Category Archives: critical thinking

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

The five-paragraph essay is an obstacle to learning

The five-paragraph essay is a form of convergent thought.  It encourages the writer to fit information into a formula:  an introduction stating a main idea and sometimes naming three supporting points; three body  paragraphs, one for each point; and a conclusion renaming the main idea and three points.

The five-paragraph essay discourages writers from exploring new ideas.  Instead, it encourages writers to stick with what they already know.

For example, a student writer might choose for an essay topic an uncontroversial idea, such as that smoking is bad for health.  The writer might choose as the three points 1) smoking destroys lungs, 2) smoking leads to diseases like lung cancer, and 3) smoking leads to facial wrinkles.  But what if the writer thinks, wait a minute, wrinkles aren’t a health problem.  The writer ponders, searching for a third reason why smoking is bad for health, and can’t think of one.  So the writer changes his topic completely to fit the five-paragraph format.

What if the writer had instead researched wrinkles to see if there is any connection to smoking and health?    The writer might have learned that wrinkles are a health concern.  He might have learned about research connecting wrinkles and smoking and health.  He might have learned some open-ended questions which scientists are striving to answer.  He might have learned.

The problem with the five-paragraph essay is that it encourages closed-minded thinking, not learning.  It encourages simplistic, not complex, thinking.  It encourages safety, not exploration of ideas.  It encourages fill-in-the-blanks, not critical thinking.