Date: 02/12/2020
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The art of the essay is dying

In an earlier post I expressed concern about "over-googling" making one's brain lazy. In particular, children may be cutting and pasting information from the internet without thinking about it.

In The Telegraph, Dr Andrew Cunningham, who has taught at two very good schools, laments the "death of the essay":

But don't just blame our text-generation teenagers for not caring about the essay. Blame the exam boards, with their insatiable thirst for bullet points and bite-sized information. Their preoccupation with "modules", coursework and "assessment objectives" mitigates against flair, originality and individuality - the very essence of the successful essay.

As coursework now accounts for at least 20 per cent of all GCSEs and A- levels, even the slackest pupils realise they need to present essays neatly. Thus, all coursework essays are typed up. And those scripts reflect the cut-and-pasted nature of so much of the content: 25 identical essays on Romeo and Juliet, peppered with the same bullet points dictated in class to "meet the syllabus requirements".

Now, at the back of every teacher's mind, is a new worry: whether that essay has been downloaded from the internet. The spread of companies offering pre-written essays signals to pupils that essays aren't important: they're another service which, like anything else, can be bought. And what are exam boards doing about them? Very little.

Thus the art of essay-writing has become a mechanical process. The "student" will be worrying whether he has managed to tick off enough boxes in the "assessment criteria grid" that the teacher distributed.

If any parent should glance at the marked essay in their child's folder, instead of helpful comments tailored to the child's needs they will see the teacher covering himself by showing the examiners he too knows the assessment objectives. Comments like: "Jolly good - but how about mentioning Romeo and Juliet's nasty parents?" have given way to: "AO3 - yes"; "No AO5 (ii) here"; "What about some AO4?"

George Orwell's advice on writing clearly, in the 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, is of more use than most syllabuses. If parents want to help to improve their child's style and content, they should show them Orwell's rules. Perhaps someone should show the exam boards.

When I studied history at school we had to write essays all the time. My recollection of any factual content imparted in those history lessons is "numb and vague", and confined to stock phrases such as "peace with honour" and "under the British flag", or "Tory Acts, Factory Acts, Satisfactory Acts and Unsatisfactory Acts". Actually, that last one was from Sellar and Yeatman's "1066 And All That", but you get the picture. However, writing all those essays did teach one to structure an argument, and to follow one. Is this a dying art? It is hard to learn this skill later in life, while surfing the internet is something that can be picked up at any age.

Craig Brown has written a sequel to Sellar and Yeatman's classic, called "1966 And All That". It is in the spirit of the original, although not as good. Like the original, it contains those spoof test papers - "Why are you so numb and vague about Arbella Stuart?", "What price glory?", "Who was in whose what, and how many miles awhat?". Many of these are updated for the new style dumbed down GCSE paper, in which candidates are spared the pain of facts or analysis and asked to empathise:

Imagine you are Adolph Hitler. It is the morning of 30 April 1945. How are you feeling? Unburden yourself in no more than 50 words. Ask yourself: where did it all go wrong? On balance, might you have better career prospects if you had stuck to being a painter?