In the process of updating our scheme of work for Year 7 on The Crusades, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how best to get students writing historically. I’ve found myself grappling yet again with a common debate faced by history teachers across the country – how can I support students to produce great historical writing without having it brutalised by the reductive limitations of a generic writing frame?
We have a rich tradition in the history subject community of debating how best to support students with extended historical writing, from Michael Fordham’s dragon slaying (2007), to Pate and Evans’ reflection on whether too much scaffolding can actually impede students (2007), and, more recently, Jim Carroll’s seminal work examining how the disciplinary traditions of historical writing can be translated into A Level lessons (2016).
Despite all this, many of us habitually return to PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation) as a straightforward structure that ‘works’. I have certainly done so at numerous times. The reasons are obvious – it seems to be a quick and effective way to get students to make clear, succinct points, and one that can easily lead to rapid improvement for the weakest students.
However, PEE remains highly problematic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, as a structure it does not model good historical writing – its far removed from the gold standard of academic scholarship that we should be aiming to introduce our students to. The improvement tends to focus on surface-level features – the reason PEE appears to be a quick fix for student writing is because it is an easy way to get students saying the right kind of thing with sentences starters as ‘this was important because…’.
Furthermore, PEE does not account for the different disciplinary dimensions of historical writing. Whilst PEE might help a student write a passable extended piece on causation, it is highly unlikely to enable them to produce a good piece of extended writing on change and continuity, where we are instead looking for what Kath Goudie and Rachel Foster have termed ‘analytic description’ (2017).
All of this gives us good reason to question the utility of using PEE as a support for extended writing. This is a daunting prospect, when complete abandonment of the idea can leave us facing something of a vacuum – how are we going to support the weakest students when it comes to writing for argument? Despite its flaws, when facing a disadvantaged intake of students with weak literacy, is PEE the best of a bad bunch?
A reasonable defence of PEE in this situation is that there is significant value in this in showing students what success looks like – and in giving students the opportunity to realise that they are indeed capable of producing a good piece of writing. However, this could lead towards an over-reliance on PEE as a quick fix, and neglect of the complexity of great historical writing. It can mean that students don’t have the opportunity to recognise the tendency of historians to hide the what Carroll calls the ‘analytical ‘ductwork” (2016).
Furthermore, the focus on surface-level features of writing frames can easily lead us to over-estimate our students’ writing ability. Where writing frames help students to replicate sentences that serve as a proxy for historical thinking, we can easily fall into a trap of over-estimating students’ conceptual understanding. This is a problem that Rachel Foster and Sarah Gadd noticed this with their students – gaps in students’ understanding of evidential thinking led to a ‘lack of care taken over the selection and deployment of information as evidence’ (2013). This is the greatest danger of using PEE as a writing frame – it has the potential to mask how far students have genuinely grasped the process of constructing a causal argument, which could lead us to overlook it in our teaching.
It would be easy in response to this challenge to throw PEE out entirely, something that I had a tendency to do during my training year. Increasingly, however, I have realised that this is too much of a knee-jerk reaction. Provided that we recognise and respond to its limitations, PEE can be a useful starting point for students, so long as we ensure that the focus is on the conceptual thinking that lies behind the construction of written argument. It is by modelling and practicing the conceptual thinking that underpins good writing that we can gradually begin to remove structured support for extended writing, and ensure that by the time our students reach GCSE or A Level, they are able to confidently produce good historical writing.
When planning our Year 7 schemes of work, therefore, I chose to use PEE not because of its effectiveness as a writing frame for our weakest students, but because of its potential value in demonstrating the relationship between evidence and a historical claim. When using PEE in lessons, we place the emphasis on the relationship between evidence and explanation, the process of how a historian selects evidence and then deploys it in order to answer an enquiry question. This requires a lot of teacher modelling – the students’ first essay, for example, is modelled in its entirety during the enquiry, so that the teacher has an opportunity to demonstrate how evidence is selected and then deployed in support of an argument.
It is this disciplinary understanding above all that will lead to excellent historical writing from students. By emphasising the disciplinary dimensions rather than specific sentence starters, we can teach students how to piece an argument together. We are then able to start gradually removing prescriptive writing frames towards the end of Year 7, and instead challenge students to think about historical writing much more freely. Instead, we begin to consider a basic paragraph as containing the follow things:
- Signpost – signal to your reader what the paragraph is about
- Tell the story – tell the story using evidence relevant to the question
- Answer the question – this is where you present your argument (in other words – why does this piece of evidence matter?)
This is not entirely dissimilar to structures such as PEE, in that it provides the weakest students some guidance as to what to write. Where it differs, however, is that it gives greater freedom for the most capable to experiment, because they aren’t restricted to a reductive structure. Because our students have already started to develop their understanding of the precise role of evidence, with continued teacher modelling they are able to begin writing with greater freedom, free from the constraints of overly-prescriptive sentence starters. Teacher input continues to focus on modelling the conceptual thinking required, and on providing further examples and non-examples of how evidence is used to justify a conclusion.
It will be a long time before we have the opportunity to evaluate how successful this approach has been with our students, but so far the shift in emphasis has proved promising. Students are beginning to select evidence much more carefully in their arguments, resulting in better substantiated conclusions. This has also impacted on the way our Year 8s write as the scaffolding is increasingly removed, allowing our most able students to demonstrate their conceptual understanding whilst also providing our weakest students with the conceptual understanding needed to produce an argument.
There remains lots of work to be done in thinking about how we can support increasingly advanced writing, but by shifting the focus of PEE away from providing a writing frame and towards using it as a basic model of argument construction, we have found PEE to be far more useful. I’m not convinced that writing frames are the answer to the challenge of extended writing. But they could be a more productive part of it.