Why students need to know how to write an op-ed

February 24, 2016 1:22 PM
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By Pasi Sahlberg and Jonathan Hasak

Pasi Sahlberg is a noted Finnish educator and scholar. He is currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Jonathan Hasak, a teaching fellow for Sahlberg and associate director for the Metro North Regional Employment Board, graduated from HGSE in 2014 with a master's in education policy and management.

“Atticus told me to remove the adjectives and I’d have the facts.” – Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird, 1960)

Schools of education everywhere aim at preparing their graduates to change the world. The challenge, however, is that typical means of communicating reform knowledge are too slow and too weak to make an impact. Students may have knowledge about what to do, but they often don’t know how to influence others.

Outside of academia, effective contemporary education writing no longer needs to take a long and winding road toward traditional publication. Instead, op-eds, blogs, and social media outlets have become expedient ways to reach an audience with a short attention span that increasingly consumes its information on phones. In order to elevate educator voices in global education debates, we need to help students embrace this new style of communication — one that is coherent, succinct, and most importantly, attuned to our flagging attention spans.

But as our experience teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has shown, most students have an easy time writing extended academic papers but struggle with shorter pieces that express their opinions on educational issues. As a result, these future change-makers miss an opportunity to influence public opinion and shape practice at a significantly larger scale.

A Place for Opinion in Academia?

Each course we have taught at Harvard has included an assignment that asks students to take an opinion on an education topic they are passionate about. The only requirement is that the essay be about 600 words long. In reading their first drafts, regardless of how academically strong the students were, we would see that they were much less comfortable presenting their own perspectives and more comfortable citing research and adopting fashionable educational jargon.

In fact, the entire world of opinion-based texts seemed foreign to them. We learned two lessons. First, students consumed more than half of their available text space providing context, citing others’ works, or trying to cover the wider education reform debate. Second, they spent most of their attention at emphasizing a diagnosis (e.g. we need to professionalize the teaching profession) but wrote little about solutions (i.e. how exactly they proposed to professionalize the profession).

Perplexed, we started asking ourselves why writing op-eds was so challenging. Perhaps it was carelessness on our part in not providing rubrics to our students. Or maybe the fault lay with higher education institutions that ask students to write long academic papers that no longer hold an unrivaled place in research communication.

Academic writing is an important skill that all graduate students should master. Yet if students are serious about influencing public opinion and advocating for education reforms, we believe they should hone their opinion-writing skills as well. The ability to express an opinion clearly and effectively draws on critical-thinking, speaking, writing, and reading skills — and every graduate student should have these skills by the time they graduate.

Helping Students Embrace (Their Own) Voice

This is what we do. We run a class-long workshop for understanding what makes an effective op-ed. We remind students that many readers today have short attention spans, and that the first paragraph has to be interesting enough to keep them reading further.

Then we provide them five habits of mind of an op-ed writer.

  • We ask students to think carefully about the point they really want to make, before they start writing, so that they will arrive at a single issue that they succinctly and clearly communicate.
  • We encourage them to embrace their own voice, authority, and experiences; they should be passionate, authentic, and make the reader care about their topic.
  • We urge students to avoid jargon and generalities and to acknowledge different perspectives.
  • We make sure students support their opinions with facts.
  • We tell them that if they are citing a problem, they should also offer solutions.

Then comes the key principle: We allow students to rewrite their op-eds, which typically count as 15 to 20 percent of their entire grade, as many times as they want until they believe them to be complete.

This has been probably the single most beneficial learning experience for students. We want to teach them that writing an op-ed always requires rewriting and editing. Op-ed writers, regardless of their experience, have to be able to take an editor’s feedback and tolerate critical comments.

What We Learned

We have learned two things from teaching students to write opinion-based essays. First, writing op-eds to general audiences about educational issues is difficult. It requires different habits of minds and communication skills than typical academic writing. Second, many graduate students believe that although they have views about education, they don’t have voice to have opinions in public debates. We have seen that all it takes is one published op-ed in a national newspaper or on a popular blog to change this mindset dramatically.

Having the privilege to teach brilliant educators who aspire to change the world, we’ve realized that in a rapidly changing information landscape, they’ll make a greater impact if they update their communication skills. Learning how to write a compelling opinion piece is a good place to start.

Additional Resources

Read "It's Good — Let's Make It Great," about a high school writing assignment modeled after the op-ed workshop described here. 

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