Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Research Papers vs Blogs: Defending "Antiquated" Teaching from 21st Century Education Reform

Here is the guest post I mentioned earlier today, from Cedar Riener, a college professor of psychology who normally blogs at Cedar's Digest:

Cathy Davidson is making the rounds again in the education blogosphere. A few years ago, she gave up on grading, structuring her classes around peer review. Each assignment was graded by peers (pass/fail) and the final grade was determined by the number of assignments completed. Now she is promoting her new book Now You See It, which, as I see it, is an effort to apply Dan Simons' and Christopher Chabris' Invisible Gorilla to... well, everything. But the edu-blogsphere is all a-twitter through Virginia Heffernan's post on the NYT about how Davidson shows that education needs a 21st Century upgrade, because 65% of our students are going to have jobs that don't exist yet:
"One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education."

With the limited scope of a blog post, Heffernan starts blindfolding and lining up these poor assumptions on the wall. The first is... the antiquated 19th century research paper. Which, is always a reliable old scarecrow to shoot to shreds as you are speculating on the wonders of the 21st century jobs and skills.

Once the stage is set, Davidson points out that students are prolific publishers, only they blog. When they are forced to write a solitary, industrial age research paper, their hearts aren't in it, and they are awful:

“Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

Some aren't buying what Heffernan is selling.

Kathleen Porter-Magee from the reformy Fordham Institute, points out that if we can't predict the future, we might as well prepare students for rigorous, evidence-based reasoning:
"Regardless of what is the hip new medium, we do our students a grave disservice by pretending that pithy diatribes or observational blog posts are on the same level as more thoughtful, well-developed arguments, grounded in evidence derived from texts, with clear theses that come from something other than their personal feelings."

Robert Pondiscio adds a delightfully snarky reply, beginning by pointing out that "65% of future jobs" is a silly Potemkin number and continuing on about the ridiculousness of the 21st Century skills movement that Davidson seems to be a part of. He highlights the inconvenient fact that no one assigns research papers any more, and reiterates his point that rich factual knowledge is necessary for reasoning of any sort:
"We talk about rigor and academic achievement while dismissing the legitimate products of scholarship as inauthentic and anachronistic."

As a college professor who assigns and supervises both real research papers (I make students write them in industrial age chairs with broken typewriters, naturally) as well as short responses that might as well be blog entries.

First, the distinction between research papers and blogs is largely meaningless. Do we mean brief? Then say "short form writing." Do we mean talky, informal? Then say, "informal writing." Do we mean collaborative? Then say "collaborative." I often feel that people use "blog" as a shorthand for "everything that is good about the internet" while opponents use it as a shorthand for "everything that is bad about the internet." The vague distinction as Heffernan uses it, and as adopted by Porter-Magee and Pondiscio does not help. Research papers, in my field at least, are most often incredibly collaborative, and sometimes brief. Blogs can be solitary affairs, as well as informed by a rich scholarly knowledge of the field, even if that field happens to be side-scrolling video games made in the 1980s for left-handed suburban thirteen-year-olds.

With that caveat, let me just lay out why I think both "research papers" (by which I mean: long-form, formal, describing a consensus of scholarly literature, organized around the author's own thesis) and "blogs" (short, informal, current, multimedia, collaborative) are important for a complete education, at any level. I will give examples from college, but I have no doubt many K-12 teachers could describe their experiences with using both.

Any conception of the goals of education must include both breadth and depth. Students should learn a bit of everything, even those subjects they are not naturally drawn to. Students should also have the freedom to follow their interests, and experience mastery through sustained practice and background knowledge. What does this have to do with blogs and research papers? I think it might help if I gave a few examples from my own teaching.

A "Blog" Assignment

Short-form, collaborative writing is suitable for a quick dip into many different subjects. In my General Psychology class, I assign three very short papers (1-2 pages), as well as more frequent short responses to the class material. The first short paper is a summary and response to a TED talk video. This might as well be a blog post (perhaps Davidson thinks that peer-review and collaboration are the key ingredients, but I'll get to that later). I give students a fair amount of choice about which video they write on, and the TED talks are, as everyone knows, fun, interesting, and only fifteen minutes long.

Why is this assignment awesome? Students are given choice, but also must choose, demonstrating some interest in one of the videos. They learn interesting psychology content, their curiosity is aroused, and they get the practice of putting some of their thoughts on paper. They get some practice at the struggle of writers everywhere (bloggers and scholars alike) to put themselves in the minds of their reader, and organize their thoughts to be understood by someone else.

Why does this assignment suck? Students do not do well on these assignments. Why not? The first reason is that they don't know enough: their vocabularies are often limited and they have limited scientific knowledge, and even more limited psychology knowledge. As accessible as the TED talks are, they suppose some broad liberal-artsy knowledge, and some of my students don't have enough (yet). The second reason is that they have not had much practice writing (really in any format) yet, and they are understandably bad at it. There are several structural changes in K-12 that discourage practice writing. High stakes standardized testing pushes teachers to teach "testing skills" and large class sizes increase the already high time commitment necessary to give feedback to all students.

So, to recap: to be better writers, students need knowledge and practice. That knowledge has to start somewhere, and writing is a good way to learn something. I try to encourage students to accumulate a bit of knowledge as they gain practice writing. I try to make the knowledge gathering interesting and the writing practice as painless as possible, but painful enough to make it clear that they need more practice. That means low grades on writing assignments, more drafts, that means meeting them where they are, and helping them to the next stop. If that means helping them realize that they need topic sentences for each of their paragraphs, then I help them with that. If that means their sentences are too long, overly wordy and the passive voice is adopted too often in their well-meaning efforts to sound formal and scientific then I point that out to them.
If they need help writing brief and direct sentences, I patiently urge them to make their sentences active.

I suppose I could make this assignment peer-reviewed, on a collaborative blog, but I resist for the same reason my father refuses to display his high school students' English papers on the walls in his classroom. Real feedback on their writing means someone telling them some hard truths:
You are a conscientious student, and you have tried your best, but you don't know how to do this yet. I know you are not satisfied with your evaluation, but let's look to the future, you can turn this back in, and here are the next steps you need to take to improve. I feel confident that you can do this, but you will need to work hard.

If you can imagine an eighteen-year-old college freshman saying that to another 18-year-old, you have a livelier imagination than I do. This simply will not happen on a collaborative blog. Further, although they may collaborate to reach a deeper truth, as James Surowiecki points out in his Wisdom of Crowds, and others have pointed out more recently, crowds are only wise when there is a diversity of knowledge and of perspectives. Despite some racial, ethnic and class diversity, most everyone in my classes are eighteen to twenty years old, and know very little about psychology. They are only going to be but of so much help to one other.

A Research Paper

After students have had General Psychology, Research Methods in Psychology (which I do not currently teach) as well as my Sensation and Perception, I find a select few still interested enough to take a class called Sensation and Perception Research and Theoretical Systems, or S&P RATS. Psychology majors at Randolph-Macon are required to take two of these "RATS" classes, in which they conduct a research project and write it up. The research paper is a formal, APA-style research paper, with the requisite sections of a scientific journal article: introduction, method, results, discussion. How 19th century of us!

Why is this assignment awesome? By now students (juniors and seniors) have some knowledge, and some practice writing. They know some psychology, they have been taught some statistical tests, and they even have some limited background in sensation and perception. They get to apply that knowledge, design a scientific experiment, and see it through over the course of the semester. They will learn first hand what science really is through actually doing it. They will learn how scientists communicate, by struggling to express their methods so that someone might reproduce them, and their results so that they can be interpreted. Through writing a report on an experiment they conducted, on a topic of their choosing (okay, with a few nudges) students experience the second side of our university system, not the transfer of knowledge through teaching and learning, but the creation of new knowledge through scholarly research. They must explore what other people have written on this topic (and realize how much research has been done already). They may not exactly create any new knowledge themselves, but they see what sorts of long, painful efforts are necessary to add another grain of sand to our castle of knowledge. Perhaps in the future scientists may communicate through blog posts (some do in the present, see Rosie Redfield on arsenic life). But the assignment's value is the same: this is how scientists communicate, these are the critical elements of an experiment, this is how we separate the experimental methods and the data from the interpretation.

Why does this assignment suck? Most of these students will not become scientists, but through this assignment they learn first-hand what science really is: repeated, soul-sucking failure punctuated by brief moments of relief. They will learn how scientists communicate, in rigid, impersonal format, like an OCD's desktop, everything in its place. NO! You cannot say why you wanted that to happen in the results section! Nein! The participants section does not include your experimental groups! I think this is valuable, and I know they will eventually find useful the habits of mind demanded by my field. But some (not all) don't find it all that interesting or valuable in the moment. Further, even though they do have more knowledge than they did as entering students, they still do not have enough knowledge to fully understand a scientific journal article. In short, some students struggle.

What does any of this have to do with K-12 reform?

First, these are exactly the conversations that K-12 teachers should be able to have about their assignments and courses, and are actively discouraged from having by the current reform scheme. Unfortunately, the "thoughtful, well-developed arguments, grounded in evidence derived from texts, with clear theses" that Porter-Magee and Pondiscio value fall by the wayside when everyone has to teach basic math and reading skills to be accountable to standardized tests. The ability to do a research paper in high school depends on knowledge and interest gained throughout a students schooling. When curriculum is driven by test-based accountability, it undermines teachers efforts to develop practical wisdom.

Second, it affects what students can do once they get to college. Faculty at my institution have noticed a decrease in students' proficiency in writing since the advent of the Standards of Learning in Virginia. These high stakes tests push teachers away from writing, and towards test prep, and we college teachers notice. The worst part about it is that while accountability falls hardest on teachers in urban high-poverty settings, intended to decrease the achievement gap, what I see in college is a widening of the gap. Those who went to private schools or who had teachers who were able to bypass the SOLs are more equipped to write at the college level than those who didn't, and the testing and accountability craze is widening this gap.

Finally, education is a long game. This is true for a teacher like myself, having an internal dialogue as above, trying to gradually improve my craft, fitting it better for my students, but it is also true for the students. Some of the things I do in general psychology for enjoyment in the moment (like candy) but other things are for payoff down the road, like brushing and flossing. The same is true for research papers. The capability to write with depth and rigor in a field must be cultivated over years and years, by content-rich curriculum to give students background knowledge, and by practice in writing that is nearly impossible to assess cheaply with bubble tests, or by underpaid graduate students.

Accountability through high-stakes, standardized, multiple choice tests narrows administrators and teachers attention on those aspects of student learning that can be easily measured in a single year. Emphasis on practicing writing or developing a broad base of knowledge may not be reflected at the end of the year, just as my efforts in General Psychology may not bear fruit until four years later. Education is incremental, but it is not always measurably so.

Gentle reader, are you still here? Thanks for bearing with me for a blog post the length of a research paper (if not the focus). I have two take-home messages:

First, college professors like myself should realize that their teaching is being changed for the worse by standardized testing. The brains in our classrooms are shaped by the SOLs just as much as they are shaped by Google, and we have to clean up the mess. Many more students come in unprepared for writing at a college level, but also unprepared to focus and apply their own interests to a topic. Naturally, I believe the best place to realize their interests and gain that preparation is a small liberal arts college, where people like me have a passion for teaching as well as the time and support to focus on a lower number of students, and follow them for 3-4 years.

Second, I would remind those educational "conservatives" like those at the Fordham Institute who championed Core Knowledge when E.D. Hirsch was derided for his traditionalism, and now rise to the defense of the research paper that I appreciate that your right hand is fighting hard to preserve valuable aspects of the "industrial model" of education: broad factual knowledge and rigorous arguments based on legitimate, scholarly authorities. Unfortunately, you don't realize that the true enemy of these cherished elements of education is ... your left hand, which is pursuing awful test-based accountability. The research paper was in hiding and on life support long before Cathy Davidson came along, and it was not driven mortally wounded from K-12 education by blog cheerleaders like Heffernan and Davidson, but by the very Reformy Idols that you celebrate.


  1. I agree very much that students come into college with limited writing skills (often painfully so), and that there is sadly little attention paid to writing in college classes, which are usually focused on the use of writing purely for grading purposes, and not for its own sake. While I require my students to write and rewrite, in stages, their semester-long project, I have learned from the students that they often do no revising of any kind in their other classes. They may get comments back scribbled in the margins of their papers (perhaps detailed, perhaps not), but unless the students learn how to re-write based on that feedback, their writing skills are not likely to improve.
    Where I would disagree here is with the exclusive focus on expository and research writing or, as you say here, "broad factual knowledge and rigorous arguments based on legitimate, scholarly authorities." I teach General Education courses at my school, and those courses are not part of a departmental curriculum sequence. Instead, students come from all the various colleges, and their interest in the actual subject matter of the course is entirely casual. I long ago gave up trying to use expository or research writing for these courses and switched to a more creative writing project (it does involve research, but not of the kind you have in mind I suspect; the students look for stories to retell, and they do not work with secondary sources). Since the courses themselves are about stories and storytelling (Mythology and Folklore, Epics of Ancient India), this creative writing approach actually resonates very nicely with the actual course content. So, I would like to put in a plea here for creative writing: the students really enjoy it, work hard at it, and their positive motivation helps me to get them to focus on writing mechanics along the way. Since they are publishing their work online for the other students to see, they want to make a good impression, and as a result they make good use of the help I can offer with their sometimes very poor writing skills. Since all my courses are online, you can see just how that all works here: <a href=">Myth-Folklore & Indian Epics Online</a>.

  2. Cedar, this is a timely and well-asserted point about the necessity for a long-term vision and systematic approach to developing students' deeper content knowledge and self-sufficiency as learners, and pulling away from the short-term, frenzied, and shallow focus on high stakes testing (um, I don't think I've developed a very good "active" voice yet as a writer, obviously.

    I also liked your point about the vagueness with which people use the term "blog." "Blogging" can refer to a remarkably diverse range of writing, and I don't know that a blog post (as you demonstrated here!) even can reliably be termed "short." It all depends on the purpose with which one approaches a blog. I think blogging could be effectively utilized for developing research papers, if structured correctly. For example, students could post some of their different sections as they conduct and develop their research, and receive feedback both privately from the instructor and publicly from their peers. The final, complete version then could be put together by the student and presented solely to the professor. This could aid struggling students so that they can view what others are doing well and what they need to work on.

    Anyway, great post!

  3. Since 1987, The Concord Review has published 957 history research papers (average 6,000 words) by HS students from 44 states and 38 other countries. These kids will have an easy time with college term papers. See or write me at; Will Fitzhugh

  4. Thank for the comments!
    @Laura, I agree that creative writing is also a great way to get practice writing, and that rewriting with drafts and feedback is critical. I think the big message is to try to meet the students where there interest is. In my case, they have chosen to take a psychology class, so I am generally safe in assuming theybhave some interest in psychology. In a general Ed requirement, one doesn't have that luxury. I have taught more gen Ed courses and I agree that more creative writing can help. Anyways, despite being a scientist, I am a big proponent of the arts and humanities, at every level.
    @bubbler thanks! And I hear you about incorporating a mixed peer review and private instructor feedback system. It is one of those things I would love to get around to designing. Although I hesitate because students only have a tolerance for so much complexity in a class, especially when they are taking 4-5 different ones. As much as I want to change their expectations, I think we also have to be cognizant of the limits that their expectations put on us.

  5. I think what needs to change most is not the presence of the research paper in our classrooms (particularly as synthesizing resources and information is such a prominent standard in CCSS), but instead the way we approach teaching the research paper. I remember checking out 5-10 books at the school library, skimming for information, creating source cards for which I had to locate all the necessary pieces of information, creating note cards (with source codes!)--one for each fact from my research, ordering the note cards, outlining the note cards (with source code!), and finally "writing" my paper by using filler words to turn the facts on my cards into coherent sentences.

    I fail to see either the logic or the educational value in continuing to teach research papers in this way. Perhaps using class blogs (I like your definition, by the way) as a process piece in creating the research paper would be a 21st century way to approach the paper. Students could do research, write short blogs about facts they are finding and hyperlinking to their various sources, and blog their reactions and thoughts as they work to synthesize the vast resources on the Internet. This makes the learning more relevant to the students.

    I agree with you, there is immense value in having students complete research papers. I don't think we are teaching them, currently, in a way that is appropriate for 21st century learning.

  6. Read this in The New York Times "Room for Debate" section and remembered your blog post:


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