It's not rocket science, but it does take lots of practice to do well. Sadly, many high school students never learn how to write basic position papers well, if at all.
Chris Lehmann, principal of Science leadership Academy (SLA) of Philadelphia, has asked his students, mostly seniors, in his Modern Educational Theory class to draft a position paper. Chris has posted the assignment on his blog, Practical Theory, and wants you to take look at the student's position papers and to comment.
We've visited SLA before. SLA is a magnet high school which proudly sets itself out as an "inquiry-driven, project-based 21st Century school with a 1:1 laptop program." Last time we looked at one example of a student's writing assignment, probably one of the better examples since it was picked for the Family Handbook. This time we have the writings of an entire class of (mostly) seniors.
Let me state at the outset, I'm sure Chris and SLA mean well and care about their students.
Here's the assignment.
We, at this point, looked at several different views of education, from Deborah Meier's vision of democratic education, to Robert Pirsig's "Church of Reason," to Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch's views of core knowledge, to Nel Nodding's ethic of care, to President Obama's speech on the first day of school.Readers of this blog should be sufficiently familiar with the differing views on education to be able to evaluate the students' work on the merits and to determine if well supported positions have been taken on their views of what school should be.
Now, it is your time to take your stand.
You are to write a two page position paper creating your vision of what school should be.
Your paper should consider the following points:
- Clearly define your vision of school:
- What is its purpose?
- Why is it good for the individual?
- Why is it good for socie[t]y?
- What does your vision of school value? Prioritize?
- Given this vision of school -- what differences would you see in the structure of school when compared to a "traditional" school?
Here is Chris' take on the student's position papers:
I'm really thrilled with much of the thoughtfulness that the kids display in the essays. It is, obviously, clear that the kids have been at SLA for years, but I don't think that's their only vision of what school can be -- which is important to me. The kids have their own thoughts, and I'm really interested to see how these visions continue to evolve.
I'm not sure I understand the purpose of this assignment. It is coming at the beginning of the course before the students should have learned much about modern educational theory. Is the important thing to actually learn and understand modern educational theory or how to write a position paper? I'm going to assume the object was to accomplish both.
According to my view of education and learning, I would not expect most students to have acquired a deep understanding of modern education theory after just a few weeks of exposure. I would expect only a superficial understanding that is closely tied to the examples (i.e., the specific pundits' opinions) the students were exposed to. And, that is exactly what we see in the students' work. This isn't meant to be a criticism of the students' work.
I made this same observation in the last SLA assignment that I reviewed. Then, my criticism was directed at SLA because SLA was overselling (and continues to oversell) these projects that supposedly "can only be completed by showing both the skills and knowledge that are deemed to be critical to master the subject and demonstrate that deep level of understanding." (2009 Family Handbook, p. 4) And, the primary assessment of student knowledge continues to be these projects:
At SLA, there may be multiple assessments – including quizzes and tests – along the way, but the primary assessment of student learning is through their projects. Id.
Last time I got pushback from Chris and Tom Hoffman. Both of their arguments basically attempted to redefine deep understanding downwardly to mean the ability to express an opinion. No doubt they'll try the same gambit again. Chris thinks the papers were thoughtful and that the kids had their own thoughts. That's not exactly a challenging standard. But, we don't need to go there this time because I would not expect most students to have a deep understanding of the subject matter yet. Time will tell if this situation improves by June.
So, let's turn to the position paper part of the assignment. A well written position paper at the high school level should follow the traditional format of introduction, body, and conclusion. At a minimum, the body should contain an explanation of why the position has been taken and should contain supporting evidence for the position. A good position paper will have a thesis and a concluding summary of the main points. The body would include the counter arguments and their rebuttals.
Chris' prompt seems at odds with the standard definition of a position paper. Chris apparently is just looking for the students' opinions (or vision) of what school should be, provided that those opinions state a purpose, the benefits to the student and to society, the values and priorities, and the difference with respect to the structure of traditional schools. And, that's largely what Chris got -- mostly opinion. As far as support for the opinion, most students provided more of their opinion and occasionally a tie-in to one of the pundit's opinions. Most of the essays go off point, some stray far off point. All the essays could use a good editor, at least one rewrite, and should be tighten-ed up considerably.
Chris calls these essays a first draft. A first draft of the students' opinions maybe, but more like a zeroth draft of a properly written academic standard position paper. I call Chris a brave man because publishing these very raw essays on the internet and then calling attention to them in your blog takes quite a bit of professional bravery since these essays are a reflection on SLA's teaching ability.
I am assuming that no teacher has reviewed and made editorial comments on these essays prior to their being publishing. The essays are full of language usage problems, grammatical mistakes, informalities, and colloquialisms. Does SLA really want the world to see the essays in this form?
I must be missing something. Most of the students have formed an opinion that school should be just like SLA; but, their very own essays demonstrate that school should not be just like SLA if basic writing skills are one of the goals.
This is not an indictment of the kids or their abilities. Clearly, these kids want to learn. They have stuck it out this long, overcoming whatever adversity was in their way. No, it's an indictment of their schooling, only a part of which SLA is responsible for. If these kids are college bound, remediation is in their future.
But, what I really don't understand is that based on the demonstrated abilities of these students why are they wasting their time learning Modern Educational Theory when they should be learning basic writing and language skills? They're already getting a painful lesson of the pitfalls of some of elements of Modern Educational Theory the hard way (ironically enough, the ones they largely favor), they just won't realize it until next year.