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Julia Steiny: Breathing Life into the Dying Art of Research Papers

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Julia Steiny, GoLocalWorcester Education Contributor

No technique quite so effectively teaches students to think as the good old-fashioned essay. Essays are their own assessments, showing whether kids can reason their way through evidence to a compelling conclusion. When students pick a thesis, research the topic, and build a good argument, THAT’S thinking.

But sadly, essays are on their way to extinction.

For decades, Will Fitzhugh has been editing and publishing high-school history papers in his Concord Review. In 2002 he worked with researchers to survey high-school history teachers about their habits of assigning the once-ubiquitous term paper. Confirming his fears, the study revealed that while 95 percent of the sampled teachers agree such papers were important, 62 percent never assign as much as a 12-page paper. Fully 27 percent never assign even an 8-pager.

You would think such papers were still the core of humanities instruction. But they are not. At our peril.

Perhaps for that reason, next fall the College Board will pilot two new research-writing Advanced Placement (AP) courses in 15 - 18 high schools. Small teams of students will research and collaborate on a 4,500 to 5,000-word paper. Mmmm.

Back in antiquity, we wrote papers for high school, college and grad school by ourselves. In fact, as students, we generally felt awash in paper-writing requirements, with 10-page English and history papers due at the end of each semester, and 3-5-pagers at the mid-term.

Essays are time-consuming for both student and teacher. But, how else do you learn to write, reason and think through complex issues? Increasingly, professors bellow about kids arriving at college with abysmal writing skills.

As an arrogant high-schooler, I took the position that correct spelling was a trivial and absurd requirement that shouldn’t mar my grades. But a 10th-grade English teacher took me on, declaring that until I mastered the mechanics of writing, he would grade me on nothing else. During our first embattled semester together, he threatened either to give me the terrible grade I so richly deserved, or to let my semester’s grade rest on a letter-perfect,10-page research essay on why spelling shouldn’t matter.

As a lazy but “good” student, flunking any subject would have been a first, and caused an ugly show-down with my parents. So, I researched what others had to say about the arbitrariness of English spelling conventions. Bernard Shaw was a treasure trove, and I loved his elegantly snarky prose. I conscripted a history teacher to help me hone my evidence so it led to a well-founded, if snotty conclusion.

I found plenty of useful quotes and got the “A+” the paper deserved. But my teacher remained unconvinced.

More importantly, I’d been tricked into a giving myself a rather deep training in the importance of communicating clearly, without illiteracies. I never apologized or admitted I was wrong, but I had been forced to study and think the subject through. What a concept.

Will Fitzhugh has been a lone, frustrated, and sometimes shrill voice advocating for the return of the humble essay. In editorials and on his blog, he rails about the infuriating honors, prizes and scholarships given to students for science projects, sports ability, even cheerleading. But the only honors available to varsity historians are the $1,000-awards Fitzhugh himself bestows. Current winners and their work are on the Review’s homepage http://www.tcr.org/ .

Fitzhugh’s solution to the pathetic decline of students’ writing skills is what he calls the Page Per Year Plan©. Simple and doable, he describes it as follows:

Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper (five sources), ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with nine sources, and so on, until each and every senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper (twelve sources), with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic, which the student could choose each year.

Surely such deliberate skill-building would reduce the now-massive need for college remediation in reading, writing, and I dare say, reasoning.

The point of education is not to pass tests, though they can be useful to see if students are getting anything out of their courses. No, the point of education is to learn to think. And essays are time-tested tools for training young minds to manage information, to find their way to useful conclusions, and make themselves understood.

In one of his curmudgeonly emails, Fitzhugh recently wrote, “Since 1987 The Concord Review has published nearly 1,000 exemplary serious research papers by high-school students from 46 states and 38 other countries. We even did a special issue of AP History Essays for the College Board in 1995. But it only took them 17 more years to consider a Brave New 3-year Pilot Program for the sort of Extended Essay that the International Baccalaureate has required for many many years. Perhaps after those three years a few more AP students will have a chance to get ready for college term papers. Hallelujah! You Go! College Board!”

True, he's crabby. But dead on the money.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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