in order to never have to mark another essay. Ever again. Personally, at peak times such as sixth-form mock exams, I think 50% is reasonable. I know I should ’embrace’ the opportunity, but even using the idea of whole class feedback makes me open the fridge and check for Sauvignon Blanc.

Continuing with the theme of terrible-human-being, the one time that marking essays is almost bearable is at a point deep into the Autumn term, where brown leaves and break-time chocolate wrappers are crunchy underfoot. At this point, it is time for Year 7 to hand in their Hastings essays. You know the causal enquiry question  – why William won – featuring the usual ‘lucky’ and ‘leadership’ stoodges. This is golden.

My favourite mistake of all time has to be ‘Hitler is an antiseptic’ (please, please, please tell me yours). Yet another golden nugget was from little Jaqueline, written at the very start of her Hastings essay:

‘William was a bastard and wanted to prove it’.

After I had mopped up my tears of hilarity with my board rubber (no staff loos in block H), I was left with the less hilarious realisation that Jacqueline had heard the word ‘bastard’, probably giggled at it, yet had not taken on board the meaning or relevance of the term in William’s struggle for mastery over grey and drizzly England. She had merrily written her sentence without any inkling that it was entirely paradoxical.

The problem

I worry that many of my pupils (if not the majority) seem to know only two or three things about past individuals. A cast of shady, two-dimensional characters appear to walk in and out of their heads, often in a rather disconnected fashion, as if those characters lived in tiny bubbles, divorced from context and from each other. The most worrying aspect, perhaps, is many of my pupils appear to be content with this sketchy line-up, and close their case histories without feeling any need for further investigation. They’re not unlike very lazy policemen, perhaps.

A solution?

How to remedy this rather dispiriting situation? Luckily a chap called Mark King has a few ideas. Inspired by Kate Hammond’s seminal article on how ‘knowledge flavours a claim’ (which I blogged about HERE), King built up layers of knowledge with his Year 7 class over a seven-lesson enquiry focussed upon the Magna Carta.

Like Hammond, King was astonished by the beneficial effects of knowledge on his class’s essays. This led him to raise questions about the relative value of investment in conventional essay scaffolding vis-à-vis investment in secure knowledge. By thinking deeply about the role of knowledge in the enquiry and in the essay outcome task, King reflected that:

‘my capacity to engage with this material [about the Magna Carta] was grounded in two things: first, a coherent and confident familiarity with the wider period and its conventions, on which more detailed, specific knowledge could then be built; second, rock solid knowledge of some really basic facts (e.g. Runnymede, 1215, King John, baronial opposition) joined together in a memorable narrative.’

After marking the Year 7 essays, King found that ‘it was multiple layers of secure knowledge which seemed to me to be underpinning the pupils’ ability to produce extended prose on their own.’

In order to ensure that his Year 7 pupils were secure in their knowledge, King used a range of strategies to carefully build up confidence in topic, period and wider historical knowledge. His strategies included a human timeline, the completion of a flowchart and comprehension questions designed to strengthen pupils’ factual recall.

I already use a human timeline and comprehension activities in my enquiry about Hastings. Yet more clearly needed to be done to avoid another round of bastard-based hysterics. This year, I decided to introduce a process of ‘rewriting’ a paragraph, using more precise contextual knowledge, to show my pupils the power of such knowledge. 

Writing as a process of rewriting

When I write a model essay for my pupils, I write it on the computer and I probably spend more time refining, clarifying and reshaping than I do actually writing. I am not alone. 

My concern with my classes of ‘right answerers’, who lack what one might nowadays call a ‘Growth Mindset’ (which I imagine what Holt was banging on about back in the 1960s), is that they often rush to create ‘The’ answer. I am anxious that they do not see enough rough drafts, enough crossings-out, which are hallmarks of a reshaped and refined and (probably better) essay. Consequently, this year I decided to go through a process of rewriting with my pupils before they wrote their own essays, encouraging them to re-read and refine by referring back to precise knowledge that they had harvested from time spent learning the narrative. 

The lesson: what fact (is it good enough?), where

The first time I tried this was with a Year 8 class, who were tasked with writing an essay on Mary I. First, we revisited the narrative. At certain points we stopped and I showed them 3 statements from what we had learnt. Their task was to select the most RELEVANT fact to answer the enquiry (and essay) question: 

To be successful at extended writing, a pupil needs to think carefully about the problem of  ‘what fact, where?’. Pupils need to see that this process is difficult and involves knowledge transformation rather than regurgitation. 

Having dealt with ‘what fact’, we were left with ‘where’. Pupils were given an essay paragraph and asked which sentence the statement could replace:

They were also reminded about including a ‘Big Point’ to signpost the reader, and to show how the ‘little points’ had been joined together:

Crucially, pupils were asked to draw a line through the original sentence, and a discussion then ensued about what DIFFERENCE the more precise statement made to the overall effect of the paragraph. Did it make it more convincing? More interesting? Stronger? In what way?

With this exercise, I have added an extra question to the basics of ‘what fact, where’. I am now asking: ‘what fact – is it good enough – where?’ Crucially, I am modelling writing as a process of re-writing. 

Like King, I am more and more convinced that spending more time on top of Senlac, or abroad in Rome, or at home with England’s inferior earthen embankments – perhaps even at the expense of time on ‘Point-Evidence-Explain’ -is time well-spent. I am also going to celebrate the messy exercise book and the crossings out – for these show reshaping and refinement, rather than regurgitation. 
Main reference: King, M. (2015) ‘The role of secure knowledge in enabling Year 7 to write essays on Magna Carta’ in Teaching History, 159, Underneath the Essay Edition, pp.18-23. Find it HERE.

Other references:

Hammond, K. (2014) ‘The knowledge that ‘flavours’ a claim: towards building and assessing historical knowledge on three scales’ in Teaching History, 157, Assessment Edition, pp.18-24. Find it HERE.

Holt, J. (1961), Why Children Fail, Penguin: London

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