October 30, 2009

Position Papers from SLA

A position paper is a classic, basic form of argument that every high school student should know how to write well--even the 21st century variety.  Here's how a tech savvy 21st Century student might learn how to write a position paper.

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.

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?
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.

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? 

Apparently so.

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.


Stephen Downes said...

> I must be missing something.

Truer words were never spoken.

So far as I can judge, you have mistaken a learning activity - writing a position paper - for an evaluative activity, which is why you say absurd things like "I would not expect most students to have acquired a deep understanding of modern education theory after just a few weeks of exposure."

I see you misrepresent their arguments the same way you misrepresent mine. "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." They are not REdefining anything. It is you who has a misunderstanding of what counts as deep learning.

Day after day, post after post, I see you railing against people who are actual experts in the field. It's funny that you don't see the irony of your own claim to be demainding that people obtain deep knowledge of a field - since it seems so self-evidently unnecessary in your case.

KDeRosa said...

So far as I can judge, you have mistaken a learning activity - writing a position paper - for an evaluative activity

Your judgment is once again off, Stephen. SLA has called it an evaluative activity - "the primary assessment of student learning is through their projects."

This would be one of those projects. Your beef is with SLA, not me.

I actually believe the assignment was both a learning and an evaluative activity.

I see you misrepresent their arguments the same way you misrepresent mine.

I must have hit a nerve in our last exchange since you are now trying to glom on my main criticism of your rhetoric. The difference is that I support my position; you do not, as you once again demonstrate with your conclusory statements.

Let me help: support your position that I am redefining my terms.

Day after day, post after post, I see you railing against people who are actual experts in the field.

An appeal to authority. A logical fallacy as you know.

It's funny that you don't see the irony of your own claim to be demainding that people obtain deep knowledge of a field - since it seems so self-evidently unnecessary in your case.

I've never claimed to have a deep understanding in this field. The real irony is that in education you don't need a very deep understanding to know more than the "experts."

There's an old joke about two men who are planning a camping trip in Alaska. The first man asks the other what he's going to do if they run into a grizzly bear. The other man says he's going to run away. The first man tells him, "you know you can't outrun a grizzly bear?" The other man replies, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you."

Stirner said...

It sounds like the kid who wrote the last essay is looking for a Direct Instruction type curriculum. Good for him!

It is rather distressing that at least half of these kids are going to wind up in Remedial Composition 101 if they go on to a remotely demanding college.

Even if these were basically fluff personal opinion pieces, they (at the very least) should have an introduction, conclusion, and direct engagement with each of the five questions framed in the the assignment.

Learn Modern Educational Theory for free as a senior in public high school, but take out student loans to become proficient with written English as college freshman. That is one crazy system the educrats have created.

Dick Schutz said...

A lot of comments on a lot of blogs reflect Downes' view that a statement of opinion constitutes a "position paper." If a position paper is shallow and ill-formed, it's a poor quality position paper.

The SLA assignment all-but forces a weak position paper, because as Ken says, the students lack the background information requisite to communicating an informed position. This is a double whammy, because it misinforms the students about the nature of this communication genre.

Moreover, setting forth the questions the students must address overcues the response the instructor expects. A position paper advocating a "traditional school is likely to receive a failing grade.

Students learn that half-baked opinions are fine. But they don't learn what constitutes a "position paper. As Ken says, position papers are an important communication form. If one knows what constitutes the form, with adequate background information, one can express a position. Positions can then be analyzed, compared, categorized, extended, summarized, and so on.

The students' papers are the "end of the line"--idle cross talk. Their education will go on to another ill-conceived assignment. This was an "evaluative" assignment. Gawd knows what the next "higher order thinking" assignment will be.

KDeRosa said...

If this were an exercise in position paper drafting, parroting one of the assigned experts would have gone a far way toward providing a good basis of an adoptable position. And, analyzing that expert's opinion would have been a good beginning learning exercise in learning some of the content knowledge.

However this assignment fails to capitalize on either of these opportunities. First, by asking you the student's vision, we merely get ill-formed opinion, as expected, but we also lose the need to learn at least one of the expert's (well-formed) opinions. Second, there seesm to be no attempt made to force the students to actually set forth their position as an actual well-supported conventional position paper. Instead, we get rambly, almost stream-of-consciusness essays.

Dick Schutz said...

we get rambly, almost stream-of-consciusness essays

What do you have against constructivist philosophy, Ken. This is higher order critical thinking. The students don't do it all that well, but they are just students. As they receive further practice, they'll be able to do it like the pros; maybe better.

Stirner said...

If some of the SLA students happen to come across this thread, please keep in mind that these criticisms are directed at your curriculum, not your abilities.

If you want to put some of those "learning how to learn" skills to good use, there are many online resources you can use to upgrade your skills now, and make your life easier in college. One example being:

Why should you have to do that when you are already in school? That is a damn good question....

Dick Schutz said...

Good point Stirner. And thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

Instead of learning how to learn, their time would be much better spent learning how to use spell check.

Seriously, what is so hard to understand about the concept of little squiggly lines under words signifying a misspelled word.

As to a deeper understanding of the subject, it's obvious that the kids barely have a grasp on the superficial use of buzz words.

Joe said...

Your post should be titled “Why you should never publish anything on the Internet (or anywhere for that matter)”. The minute you publish something you open yourself up for attack, not just feedback.

I have no problem with your critique of Chris’s assignment as Chris is a professional putting his work out there for you to critique. I don’t agree with most of your comments, but I do feel the assignment wasn’t as clear as it could have been.

However, the lack of a rubric being posted with this assignment with clear standards makes critiquing the students writing as you do unfair. Look at your post again and code every time you put down students directly or indirectly. Clearly while you may not have wished to put down students, that is exactly what you are doing.

I believe the overarching purpose of posting these essays was to solicit feedback on the students’ ideas and not the written form those ideas took. When you look at student work and give feedback it is different than looking at the work of adult professionals and you must confine your feedback about students and their work to the scope of the assignment’s parameters (no matter your opinion of those parameters).

Your post reminds me of the quote:
“The turtle only makes progress when he sticks his neck out”
- James Bryant, educator

To conclude, if turtles took your advice on producing first drafts they would make zeroth progress because the feedback they would receive would discourage their further effort.

Tracy W said...

The minute you publish something you open yourself up for attack, not just feedback.

Which is a good reason for publishing something. Joe, may I refer you to John Stuart Mill's famous defence of liberty of thought and discussion in chapter 2 of On Liberty?
To quote from this:
" the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a "devil's advocate." The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honors, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed. ... The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.
If the cultivation of the understanding consists in one thing more than in another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one's own opinions. Whatever people believe, on subjects on which it is of the first importance to believe rightly, they ought to be able to defend against at least the common objections. ... He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. ... Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty."

(My apologies for the sexist language of the original, as a woman I feel that I too need to be as much on guard against my errors and have to struggle with my over self-confidence as much as any man I know. )

Ken is performing this valuable service for the leaders of SLA (well, I can't know whether Ken has dragged up the absolute best possible arguments against it). If you think SLA is doing a good thing, you should be all in favour of what Ken is doing. Attacks are a vital part of feedback.