Why the 5-Paragraph Essay is from Hell

PUBLISHED: Jan 18, 2018

In This Episode.

Warning: This episode may provoke strong reactions from 5-paragraph-essay devotees.  Not for the faint of heart! Listen in as Steve and Dave unfairly blame all of the world’s problems on the 5-paragraph essay format frequently used in secondary and higher education.  Also news of the week: Why even young children possess strong critical thinking skills, and how the Air Force explores “forecasting” as a critical thinking goal.

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Podcast Transcript

Steve Pearlman: Hi, thanks for joining us again for the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, I am Steve Pearlman.

Dave Carillo: And I’m Dave Chiarello,

Steve Pearlman: And we’re here today to sort of unabashedly make a case against the five paragraph essay, which we just want to see stop everywhere in all of its forms.

Dave Carillo: You know, at the end of the semester, when things are winding down, we get five minutes to reflect on, you know, the things that we’ve seen and done and everything. And five paragraph essay just just keeps coming up is something that we’re constantly sort of struggling against

Steve Pearlman: Against in so many ways. And yes. But first, we want to say to all the educators out there K through higher ed wherever it’s present in higher ED. And the five paragraph essay is still taught in higher education that we recognize the number of constraints and mandates around teaching and that we are not here from an institutional perspective to be able to judge the need that the five paragraph essay is fulfilling in different institutions or structures, and the pressures or the infrastructure that’s around certain educators in using that. And second, we’d also like to make it very clear that we recognize that there there are needs for stepping stones in education and that many people invoke the five paragraph form as a stepping stone into something larger. Or at least with that intention that this is a way to start entering the writing process and we recognize there are those needs. What we’d also like to point out, however, and what we’re going to talk about perhaps in a future podcast, probably in the next podcast is that it’s a false alternative to think that there aren’t alternatives to the five paragraph form as it exists and other ways to go about entering students and offering them stepping stones into this writing process.

Steve Pearlman: And that’s one of the myths that I think we’d like to dispel most is that there aren’t these alternatives because very often we encounter other educators who work with the five paragraph form. And when we suggest that there are some struggles with the form or consequences to that form, they say, Well, what else could we do to move students into argumentative writing, persuasive writing, evidence based writing, research based writing? That’s not in that structure, and there are plenty of other options, but we understand why the five paragraph form is so steeped in academic culture, and we also recognize that there are some times larger assessments that are being done on the educators and the students where this form is mandated. And we really want to recognize all of those institutional and cultural pressures or structures up front because we’re not in a position to speak, then we are in a luxurious position and that we can teach any form that we want in our classes without any discussion with anybody else about what we’re doing. And that’s luxurious for us. We want to recognize those who don’t have that luxury.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, this is not an indictment on any individual. And you know, we invite you to share our podcast with as many friends and faculty members as you can. Please keep in mind we are we are here to impugn the assignment and the form and not in any way shape or form the individuals that are that are using this.

Steve Pearlman: What we really want to point out here, though, are two things most centrally. The first is this it’s an old technology, and at one point it was a really good technology because it was new and it was innovative, perhaps, and it was offering a way for everyone to involve writing or use writing that worked across some different classes and so on. But at this point, the five paragraph essay is roughly the equivalent of the internal combustion engine. I mean, it’s

Dave Carillo: That’s an interesting analogy, since we’re still using it a lot.

Steve Pearlman: We’re still using it a lot. But really, we have the technology now to move into electric vehicles. We don’t need the gasoline powered automobile anymore. It’s just that we don’t need it to exist, but it’s everywhere still. And there are needs, in fact, for us to move away from it. But the point is that, look, it’s an old technology. We have new technologies and this particular podcast is going to be the critique of the internal combustion engine. The next podcast will be here are alternatives to the internal combustion engine. The second point that we feel it’s critical to make about this is that the most pernicious, most problematic aspect of the five paragraph essay is actually the intellectual mindset that it cultivates in students, and it’s a mindset that persists into other subjects. It’s a mindset that persists into all of their academic studies. It’s a mindset that stays with them as they enter higher education, and it is not as intellectually rich a mindset as we really would like to foster in them.

Dave Carillo: The ramifications are there everywhere. There we see the implications in how we deal with political discourse. The kind of. Things that we’re fighting against when we when we fight against the five paragraph essay are widespread. And then they can be dangerous as well.

Steve Pearlman: So before we really move into the mindset issues and

Dave Carillo: The mindsets, the big payoff,

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, and we get into more of the conceptual problems. Let’s talk first just about it from the very nature of the structure. Now, anyone who might not be familiar with the five paragraph, as we presume you’ve probably written one in your past at some point, but it’s basically an introduction at the end of which, and often the last line of which must be a thesis statement three body paragraphs, each of which introduces a point to speak to that or support that thesis statement. Sometimes each of those body paragraphs are required to have a piece of evidence that depends on the extent to which the instructor is working with that in class. And then finally, a conclusion that roughly recapitulates to a certain extent what the rest of the essay did. So it’s telling what you’re going to tell them, tell them what you’re telling them and then tell them what you told them.

Dave Carillo: So that’s the first problem we have with the five paragraph essay is is the form itself is one that values a very rigid linear structure over literally anything else in order to write a successful five paragraph essay. You need that introduction, you need that thesis statement and then you need three body paragraphs that are functioning as support for that thesis statement.

Steve Pearlman: And so give me an example of a five paragraph essay, and we don’t want to essentially lose this unfairly because it could be on very thoughtful topics. But to give a sense of a five paragraph essay, it’s red, sneakers are great and red sneakers are great. And now here’s my my body paragraphs are red. Sneakers are great because sneakers are versatile. Red sneakers are great because red is a power. Color and red sneakers are great because they’re comfortable. So that’s an idea of what a five paragraph form could look like. Now there are some variations. Let’s ask this initial question Why three body paragraphs? Why three points? That’s a completely arbitrary number, and one of the things that I’m always telling my students, in fact, is we would say which of those three points is your best point? Why would you want to move off the most compelling point to talk about other points? But if you’re going to talk about other points, why not talk about four other points or nine other points where 17 other points? So there’s this arbitrary structural decision that has been made. And in fact, another way to think about it too is now students believe that the only way to introduce a thesis is to introduce it prior to the things that follow that thesis. It has to be at the end of the paragraph. Often it has to be one single sentence, which is better. We know than the problem that it was meant to solve, which was that students weren’t putting in any point of view or any thesis. And we get that. But there have actually been cases where they took award winning essays and had educators grade these award-winning essays, and they failed them because the thesis statement didn’t appear at the end of the first paragraph.

Steve Pearlman: And as Alec Duxbury wrote in The Tyranny of the thesis statement quote, the five paragraph essay is not an inherently incorrect form. However, it is destructive in that students are not ever allowed to discover if the form fits the meaning they seek to make. Teachers insist on the form because it’s easier for teachers. This is unwise, and that’s something else. That’s another point that Brian made really well, and he writes about how it’s easily graded right, and that faculty will in fact spend time looking at whether or not the structure is properly followed. Then the content so form starts to take precedence over function in that respect. And furthermore, students are not allowed to find a thought that’s interesting to them and then find the form that best communicates that thought. Instead, they have to conform their thinking to the structure. And I can immediately hear a number of educators perhaps saying, well, if every student had to find their own form and wrote in their own form for their thought, doesn’t that make it much more complicated to do an assessment of that? And on what basis are we making those assessments? That’s a reasonable that’s a fair question, because it does complicate that to a certain extent, and we’ll talk about that more in the next podcast when we talk about what the alternatives are. But for now, it’s important to recognize that that is in fact something that starts to happen. Students start to bend their thinking into that structure instead of finding the structure to represent their thought in the most meaningful, authentic, intellectually rich fashion.

Dave Carillo: And one of the things that I wrote down while you were talking is that, you know, this idea of meaning is also that’s a complex concept in and of itself. But the form becomes the meaning and what you find in terms of this idea of assessment and what’s easier to grade and what isn’t, is that a much more thought? Full discussion of a single reason piece of evidence or source becomes less meaningful, effective, correct, right? Sought after or valued, then one that has three because the form itself is three pieces of evidence. Three reasons why. So it goes back to this arbitrary nature of the number three. I mean, if you have two great reasons, why do you want to add a bad reason or a weaker reason? But more importantly, you’ve got a specific rigid form becoming the quality or value of the argument over what’s actually said in the argument. You know, the form itself and how it sort of subsumes meaning in certain ways can be detrimental to students when they’re starting to think about, well, I’ve actually got three pieces of evidence that don’t suggest that this Jesus is correct. And so by virtue of what the assignment is asking, they’re going to ignore those pieces of evidence and that arbitrary number becomes the most valuable piece. Furthermore, it’s it’s, you know, the form itself suggests that writing is exceptionally linear, which it is not. Generally, the end result of a five paragraph essay is that there is absolutely no evolution of the thesis from A to Z. Whatever their thesis is, must be adhered to, regardless of the evidence that suggests that the thesis needs to change and that what that form essentially dictates is a complete lack of willingness to look at the evidence any more closely than a student might have to to produce support for the thesis.

Steve Pearlman: So let me give you an example of what Dave is talking about here, because it’s such an important point. I state my thesis that red shoes are great and I offer my three reasons. And what happens is that students become in the mindset that it’s OK to reference and run. And what I mean by that is I’m going to offer my reason that red is a power color, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the other two reasons that I’m offering of about comfort and, you know, great or athletics. These are entirely inconsequential and unrelated to one another and not interwoven at all. They are just completely distinct notions that are just put together in a paper out of what could be 12 other reasons why red sneakers are great. Just going to choose these three out of 12 with no rationale as to why I’m choosing these three out of the possible 12. These are the three that strike me as nice for this paper. But now in the mindset that the function that information serves, the function that research serves for me is to be able to lend some support because somebody else wrote it down and it got published somewhere to be able to lend some support to a statement that I claim that I’m going to make. And then I can move off of that.

Steve Pearlman: As long as I’ve dropped some reference for that claim, I can move into my next claim and every claim therefore is as good as the next claim. Body paragraph one claim and parody paragraph to claim back three. Claim they’re all great. They can all stand and independently on their own, even though you have nothing to do with one another. Where we see this play out is if we look at, let’s say, the last presidential election and we see regardless of whether we look at Democratic or Republicans. But we see my candidate is great. I’ve offered a reason as to why my candidate is great and now I can move on. There’s just as much evidence, potentially for the other person’s candidate also being great, and they can just yell that their candidate is great. I can yell at my candidate. It’s great. I have my three reasons you have your three reasons. There is no interrogation of that rationale. Now, it might seem like what we’re suggesting here is that these are very high intellectual tasks. They have to be reserved for college level students or advanced high school level students. And what we want to clarify is that that is no way the case. There are plenty of ways at more introductory levels, of course, age appropriate levels to bring other students into these other elements of complexity.

Dave Carillo: I mean, one of the implications right off the bat is that as soon as you come up with a reason that that becomes as good a reason as any other or that if you can stack up three reasons that you know that you’ve done your, you’ve done your due diligence and therefore you have this argument we can talk about at another time how widespread and how often students are asked to write five paragraph essays. But what you have in terms of developing a mindset is one sided. Biased writing is is fine. Right, right. There’s no room in the form for evidence that might complicate the original thesis. And again, this is this is where maybe we’ll see some variations the first two paragraphs are for. And the last paragraph is against. But again, if you were adhering to the form, then the student is still on the hook for arguing what the thesis is, right? The thesis in the. Traditional five paragraph essay is right in the beginning, and it’s right at the end. Right, right. And so even if you even if you try to add some variation to the form by including a paragraph that quote addresses the opposition, there is no room in that form to change your mind.

Dave Carillo: There’s no room in the form to shift the thesis to show how the thesis might not entirely be correct. And so again, what that’s producing in terms of the mindset of the students is is this sort of position when they’re writing of having to pick a side and argue that side, regardless of the evidence. And that’s the other thing that we start to see you say referencing run, and that’s as good a place to start as any. The five paragraph essay doesn’t in any way shape or form, encourage students to look closely at the evidence that they find and even at compelling piece of evidence for might have certain limitations, might make certain assumptions might raise certain implications that affects the students ability to support the thesis. One hundred percent. Again, if they’re doing that, the form is going to force them to push that aside. So right off the bat, we’ve got this idea that this mindset that we see after 12 years of the five paragraph essay is that this piece of writing is going to be a one sided argument, and no evidence can be looked at more closely than the level of supporting whatever thesis just is

Steve Pearlman: Presenting exactly presenting it. And so what happens is students fall into this dead leveled conception of intellectualism and cognition, which is that every piece of evidence exists at the same level. No piece of evidence is subordinate or superior to another piece of evidence, and evidence does not have to speak to other evidence. So paragraph two, it doesn’t have to speak to paragraph one in any way, shape or form. It’s entirely disjointed now. So even if in paragraph three I introduce a counterpoint, it might not actually speak to either of the points made. So I might say sneakers are great, red sneakers are great, it’s a power color and it is also very comfortable. Red sneakers are bad now. I’m in my third party power body paragraph because I am not allowed to wear sneakers in school, so now I have to wear shoes in school. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t let me wear sneakers in school for the longest time, actually. Yeah, and they weren’t the most conservative people, but it was just more of the time. And it wasn’t till I got like older that if I finally said, Look, you know, I can’t be the only kid in school wearing shoes every day. Sneakers? Yeah.

Dave Carillo: Anyway, like a sore thumb

Steve Pearlman: There, right? No, it was not pleasant because high school is a warm, fuzzy place.

Dave Carillo: Typically absolutely everybody’s accepting of everybody else.

Steve Pearlman: So anyway, look, my here I am saying, well, they’re not accepted in school, and that doesn’t really have anything to do with the other two points. It’s not a discussion of the extent to which they’re it’s reasonable that they’re not accepted in school or should be accepted in school, or it’s not in a discussion of the extent to which they are an effective representation of wearing a power, color or anything or really is of our color. There’s no progression of this idea. There’s no deepening of an idea. There’s just the introduction of more and more information toward this idea that is entirely often and most typically unrelated to anything else.

Dave Carillo: You know, we don’t even have to bring up the even more complicated issue, like when evidence for complicates evidence for. Right? And you know, so let’s just remove the sneakers for a second and just say, you know, oftentimes the kind of writing that we see at our institution, but elsewhere is, you know, pick a side and argue it. And so the death penalty, you know, is bad is a very popular sort of side argue. And so, you know, you’ll have a reason for the death penalty being bad, having to do with how much it costs to keep prisoners on death row. And you know, it does cost a lot of money to keep prisoners on death row and shouldn’t that money be going somewhere else? And then the next reason you’ll see has something to do with morals or ethics, right? And those two reasons for why the death penalty are bad are entirely different discussions, and there could be threads between them. And there could be ways that they could be discussed in some, in some way in the same paper, but they definitely affect each other. Those there are relationships between, you know, or could be economics will absolutely there could be, but they’re not. They’re not. But it’s just this reason, that reason.

Steve Pearlman: And the other third reason is then and then the Bible, or exactly then and then the Constitution.

Dave Carillo: Sure, it’s not constitutionally right,

Steve Pearlman: But none of the, you know, the Constitution and the Bible are not going to talk to each other in any way in this endeavor. And the Bible and economics are not going to talk to each other in any way in this endeavor. I’m just going to drop those points

Dave Carillo: And the product of that is a. Questionable relationship to evidence and how students are sort of brought up to look at think about deal with sources as evidence, right? A questionable relationship to the idea of argument. Right. A questionable relationship to the idea of thinking in and of itself. Right. When you’re right, I blindsided. I’m here’s my thesis as surface level. And then there’s this other thing too in terms of and I guess this goes back to research, but there’s this sort of tension between idea and support, right? And what comes first. Now, when we’re writing the five paragraph essay, the thesis comes first and then you find support for that.

Steve Pearlman: And I jump in on this because maybe the question that irks me most from students, because it’s an impossible question to answer and they don’t realize it is when they come to me and they say, Is this a good thesis statement? Now, on one level, to be fair, of course, if they’re asking is what I have written here clear to you, I can speak to them about that to a certain extent. But the real answer to the question is, I don’t know how good a thesis statement is until I’ve read the paper that develops the argument or the position that’s in the thesis statement, but they have a mindset instead that a good thesis statement is something that that just articulates a point of view, and therefore it’s a good thesis. Sure, the quality of a thesis is not measured by whether or not it articulates a point of view. It’s by the substance that builds that thesis into something credible and thoughtful.

Dave Carillo: No, I know, and you’re right, and there are some elements like a stronger thesis is going to have some sort of tension, right? Sure. Absolutely. There needs to be something that elevated Wade. You’re absolutely right. And that’s one of the that is one of the biggest challenges in terms of this idea that like, there’s a mindset that we have to break. It’s not the five paragraph essay anymore, but it’s the mindset they need to think something before they go after, you know, and read about something right? Or that they have to have this idea and then find support for rather than I have this interest. I have this question. I’m going to go read and figure out sort of where my position might stand based on how I’ve evaluated, evaluated evidence and so

Steve Pearlman: On and so forth. And let me let me jump on that because I think it’s such a great point that you’re making. So I’m sorry to interrupt.

Dave Carillo: No, no, no, not at all.

Steve Pearlman: This is a critical point, but it’s it’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s telling students you come up with your idea and then you’re going to go out and you’re going to find things to support that idea. That’s exactly opposite of what we want people to do with good cognition is what we want the intellectual world to be. The intellectual world is understand the world and from your understanding of the world, find something that’s worth communicating out a question that you might want to resolve or what have you. But it’s find something from what exists that needs to be in need of discussion or need of your commentary, not figure out something you want to say and then go out and pursue ways to be able to say it. And we have students who will say to us in no other terms, they’ll say it in just this way. I know what I want to say. I’ve just got to go find some sources to support it. Well, that’s not thinking. That’s nothing but pure bias. It’s nothing but pure opinions that you have found something that you’ve you think is worth saying. Then you’re going to go find things to back that up. That is why we will have people who will say, I’m supporting candidate so-and-so and then they will go and find rationale to support candidates so and so. Rather than looking at the information first and then coming to a decision about I don’t want to suggest the exact cause and effect relationship, but the mindset we can see play out now on this larger national scale with respect to how people approach information. I don’t know to what extent we could ever discuss the way the five paragraph essay over the last 20 30 years has contributed to that mindset or not.

Dave Carillo: No, it’d be an interesting, but it’s a fascinating down the rabbit hole, that’s for sure.

Steve Pearlman: But nevertheless, we can see a parallel of the thinking or lack thereof playing out on larger scales.

Dave Carillo: Well, my point one sided, biased argue one point at all costs. Don’t consider evidence beyond its ability to support a single point at all costs. All those kinds of things are playing out.

Steve Pearlman: Don’t interrogate the quality of don’t

Dave Carillo: Interrogate the source material exactly of the news material. Or if it, you know, conversely, if any evidence whatsoever like does complicate what you previously thought, get rid of it. Don’t try to incorporate it into something more, more complicated or complex. Worldview issue it Some assignments will say make sure that you address the opposition, but addressing the opposition just to shoot it down is not necessarily like it’s

Steve Pearlman: Not addressing opposition to lend some credence to complicate the matter.

Dave Carillo: Make sure you’re considering arguments on the other side, and what you’ll get is, like, you know, the weakest straw person argument completely dashed off within like the matter of like a sentence or two. If something complicates their question or their thesis, they don’t know how to work that in other than to discount it. See a lot of one sided arguments. And so it’s it’s and that’s why, you know, in order to sort of shift this paradigm, you know, we have to start by, you know, bashing this poor little paper to pieces, which I feel like we kind of done.

Steve Pearlman: We’ve kind of done that. Have we made three good points about,

Dave Carillo: Oh man, I know. I think we only made two points. So let me to Camp David. We have to have a third.

Steve Pearlman: We have to have a third because always said when we talked about the form and we talked about the cognitive implications.

Dave Carillo: So we need one more point and no matter what that is. So I would go ahead and say that five paragraph essay is bad because aliens. Aliens are using it to take over the world.

Steve Pearlman: Well, that’s I was going to use a counterpoint, and I was going to say the five paragraph essay is good because five is a prime number,

Dave Carillo: And that is that’s pretty

Steve Pearlman: Good. And that’s a reason why it’s good.

Dave Carillo: Yeah. All right. But let’s just say that prime numbers are not as cool as as other kinds of numbers. And that’s why the five paragraph essay

Steve Pearlman: No, now you’re complicating my point. You can

Dave Carillo: Do them. Just I just want to discount the opposition. Okay, that’s fine. I want to like, wipe it off. There’s no there is no wavering off of our arguments.

Steve Pearlman: All right. So what this podcast is now showing is how snarky we can get. And we’ve we’ve held the snark at bay. Yeah, for a good number of podcasts and a lot of respects. And I think given who we are, we actually deserve a lot of credit for the low level of snark that has occurred to this point.

Dave Carillo: If you have any questions about this podcast, get in touch with us at info at the Critical Thinking Initiative, Dawg.

Steve Pearlman: We certainly welcome your questions. It can be on a question of the week and but I’d like to end sort of just asking this Do we want to live in a five paragraph world, right? Is that how the world is to be conceived? We want to conceive the world as a five paragraph world. That’s how we want people to go about their lives. Then the five paragraph form maybe deserves more argument to be made on its behalf. But I think as we lay it out this way, is this the world that we want to construct? And again, remember it’s the internal combustion engine. It got us around for a while, absolutely. But we’ve seen that it has also had some ramifications that’s had, you know, damage to our society as well. It’s had environmental complications and so on. There are also other complications with respect to socializing and so on that came out of the car. But we have other alternatives now and we will talk about those as we go forward. So let’s think about what kind of intellectually rich world we want to have and do as much as we can to build students for that world from the start.


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