How to think about a Persuasive Writing task

The persuasive writing prompt in the 2011 NAPLAN test stated:

People like to play with toys and games to have fun and to relax. Some people think that too much money is spent on toys and games. They think the money could be used for more important things. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

Given the vagueness of this prompt, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for students to respond in a logically defensible way within the endorsed five-paragraph response structure.

In the marking guide, the top-scoring student response was reproduced as follows:

Exemplar script featured in the marking guide

This ‘exemplar script’ is far from exemplary: it is inadequately argued and peppered with repetition, non-sequiturs and clumsy wording. Nonetheless, the marker commented that ‘all components are [structurally] well developed’; ‘ideas are carefully selected and crafted to be highly persuasive… [and] presented in a well organised manner’; and ‘cause and effect reasoning leads the reader through the text’.

Excerpt from the marking guide showing annotations about the exemplar script

I am astounded by this favourable evaluation. I believe it justifies Perelman’s assertion that this kind of testing subverts, rather than supports, instruction in effective writing.

Below are some questions that we would encourage students to explore through collaborative dialogue, if they were to tackle this particular literacy task in one of The Philosophy Club’s workshops. We believe that engaging deeply with the following questions would help students to formulate the sort of coherent and well-reasoned arguments that we find lacking in the exemplar script shown in the marking guide.

What do we mean by toys and games? Toys and games vary widely, not only in terms of quality and educational/social value but also in terms of cost: they range from free of charge to several hundred dollars (or more) per item. If we are to make a coherent argument about the value of toys and games, we need to be clear about the nature of the toys and games that we’re considering.

How should we evaluate the impact of toys and games? What benefits and opportunities do they afford? What limitations and drawbacks do they have? What risks do they pose? On what basis should we make judgements about the benefits, opportunities, limitations, drawbacks and risks? How should we assess the overall value of toys and games in the face of such (perhaps conflicting) considerations? How can we sensibly weigh up individual and broader social impacts?

Who is doing the spending, and for whom? The prompt indicates that ‘[s]ome people think that too much money is spent on toys and games.’ The way this belief is expressed leaves undefined who exactly is doing the spending, and who exactly is receiving the toys and games. For instance, the opinion being expressed might be about children spending too much of their own money on toys and games; or it might be about adults spending too much of their own money toys and games for their children (or indeed for themselves). We need to be clear about who and what we are talking about before we can begin to examine the issue.

Which community or population are we talking about? Communities are diverse in relevant respects: they differ both in terms of how much money they spend on toys and games, and in terms of how much disposable income they have available for leisure spending. Defining which community or population is being considered is essential to making a meaningful claim about spending behaviours.

What is important, and to whom? How should we decide? Another way in which communities differ is in their values and priorities, which are instrumental in determining what kinds of spending are important. The prompt indicates that some people believe that the money spent on toys and games ‘could be used for more important things.’ In deciding whether we agree or disagree, we may need to consider not only what we individually believe to be important, but also what the community in question believes to be important. Further, we need to determine on what grounds a judgement can be made about the relative importance of different values.

How much money is too much, when it comes to spending? What does ‘too much’ mean? Are we talking about proportional or absolute measures? If proportional, are they relative to income, or relative to overall expenditure? (For instance, a family on an average income might spend the vast majority of its earnings on living expenses and other necessities, leaving only a small amount for discretionary spending, of which a large proportion is spent on toys and games. In this instance, the expenditure on toys and games represents only a tiny proportion of the family’s income, but a large proportion of the family’s discretionary spending.) We need to know what would count as ‘too much’ before we can begin to assess the claim that too much money is being spent.

We’re still in the dark about how much money is actually being spent. What can we say without access to the data? Students are being asked to make a persuasive argument without any data being provided for their reference. Since students’ knowledge of spending on toys and games would typically be limited to their own personal experience and perhaps observations of spending in their immediate social circle, they are equipped to argue only in to a very narrow context. If they try to generalise their experiences to a wider population, they’re likely to make false assumptions. At the very least, we should seek to identify those aspects of the question that may be answered by appealing to facts, and distinguish these from other aspects of the question for which a response may be attempted without facts to hand.

Wilcox cartoon - NAPLAN Cartoonist Cathy Wilcox lampoons the 2014 NAPLAN writing prompt
‘Which law or rule would you make better in your view?’