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Education | 4 Minutes

5 Steps in Creating a Great Lateral Thinking Essay

Written by Ty Fischer
5 Steps in Creating a Great Lateral Thinking Essay

It is fun when you reach the pinnacle of the mountain. Each year, I climb a mountain. It’s in Pennsylvania, so it’s not Everest, but the climb wears me out. At the mountain top sits a picnic table and a swing. (It’s really not Everest.) I am so happy when I see that table. It means that I am at the pinnacle. 

There are many “pinnacles” for our students, but one important peak is when a student can write a great Lateral Thinking Question in Omnibus. Lateral Thinking Essays challenge students to take what they have learned in one book and apply it in other places. If Jesus is ever on a raft with Camus and Nieschtze and that raft is being approached by a White Whale, you are in a Lateral Thinking Essay! They are “lateral” because you have to take something from one place and move it to another book, essay, or author. A great Lateral Thinking essay tests students’ imagination, rhetorical ability, and wisdom. It feels great when a student can write a great essay. 

The Omnibus curriculum provides Lateral Thinking Essays for tests, midterms, and finals. Sometimes, however, teachers might want to add their own Lateral Thinking Essay because they might have had something come up in class discussion that they want students to dig into more deeply or they might want to use an essay as a supplementary writing assignment. So, in today’s post, I wanted to gives you some pointers on how to create a good Lateral Thinking Essay. 

Step 1: Know what your students should know

This first step is crucial. Nothing works if you miss this step. Good Lateral Thinking Essays don’t ask students to learn something new. They take something that the students know and require them to move it laterally to another book and apply it. Make sure that you are majoring on some principle, idea, or concept that you discussed extensively with your students. 

Step 2: Challenge them to think: Provide a standard and have them provide proof 

Let’s say that you wanted the students to show that they understood the difference between true and false repentance. I enjoy giving them a clear standard and asking them to apply that standard to examples from their reading. Look for definitions in the books that you read, but also use biblical statements or even catechisms or theological statements for these standards. I recently chose the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 87 on repentance and asked students to apply it to the Apostle Peter’s repentance after his denial, Claudius’s repentance after the play in Hamlet, and Weston’s (or the Un Man’s) repentance near the end of his battle with Ransom in Perelandra. A good writer can take the standard and apply it effectively to each example. 

Step 3: Train them in form and reward/praise exceptional work

Use timed and untimed tests and essay writing. I tell students that when the essay is untimed that the only way for them to earn full credit is if I really enjoy reading it, along with it being factually true. It has to sing. Few reach this standard. After grading essays, take time to pick the best points of a few and praise those essays before the class. This helps them understand what you are after.  

Step 4: Challenge them to think back concerning large concepts in past work, but remember your transfer students

I tell students that the questions that I ask on graded essays come from the current semester except during Lateral Thinking Essays. They are special. I often go back to past years asking them to apply something from the Space Trilogy to Dante. 

Remember, however, that you might have transfer students. It is not fair to test them on material that they have not read. So, either coach them before you test them or simply omit or alter that part of the essay for the sake of fairness. 

Step 5: Reward good thinking even if it disagrees with you

Disagree effectively is the most meaningful action that a student can take on an essay. In my more than twenty years of teaching Omnibus, there have been a few essays in which I learned something from my student. Now, students can get a whiff of this sort of essay and try to show courage or panache by always disagreeing. These folks should not be rewarded for being rash or silly or even disrespectful. Those that do it well, however, have learned how to think on their own and they have the courage to stand for truth instead of begging for grades. Wisely employed, this sort of courage should be rewarded. 

The Lateral Thinking Essay is a great tool. Following these steps will help you create good essays and encourage “pinnacle” level writing amongst your students.