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5.6: The Five-Paragraph Essay Transmits Knowledge

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    Authors: Susan Naomi Bernstein, Arizona State University–Tempe. Elizabeth Lowry, Arizona State University,

    “But I learned how to write an essay in high school! All you need is five-paragraphs with five to eleven sentences per paragraph. Why am I even taking this class?”

    Most first year composition instructors have, at one time or another, heard this complaint from a student, who has been taught that writing should be no more complicated than knocking out the requisite five-paragraphs: In your first paragraph, warn your audience that you are planning to make no more (or less) than three points which they will know to look for in paragraphs two, three, and four respectively. After that, use the fifth paragraph to remind your audience of the three points you just made. For firstyear college students, the five-paragraph essay is considered to be a kind of catch-all for the would-be writer, a formula that students are often taught works for any kind of essay, on any topic, upon any occasion. Except when it doesn’t.

    We argue that the emphasis on the five-paragraph essay at the high school level is emblematic of what internationally well-regarded Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire refers to as the banking model of education. According to Freire, the banking model is a form of teaching and learning in which knowledge is understood to be a kind of currency that is literally deposited into students’ heads by an expert. The banking model is promoted by an educational system that relies on standardized tests and other quantitative methods of analysis. Within the banking model, students accrue facts and formulas like interest, drawing on that interest when it is time to show what they have (l)earned from school. Another way to conceive of the banking model could be garbage in, garbage out. Or, as Freire himself puts it: “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.” Here, Freire references storage, suggesting an eventual reallocation (or trading) of information that is presented as being empirical and objective. Freire critiques this model of education because it renders learners passive and dependent on the authority figures from whom the knowledge is ostensibly disseminated. Students educated within this system can too easily become complacent, accepting whatever they are told without question. Just as disconcertingly, students are not always supplied with knowledge that they can use in meaningful ways outside of school.

    If our education system promotes modes of learning that apply only to school but not to the rest of our lives, chances are minimal that any of us will retain what we have learned beyond our lives out of school. In a similar vein, the five-paragraph essay is an exemplar of the banking model of education as a means of demonstrating how information is stored, rather than as a means by which students can interrogate and transform the world around them. To be successful in the banking model of education, students merely need to regurgitate (in some recognizable form) the knowledge that has been deposited in their heads. The five-paragraph essay is that recognizable form. Easy to read, easy to grade, and easy to teach.

    The five-paragraph essay is widely believed to be useful in terms of making students assimilate, absorb, store, categorize, and organize new knowledge, but it is not useful in terms of getting students to actually use that knowledge creatively or critically for productive problem posing and solving. In this sense, the idea of knowledge transfer from high school to college via the five-paragraph-essay form is untenable. Although popular wisdom holds that assimilating some structural empirical knowledge of writing will help to promote efficient knowledge transfer between high school and college, in fact, the five-paragraph form can become a limitation when students are confronted with various new structures of knowledge significant to post-secondary success.

    Put another way, knowledge is not meaningfully transferable through the five-paragraph-essay form because the banking method of education conceives both learning and students themselves as products rather than as works in process. The five-paragraph form emphasizes shutting down processes of inquiry—that is, it dismisses the need for future conversation by providing the illusion of having resolved complex problems. The role of the five-paragraph essay in the move from high school to college is analogous to using training wheels when learning to ride a bike. Useful—maybe even necessary at first—but, as the rider becomes more proficient and broaches more complex terrain, those little wheels will collect debris, or become snagged on rocks. Thus, these once-useful training wheels become a liability. They may slow the rider down or, when they catch on obstacles, may throw her from the bike. At best they are a nuisance, while at worst they are a danger. Without training wheels it may be tough to get started at the beginning of a ride, but eventually we figure out how to do it. Bumpy rides may pose a challenge, but they make us resilient.

    That said, at what point is it time to move away from the five-paragraph essay? We believe that the time comes to move away when one is focusing on a problem that defies pat answers. That is, when working on a piece of writing that is designed with a purpose beyond simply organizing information by reporting on uncontroversial facts (e.g., “smoking is bad for you”). As soon as a student is in a position to enter a process of inquiry to explore (and perhaps offer solutions to) an issue that may provoke more questions and yield myriad answers, the five-paragraph format should be thrown to the wind. We want authors to be resilient, to be independent thinkers, to be problem solvers and interrogators. Such is the purpose of teaching beyond the supposedly foolproof formula of the five-paragraph theme. When students are challenged to write beyond memorized formulas, to travel beyond the how of writing to the why of writing, they learn skills of academic resiliency that will transfer to college and beyond. Freire also addresses this. To counter the banking model of education, he offered the idea of problem posing, in which students take on problems and issues from their everyday lives and from their communities. Such problems, Freire believes, would engage students’ hearts and minds and would offer critical motivation and support for learning rather than (l)earning inside and outside the classroom.

    Susan recounts the story of a time when the five-paragraph formula seemed helpful—at least at first. She had applied to teach in an emergency teaching-certification program in a large Northeastern city. She met with other applicants in a school cafeteria to complete a series of tests including an essay-writing test.

    The applicants were to respond to the question, “What are the three most important skills that teachers need in our city’s classrooms?” Of course, this topic easily lent itself to a five-paragraph essay: An introduction (including a thesis listing the three main skills), one skill per paragraph, and a conclusion that repeated the most important points. Susan fit the essay together as neatly as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, robotically meeting unarticulated expectations. Just as the jigsaw puzzle encourages the assemblage of a mass-produced factory image already conceived by another entity, the five-paragraph essay seemed to be prompting the construction of an argument that was always already anticipated.

    The testing session seemed an appropriate analogy for writing instruction itself. Administrators offered a writing test that implied a five-paragraph response, a response that could be easily vetted to identify uniformity and adherence to conventions. Applicants who followed these unspoken rules would be deemed qualified to teach the five-paragraph essay to the next generation of students. Anyone who interrogated this standard method for writing, whether teacher or student, need not apply.

    After the essay-writing test ended, the applicants met for a short break and discussed with one another the essays they had just written. Somehow everyone had automatically done what Susan had done. All their essays sounded remarkably similar, except for one applicant who asked in disbelief, “We were supposed to divide that essay into paragraphs?” The rest of the applicants exchanged glances. In her head, Susan answered, “Well, yes. If we choose not to think outside the box. And if we expect every writer to follow the same formula rather than the more complicated nuances that come from real thinking.” Even as the directions for the writing test did not mention paragraphing explicitly, the five-paragraph theme seemed implicit for structuring an effective response.

    The fact that the emergency certification applicants were slated to teach in the city’s most at-risk schools was also disconcerting. The banking model of education depends upon formulas such as the five-paragraph essay to deliver its most efficient lessons, especially in working-class schools, in which teachers instruct students to follow the rules. This “hidden curriculum,” as Jean Anyon describes it, rewards “rote behavior,” readying working-class children “for future wage labor that is mechanical and routine.” Such instruction replicates, rather than interrogates, U.S. social class structures. The link between the banking model of education and classism has been drawn because the banking model does not encourage students to challenge the status quo by entering into a process of inquiry. Instead, the banking method suggests that the knowledge conferred upon students (or deposited within them) is all those students will need in order to be successful. In fact, this is not the case. Students need to think critically and creatively in order to become community leaders and to gain social and political power.

    Critical thinking should begin as early as possible—and it should begin by challenging the five-paragraph form. For example, students could be asked how they might rewrite five-paragraph essays in more imaginative ways. What happens if they add more paragraphs? What happens if they remove some? What happens if they begin to change the order of the paragraphs? How might meaning change and how might students better control the intended message of their writing? After all, meaningful writing is far from formulaic.

    Further Reading

    Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a foundational text on pedagogy, particularly with respect to disenfranchised communities. First published in Portuguese in 1968, the book was eventually translated into English and became an instant classic in the United States. Readers interested in further foundational work on socioeconomic class, agency, and education should see Jean Anyon’s 1980 article in the Journal of Education, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” This piece argues that the kinds of work students are asked to do in school often reifies social divides.


    academic writing, banking model of education, five-paragraph essay, problem posing, transition to postsecondary education

    Author Bios

    Susan Naomi Bernstein is a lecturer and co-coordinator of the Stretch Writing Program at Arizona State University–Tempe. She teaches Teaching Basic Writing Practicum and Stretch courses at ASU, and also teaches in an American Indian Community in central Arizona. Her most recent publication is “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection, Composition in the Age of Austerity. She has published four editions of Teaching Developmental Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s) and is a regular contributor on basic writing issues for the Bedford Bits blog.

    Elizabeth Lowry received her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from Arizona State University, where she now holds a lecturer position in rhetoric and composition. Her research interests include public spheres, material culture, and 19th-century women’s rhetorics. Her work has been published in Rhetoric Review, Word and Text, and in edited collections.