What does it mean to “plan” an essay, and how can I help my students do it?

Some people might read that question and assume it’s a rhetorical device, but no, it’s a genuine question. I don’t know. All advice gratefully taken on board.

I’ve never really got on with essay planning as an activity within teaching, either in class or as a homework. I don’t really understand what it looks like, what it achieves and how to make best use of it. My problems are somewhat epistemological.

Last night, Econosaurus posted her brief write-up of one of the aspects of the most recent monthly Economics teacher webchat she hosts. This prompted a little twitter discussion on homework, and a couple of points were made regarding the efficiency of getting students to plan for different essays, potentially as a homework, with the writing done in class. There is a lot to commend this: I particularly like the idea of probing what makes questions different from each other, and I dislike the prospect of trawling through lots of essays to mark when feedback is laborious, potentially both repetitive and highly individual, and which is difficult to ensure has an impact on the next piece of work (let alone a permanent impact) given that the next piece of work is likely to present different demands on the student. But generally, I struggle with using “essay planning” as either an in-class or homework activity. I have some half-thought out reasons why, but I’m not totally sure what I think and why I’ve struggled with it in the past.

I chose not to join in the twitter chat as I was busy with dinner, and wasn’t sure exactly what I would say anyway. Then it was time for The Great British Bake Off. Watching, I realised that some of what I was thinking was common to the ideas of essay planning and GBBO. I’m sure I’ve seen a similarly themed teaching blog before, talking about tacit knowledge, so sorry to whoever that was who’s been there before me.

The Map is Not the Territory, and if it were, it wouldn’t be a map

Bake Off’s Technical Challenge presents contestants with a set of instructions to produce something they’ve often never made or indeed sometimes have never even eaten or seen before. These instructions, or plan, often include a simple command to do or make something which is deemed, for the purposes of the challenge, to be something already well-understood: “make the jam”; “make a buttercream”. These elements of the plan only contain meaning for contestants who do in fact possess that knowledge. They generally all know how to make a jam, what proportions to use, what sub-steps it involves, what features to look for when making it and so on.

Other instructions may be fairly simple on the face of it, but require knowledge of the final product, its assembly, and how different ingredients interact, in order to enact the instructions correctly. Some of this necessary context may appear later in the instructions, but often it does not, and these instructions rely on pre-existing knowledge. Whisk for how long? Cut in what way? Sometimes a fairly direct instruction can be difficult to understand without prior knowledge; a couple contestants struggled yesterday with knowing what a crescent was.

It wasn’t the most taxing of instructions in yesterday’s task (when contestants were required to make a sort of matcha crêpe cake, about which I know almost nothing), but a good example of context was when they were asked to cut some strawberries. Lottie, whose metaphorically permanently raised eyebrow of sardonic wit is not to everyone’s taste (but I quite like her), said something along the lines of “I feel more relaxed about this instruction because I know what cutting strawberries means”.

But did she really know what it meant? As it happened, yes, in that she did very well and came second in the challenge (and was eventually Star Baker). But others, when faced with the same instruction, fell into a trap of cutting the strawberries too thickly, hindering their layering in the final product and helping it become too soggy, a fault which was discussed more than once. It was possible to interpret a simple instruction in different ways, with significant consequences for the final outcome. In fact, more complex instructions, like having to make a white chocolate ganache, were generally well understood; I don’t recall there being many comments about this aspect. But simple ideas about layering the elements actually contained a lot of variation and nuance which determined the final outcome. Without knowing what the end product was meant to look like, and how to construct it, some contestants struggled.

The problem with plans

And so, in this extended (and imperfect) analogy, this is my problem with essay plans: with writing them, with judging them, with discussing them in class. I fear they either contain very little information, and are therefore difficult to both judge and improve, and crucially have potentially not aided student thinking at all, or, in a tacit way, contain all the relevant information, in which case this can only be discovered with further questioning and elaboration until the essay is essentially already written – in which case, was there any point to writing the plan itself?

I don’t really know what it means when a student writes some abbreviated form of a paragraph, or, in the simplest of “plans” says something like “argument for X; evaluation of that argument; argument against X; evaluation”. It’s all “make a buttercream” and “cut some strawberries”. What is that argument? How are you going to make it? What evidence do you have? Why that argument, there, and not another, or somewhere else? How is your conclusion actually going to be reached? How will you construct your cake, and how do your strawberries need to be prepared in order to achieve this? Student essay plans very rarely have this level of detail, and I’m not sure there’s much point to it either, because what we end up describing in detail is a cake. And those cakes are judged (at least in part) on the elements like its construction, the slicing of the strawberries and so on. The more detailed the plan, the more it becomes an actual essay.

What can we do in the classroom with essay plans?

I reckon teachers and students use essay plans, in class or at home, to do some or all of the following: Simply revise topics and check understanding; to be shared and discussed as guidelines and exemplars; to think about how they would answer a question; to provide structure to what they are actually about to write in an essay.

But if we look at a plan, what does it actually tell us? This clearly depends on how you do it, but fundamentally and roughly speaking it will provide an ordering of ideas, some waypoints en route to a conclusion. But unless it goes into significant detail, how the student intends to move from one point to the other, how those points will be made, and how they provide the basis for a conclusion will all generally be missing from the plan. This information may exist in the writer’s head, it may even be written down in the plan. But the more it is, the more you’ve actually written the essay. In which case, what was the point of the plan? The real issues and the real thinking in producing that plan still lie behind it and need further investigation to be of real use in improving that student’s thinking and understanding.

Does this tell us how the student intends to answer the question? Not really, or at least only as much as some slightly vague instructions tell us how to make a matcha crêpe cake. The understanding lies in the gaps, in the construction, in the tacit knowledge required to put it all together – and to make the components. The essay plan will often fail to articulate both the detail of the “make a buttercream” elements and the “layer it together to construct your cake” element. An expert can write this and understand it, and an expert can read it and interpret it correctly, and infer the gaps. It’s not clear, though, whether a non-expert can write a good plan, and what another non-expert (e.g. another student) does with this information. But if the expert knew all the missing elements, then what did writing a plan gain them? Could they not have just made the cake and presented that?

Don’t think of an Elephant

Essentially then, I think there’s a bit of a Catch-22 with essay plans. If they are useful and contain a lot of information – an actual guide to what is going to be written in the essay – then it’s not clear what has been gained by either a writer or a reader. If they don’t contain all the information, then it’s hard to use it as either a guide to writing, or as a guide to the original writer’s intentions and thoughts.

So I find using them in class difficult. I generally don’t think they tell me much about what a student is thinking and how they would then write the actual essay, as we can only really discover this when they write it; I don’t think they help all that much when shared with other students, unless you can ensure students understand the bits that are left unsaid.

Making students undertake the thought processes in the first place is arguably useful (but remains difficult to observe or measure). Providing some kind of structure to refer to in the heat of an exam likewise. But planning as a task which helps recall or interrogates student understanding? I struggle to make that work, or at least it’s only a start and needs a lot of follow-up. I don’t think planning is that useful unless a student actually has the/an answer already within them, i.e. they have a certain level of expertise already. I don’t think you generate an essay answer by asking “what do I write next?” until an answer is built; you generate the answer by thinking about how you get to an already defined destination.

To plan well, you need to already know the shape of the answer, rendering the planning process in itself fairly pointless. The plan is the answer.[1] You can then distil that down, summarise and abbreviate, sure, but that map, like a GBBO instruction, only makes sense to someone with the same shared understanding of the missing elements. If I know what a student means by “then I’ll make a buttercream”, then fine. But if I suspect that they don’t actually know what a buttercream is, or that we might have different ideas about what makes a successful buttercream, then the plan hasn’t told me what they’re actually going to do.

Experts don’t need plans – at least not in the same way. Is there a middle ground?

I’ve spoken before about taking the exams in the past. When I did this, I did jot down what I was roughly going to say. Reading what I wrote in the plan, though, would not have been a useful way to judge the quality of what I was about to write in the essay. It would not have provided much insight into my thoughts and ideas. It did provide a useful reference point for me as I actually wrote the essays. The thought process was possibly useful – and is probably much more useful for students – but I’ll come to another way of thinking about this in a moment.

Perhaps there is a level of detail which requires the student to think through what they will say, and how they will say it, but without articulating exactly how things fit together. I still contend that between the plan and the writing there is a lot of scope for failure, but if these activities are sufficiently separate then we can extract some use from planning as a teaching tool.

On twitter, Economics teacher Richard Schofield sometime posts stuff like this, and I think this is generally very useful as an exemplar. I have also done similar things in class, and have collaborated with students to produce similar output. But this is usually, for me at least, in the context of students nearing the end of the course, who know how these ideas fit together, what the shape of the individual paragraphs is likely to be and so on. This “planning as revision”, I think, can be really useful, but only if you are pretty certain students are not going to mess up the final execution. This is the planning of an expert.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading with interest the recent blogs of History teacher Kristian Shanks, as he explores the book The Writing Revolution.

I have bought the book, and will be starting it in a day or two, and I suspect it will prompt a lot of thinking about exactly these issues. Maybe it contains all the answers I’m seeking about how to develop writing. Maybe not, but from the responses of Kristian and others, I think it will help. But from what I’ve seen in his and other blog posts, things like the “Single Paragraph Outline” are very close to a full answer already. In the previous link there is an example in which the finished paragraph is only a little bit longer than what was written in the planning framework. This is great stuff for developing writing, but it’s so close to the final answer I’m not sure whether it constitutes a “plan”; it is the paragraph minus a few connective words.

As I said from the outset, I’m not sure what I really think about any of this, and helping students with essay planning is something I want to improve. I also think there’s a unspoken (thus far) issue regarding what we might expect in terms of writing from 6th formers compared with students lower down the school. But what do I do currently?

Focus on the end

I am left wondering, then, what benefit “simply” planning gains students and teachers – though as I said at the top, I am genuinely open to suggestions here, and looking forward to getting stuck into TWR.

I wonder if what we’re really trying to achieve lies in the gaps, and so I try to ask questions and generate discussion on questions like: How are you going to link from paragraph A to paragraph B? Why in that order? Why these particular ideas at all? What’s the best idea which you’re not going to use in this essay? How can you invoke ideas, arguments and theories without directly writing about them, by allusion and reference in support of your “main” points?

My instinct for how to focus on these and get out of my general quandary about planning is to focus on conclusions. This follows from ideas expressed above that if the plan has any meaning at all, it essentially hides a full answer to the question. So rather than getting students to “plan” an answer, I often ask them to write only their final paragraph. They often find this really hard – which is of course the point – if they don’t actually know where they want to take their writing, and what their answer to the question actually is. In this way it exposes the limitations of a “plan” approach. Set an A level essay to an expert (or even just a teacher, haha) and they will probably be able to tell you what conclusion they will eventually reach. They can answer the question essentially instantaneously, and “just know” the main contours to their answer; they know the main ideas and arguments that will be touched on upon the way. They know what they are likely to have said during the essay which will justify the conclusion – the conclusion is the plan, distilled into a piece of writing, and a “plan” is to some extent unnecessary because it’s all contained within their expertise.

Now of course students don’t immediately have that expertise, so it’s hard to expect them to have the same ability to do this task. A “plan”, which they can learn the rough form of, can be a scaffold for them, but it can also bring the illusion of knowing: they might learn that they’re meant to evaluate at certain points, come up with counter-arguments and come to a balanced conclusion, but unless those all have actual substance, the plan is likely to be meaningless. It will feel good, though, and students will diligently write such plans as if they are a writing panacea. Teacher exhortations to “plan your answer more” are of little more use than “you need to write more detailed analysis” or similar phrases: meaningless when divorced from actual content and substance. I often find it’s some of the best “planned” answers, from some students who have been very well trained in earlier years, that end up having the shape and structure of a good essay, but have nothing to say and no real substance; as ever, it’s really all about the content.

None of this is to dismiss planning tasks or homeworks. They can be used well, but I’m personally just not very good at doing so, and when I do use them I try to move student thought onto the issues discussed above. I try to encourage, from early on in the course, this focus on the end of the essay as the goal, but this is only really possible with actual expertise and understanding of the topic being examined. I therefore tend to leave these tasks quite late in the course. Plans often concentrate focus on the wrong direction of travel: I don’t navigate by leaving my house, picking a direction and then picking another direction; I do so with a destination in mind and essentially solve the problem by a form of backwards induction. I think it’s the same with essays. I don’t navigate to a previously visited destination by making it up anew each time; I go down the same routes, knowing the turnings along the way. I think it’s much the same with essays. And I drive my car in response to conditions, adapting and reacting along the way, rather than in a rigid, repetitive fashion. I think that’s also much the same with essays, but that’s for another time.[2]

[1] I suppose there is potentially a liminal space where the planning helps the answer emerge, and without which the answer didn’t exist. That, I guess, is the holy grail of essay planning as a learning task. But I think it’s quite a narrow space, and I know that when I’ve tried, I’ve very rarely found it.

[2]  I have an aversion to PEEL-type acronyms, especially at A Level, and don’t see much reason why a “point” or idea should accord with a paragraph, much like there’s no real reason a particular bit of knowledge or “learning objective” should naturally fit into a lesson.

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