No More Essays?

Ever student dreads the infamous essay.  Just hearing the word is enough to make many of them groan.  The traditional essay is a pillar of the English classroom, and it has been for decades. Maybe even centuries.  But, has it outlived its usefulness?

In her article, “Why Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel in Life,” Shelley Wright makes a (somewhat) shocking statement that the traditional essay is one of the most useless things that English teachers teach students.

On the surface, this may seem absurd to English teachers and delightfully wonderful to students.  Is this a valid statement?  Should traditional essays be done away with in favor of other, perhaps more useful, assessment methods?  What does the essay teach anyway?

As an English teacher, I’d start with saying that the essay is an easy way to assess students’ thinking and their ability to organize their thoughts.  It can help with critical thinking, structure, and grammar.

Yet, there are some major flaws, too.  First, many students can explain their thoughts verbally, but struggle to put their thoughts on paper.  With so many different learning styles, and so many ways of expressing things, the essay really doesn’t allow every student to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that is most favorable to them.  Second, the essay is archaic and isn’t used anywhere (in its traditional form) once a student leaves college. Sure, students may write proposals or business plans, but when was the last time any business person write a 5-paragraph essay?

So if the essay isn’t useful, what is?  Wright argues that allowing students to get their hands dirty, build things, and be creative is one of the best things that we can do.  The students should have the responsibility for learning, and, as Wright notes, they can even be responsible for deciding how they will show what they’re learning.  This is especially important because the medium a student uses to demonstrate learning can be dramatically different depending on the information they’re working with.

Shelley Wright has hit upon a sore point with English teachers, but it’s an important point that needs voicing.  Our education system was created over a century ago to address the needs of a world that was vastly different.  The jobs of today are different from the jobs of tomorrow, and because they require different skills and knowledge, the methods of assessing students should also be different, growing and evolving into something more practical, useful, and rewarding.

What do you think?  Are essays past their usefulness?  What should be used instead of the essay when it comes to expressing thoughts on a matter?  Let me know in the comments!

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