“Do We Have to Write an Essay?”

Students in both MYP4 and 5 recently completed units that involved writing essays in decidedly “old school” fashion: with pen and paper, not on a device.  More than once, I was asked why I would torture them by making them do it this way… or at all, for that matter.

Why do we ask students to write essays?  The short answer is that there is no short answer.  There are many reasons.  Preparing and planning an essay involves critical thinking and organization.  Writing it tests language ability and demonstrates how well students can communicate their ideas.  All of these combined support students in learning to be better public speakers and make better presentations.  Whether students choose to go to college (university for the British English speakers) or straight into the work force, all of these are useful skills.

But why do it on paper when computers make it so easy?  There are studies that have shown that writing things out by hand activates the brain more and ensures better memory of the topic, but that’s just an extra benefit.  For those headed to college, the ability to write an essay by hand is essential. Both the IB Diploma Program and Advanced Placement exams have a handwritten essay component, and the ACT has an optional writing section.  The SATs have a section that requires students to recognize how to improve a written piece; this is a skill that is best practiced without digital help.

In the age of tablets and smartphones, there is also a more practical consideration for teachers: cheating is harder when the assignment is written by hand.  Students can’t just copy and paste from Sparknotes or ChatGPT.  (If you don’t know about this, look it up; it’s problematic, but interesting.)  This is part of the reason the organizations above still do it this way, so it makes sense that students should have to prepare for it.

Encourage your students to pick up a pen now and then.  It can only help.

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