Because, But, So — The ‘washing hands’ of writing? What I’m learning from TWR: Part Two

NOTE: My first blog on The Writing Revolution can be found here.

There’s a great blog by Tom Sherrington about Think, Pair, Share — and the analogy he uses is that it is the ‘washing hands’ of learing. It is that small, simple change, implemented every day, that has the biggest impact on what you’re trying to achieve, whether it’s reducing infection rates in hospitals (in the case of washing hands) or improving learning (in the case of Think, Pair, Share).

This springs to mind because the biggest single change I’ve made in terms of the content of my lessons since returning to full-time teaching after lockdown is to regularly use the magnificent ‘Because, But, So’ activity from Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution. It is beautifully simple and yet so effective, particularly in a subject like History where we need to help the students to retain masses of content for our examined courses, but can easily fall down the rabbit hole of getting students to regurgitate large amounts of text in the form of table tasks and so on.

If you haven’t encountered this activity before, the idea is straightforward. Students read through some text. They then manipulate the information using the Because, But, So conjunctions. Let me take this example from a Year 11 lesson on Weimar and Nazi Germany. Here is some text about The German Revolution immediately after the end of the First World War.

As a class we read through this information together and unpick any key words or issues such as those bolded in the text. We then set the following task for the students:

For the first sentence, the students need to use the information to explain why Germany was unstable after the war. In the second sentence, they need to bring in some kind of contrasting information. In the third sentence, they need to identify a consequence of Germany’s instability after the war. So looking at the same text, they need to manipulate the information in three very different ways. Clever.

Some examples of what the students might write:

What’s also great is that the challenge of the activity is determined by the curriculum content. This is something that can be used as easily with an A-level class as with a Year 7 group. It’s also important to note here that a key argument in the book is that students, especially in High School, are often set significant extended writing pieces yet most often lack the skills even at the sentence level to make a good stab at it. Their view is that ‘more’ writing does not necessarily equal better writing, and I’m inclined to agree.

If ‘memory is the residue of thought’, then activities such as this can surely only help our students, particularly those who really struggle with the subject, to remember more. With this, you’re not having to deal with those students who say “I don’t know how to start”. Instead, you get them thinking about the content in a highly time-efficient way.

When we go through the task, I put a blank word document on the screen and type up some student responses as we go along. Some students struggle to be really precise in their writing, or to avoid using slang or informal language so it’s a great opportunity for the class to work together to suggest alternative words and phrasing that gives the sentence more academic polish. I often remind them that we do not write, in formal History writing, in the same way that we would speak. Doing this also enables any misconceptions to be picked up (for example, sometimes students easily confuse cause and consequence).

The next logical step after this activity is to then vary up the conjunctions used. Instead of Because, But, So — you can bring in words like ‘although’, ‘before’, ‘after’ and ‘since’ to start sentences.

Take this example — here’s some text on the 1923 crises in Germany.

And then here are some sentences to go with it…

This then gets students to think about chronological understanding, as well as the ability to compare and contrast. So you might say things like

The next step is to see how we can then build up from the sentence level to the paragraph and multi-paragraph level. I’ve not yet had a go at Single Paragraph Outlines, but I’m looking forward to giving those a whirl in due course.

I’m a Head of History in North Yorkshire. I’ll be writing about issues relevant to History teachers as well as middle and senior leaders in secondary schools.