We ask students to develop arguments, problem-solution essays, and literary analyses because we believe they promote higher levels of thinking. However, by making these assignments, we may be restricting their thinking.
Isn’t building an argument, in essence, an exercise in following a formula—making a claim, backing it up, countering the opposition, and so on? Of course, there is thinking going on during the writing, but not the kind that is truly mind-expanding. Instead, the writer focuses on making sure that all of the parts of the argument are stated effectively and arranged in the best way. The same is true with a problem-solution essay. What’s so intellectually stimulating about stating a problem, providing background information, discussing possible solutions, and highlighting the best one? As Thomas Newkirk says in Critical Thinking and Writing: Reclaiming the Essay, “When essays become formulaic, they hinder rather than foster critical thinking.”
Of course, students need to learn how to build academic essays. But really, how many problem-solution essays do students have to write before they get it? The same holds true for building arguments or shaping explanatory essays. In today’s English or composition classes, such essays are often assigned because of state standards and/or to help students prepare for district or state writing tests. But a steady diet of this stuff can be mind-numbing. How much enjoyment and intellectual stimulation do students really get from composing yet another process or comparison essay? It’s like facing a diet of the same things meal after meal. Tuna casserole again?
Academic writing does have its uses in specific content areas. If, for example, a history teacher wants to check his students’ understanding of a particular event, he could ask them to write a cause-effect essay about it. Or if a literature teacher wants to assess her students’ understanding of a piece of fiction, she could assign an analysis paper in which they explore a character’s actions or trace one of the book’s themes. At least in these situations, there is a context for the writing.
Newkirk says, “Most academic writing is not rooted in conviction, in the experience of the writer.” And thus, it’s hard for students to get thoughtfully involved in it. If we really want to stimulate students, we should have them develop their own thoughts and feelings. As Newkirk also says, “Thinking of essays as the beginning of new conversations is liberating.”
How Can I Expand Students' Thinking?
Here are some simple things that you can do to make writing more liberating and more thought-provoking.
- Forget about the formulas for awhile. Instead, have students write with the following mindset: I’d like to see what I can discover about…
- Revisit journal writing. But make sure that students are exploring their thoughts and feelings at more than just a superficial level. Help them see the “open spaces,” as Newkirk calls them—areas where they have just skimmed the surface and need to explore more fully and deeply.
- After students have written a series of related entries, ask them to develop a personal essay—or perhaps a story, a series of poems, or a play—that focuses on some connecting element or strand of thought.
- Have students create dialogue journals, not by sharing simple comments with a partner, but by conversing in intellectual, thoughtful ways.
- Encourage students to develop blog posts whenever they have ideas they would like to explore and share with a wide audience. Or have students use social media to exchange interesting ideas with each other.
- Share with students engaging and entertaining personal essays so they can see other writers at work. Then have them try to imitate the style of particular essayists.
- On a regular basis, give students “personal prompts” to respond to:
- What drives you crazy?
- What won’t you ever do and why?
- Have you ever walked in someone else’s shoes? How did it feel?
- Also have students respond to their coursework: A personal connection will help them make sense of and internalize new information.
- What are you getting out of this?
- How does this make you feel and why?
- What would you have done?
Creating Reflective Students
If students make an honest effort with this type of reflective writing, they will enter the world of their inner thoughts and impressions. In time, they will feel a little different, a little sharper, as if their senses have been fine-tuned. A squeaky door will no longer go unnoticed. Students will wonder how long it has been squeaky, why no one has fixed it, and what else is squeaky in their lives. They will become critical thinkers in small and large ways.