Just because we all had to suffer with essays doesn’t make it right to inflict them upon our students. Here’s some reasons why the essay has to die:
- Today, Information is so Much Easier to Find
Back when essays were invented, information was difficult to come by. If you wanted to put forth an argument and support it with evidence, you had to go to a library (and maybe more than one library) and physically track down documents. You had to read the documents and pull out information that supported and/or challenged your thesis. In other words, you had to do the legwork for the reader. Today, things are VERY different. Information is ubiquitous – there is literally too much information out there. It is no longer necessary for the writer to dig up and put forth evidence. The reader can, within minutes, read your ideas and then find corroborating or contradictory sources.
- Essays are a One-Way Monologue
In the past, essays were written and published. People could read them and – if they really felt the urge and after more laborious information gathering – write and publish counter arguments. The process could literally take years. Today, information delivery is an instant two-way street. It is a dialogue, more than a monologue. People can have live arguments on chat sites – exchanging facts and data as soon as they Google it. And this makes the process more dynamic and more valuable. Imagine how fast new ideas can be developed and disseminated in today’s model. Imagine how much faster it will be in the future.
- In the Past, People had More Time to Read Lengthy Written Documents
This may seem like a generalization, but the world is a much busier place now. A 2014 Economist article called the phenomenon “time poverty”. According to the article, Americans have more leisure time now than they did 40 years ago. However, that extra time is taken up by more and more activities – cooking, shopping, eating, reading, listening to music, watching programs, blogging, net surfing, etc. And, with greater online connectivity, more people are conducting more work activities in the free moments.
So, with all these distractions, when does anyone have the time to read and digest a 30-page essay? Who has the time to research and publish a response to such an essay? A 140-character Tweet or a Reddit comment makes way more sense.
- The Essay Structure is Ridiculous
MLA vs APA.
All of these things must be perfect before an actual idea is even considered. That is ridiculous.
- Essay Writing Ignores New Technology
There are new developments in technology that make communication more effective and more engaging. Videos and images are powerful mediums. I’m not saying that the written word no longer matters, but ignoring this new media is fraught with peril. Young people already live in a world of Vines and Snapchats. Forcing students to communicate their intellectual content solely through essays means holding them back in the past. Our past. As educators, we need to get out of their way and allow students to express their ideas in the mediums that represent their future.
In addition, the inclusion of new media as options for delivering content reflects good teaching practices, especially differentiation. Not all students are comfortable writing long documents. Not all students do their best work sitting at a desk for hours on end. Howard Gardner wrote about multiple intelligences way back in 1983. Isn’t it time we started reflecting those concepts in assessment?
- College Profs Demand Essays
I know I said there would be 5 reasons. Here is one for free – many teachers (especially at the middle school and high school level) cling to the essay because they are preparing students for the challenges of college. Wow. So, we are going to ignore what is happening around us and deny students the use of cool new technology, because some professor is stuck in the past? Since when do college professors dictate good teaching practices? When elementary schools implemented 6+1, Reader’s Theater, word walls, differentiation, or stations, did they first consult with college professors? No, good ideas are good ideas. If we implement good practices, colleges will just have to follow.
And, don’t think I haven’t spotted the irony of railing against essays through an essay. I am a product of my times and it is tough to break out of those chains. But, while people in my generation are chained up, the young people of this world are not. It’s time the academic world accepted that fact and embraced it. If we don’t, we might be left behind.
What are your thoughts on essays? Do you think they are still valuable in today’s fast-moving and information-overloaded society? We would love to hear your thoughts!
4 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why the Essay Must Die”
I’d like to hear what you think students should write instead. Do you think that we should just have students write tweets and comments?
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First of all, thanks for the question. I am excited to generate some kind of discussion with this kind of post in the hopes that, as a collective, educators can come up with other options besides the old unit test-essay paradigm. I hope that is your purpose also!
Next, writing is still important. My students will always do some writing in my class. But I like to mix things up. Writing faux primary source documents, such as news articles, journal entries, letters, and speeches are fun. Beyond writing, my highfivehistory colleague and I are high on videos as a great way to communicate ideas. Why couldn’t students produce a documentary-style film to showcase understanding? Or, if video is not your thing, what about a work of fiction to demonstrate learning? Robert Harris’ historical novels are an excellent example of fiction loaded with knowledge. What about something more active, like a debate or a presentation? Those are a few ideas off the top of my head. If you want to get your mind blown, challenge students to come up with ways to showcase their skills and knowledge. This year, my students surprised me with comic strips, videos and plays. One kid did a show with sock puppets!
I hope this answers your question! If you have any more questions, we would LOVE to hear back from you!
I feel students today definitely struggle to find writing relevant. As educators we should be finding and using ways that make the skills we teach relevant for our students if we want them to be engaged. I try to provide students in my classes with a variety of writing experiences. We use reflections, comics, “text messages”, PowerPoint slides and fictional stories to name a few. However, perhaps because I too wear the chains as a product of my own learning experiences, I still find some value in more formal writing. I do believe students need to know how to compose a well written paragraph and expand that into a series of connected paragraphs. Does a 5 paragraph essay always equal good writing and is that the end all of writing? No way, but I feel that it still has value if we can make it relevant to pit students.
Hi Tatiana, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I agree that the essay still has value. I really appreciate the way essays help students organize their thoughts and ideas. However, once they are organized, there are so many cool ways to present those ideas. Once I finished university, I never wrote an essay again and I never really encounter them in “real” life. But, I sure see a lot of documentary films, blog posts and Tweets! Anyhow, thanks again!