kitchen table math, the sequel: uh oh

Friday, March 9, 2012

uh oh

New AP Courses to Emphasize Critical Thinking and Research

The College Board is piloting two new Advanced Placement courses designed to focus on research skills that admissions counselors say are too often missing in high school graduates.

The new program for juniors and seniors, developed in collaboration with Cambridge International Examinations, will be tested over three years in 15 to 18 high schools starting this fall, the College Board announced today.

The AP/Cambridge Interdisciplinary Investigations and Critical Reasoning Seminar will be offered in 11th grade. Students will work in teams to research and write topics of global relevance. Each school can choose its own topic and pair different disciplines, such as history and English.

The AP/Cambridge Capstone Research Project taken in 12th grade involves writing a 4,500 to 5,000-word paper that will be evaluated on the students' ability to design, plan, and manage a research project, analyze information, and communicate their findings.

Trevor Packer, senior vice president of Advanced Placement and College Readiness for the College Board, says college admissions officers who sit on both organizations' advisory boards discussed the need for these types of courses. "They said U.S. students are not coming to college having developed research skills and the ability to integrate knowledge across a variety of academic disciplines," he says.
By Caralee Adams on March 5, 2012 5:47 PM
First of all, no college professor is complaining that students can't "integrate knowledge across a variety of academic disciplines." College professors are trained in the disciplines (in the disciplines, not across the disciplines); they research the disciplines; they teach the disciplines; and they'd like students to come to their classes prepared to do reasonably serious work within the discipline they research and teach, not across the discipline they teach and all the other disciplines they don't teach.

History professors aren't sitting around complaining their students don't know enough math, and math professors aren't sitting around complaining their students don't know enough history. No. History professors complain their students don't know history, math professors complain their students don't know math. (comma splice intentional)

Second, I tend to doubt college admissions officers came up with this idea on their own, though I wouldn't put it past them. More likely they're surfing the zeitgeist like everyone else, the zeitgeist being determined, for reasons unbeknownst to me, by Tony Wagner.

Third, I sat in on a Cambridge Pre-U global-shmobal course in a neighboring district, and it was wretched. Wretched! The course lasted a year and a half, replaced ELA, and involved no assigned reading whatsoever, and virtually no reading above the level of simple news stories and op-eds students found on Google. Students worked in groups -- group Googling, has anyone written a Prezi presentation on that? -- then gave group Powerpoints to the rest of the class during which they examined each item for possible bias: this was critical thinking.

One of the groups presenting that day had found a relevant article in Haaretz, so, seeing as how Haaretz is an Israeli newspaper, they reported to the class that the Haaretz article might be biased against Arabs. Apparently, when you are thinking critically, you take it as a given that anything written by anyone anywhere in Israel should be suspected of bias against Arabs; and that, furthermore, a suspected bias against Arabs should be first foremost on your mind. The fact that Haaretz is a liberal paper, and might thus be accused by some of 'bias' against, for instance, Israeli settlers, did not come up. (For the record, I have no idea what Haaretz is or is not, or might or might not be, biased for or against, or who thinks what about the paper and its writers. And I wouldn't presume to speculate.)

As I recall, the group concluded that the Haaretz article was not biased, mostly because the writer's prose stye was flat and factual-sounding.

All the topics were global, and none of the topics would be addressed within the boundaries of a discipline. Or even across the boundaries of the disciplines, in the case of "Technology and Islamophobia in France."

Technology and Islamophobia in France seemed to be one of four topics students could choose from. (When I told Ed about the Technology-and-Islamophobia option, he said, "Did anyone think critically about the concept of 'Islamophobia'?) Not only is there no discipline that studies Technology-and-Islamophobia-in-France, but judging by what the kids had managed to come up with online even Google doesn't have much to say on the subject.

One of the articles the students reviewed was about surveillance cameras in French airports, as I recall. The presence of surveillance cameras in French airports had to do with Islamophobia in France because there are a lot of Muslims in France, and the French were having a debate about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school. The headscarf controversy was the subject of another article the students reviewed, an op ed written in strong and emotional language, which led the students to conclude that the author of that piece was biased.

Here's an Eastchester version of the course. The Eastchester class has some assigned texts and consumes only a year, not a year and a half.


Anonymous said...

AP classes used to include research papers. History especially. Literature lends itself more to analytical papers, which were done in AP English. They are obviously trying to compensate for the fact that AP classes (at least in some schools; other still have them) have abandoned research papers.

SteveH said...

It doesn't bother me because they are separate courses. Students don't have to take them. If students think that colleges are equally impressed by any AP course, they are mistaken. In terms of critical thinking, they would be better off with an AP Debating course. (This makes me think of Doug.) In any case, colleges will still first look at AP Calculus, AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics. There are limited class slots in high school, and if you take AP Critical Thinking (or whatever) over AP Biology, it's going to say a lot, and probably not what you hoped for.

Then again, if the goal is to impress college admissions officers, then the class might work by definition. Perhaps, it's just a case of having AP classes that compete with IB. Perhaps the goal is to build an IB-like set of classes out of individual AP classes. High schools won't have to choose between IB and AP or struggle to include both. They try to do that at my niece's old high school. They were already mixing IB and AP students in some classes.

The next question is what college class can be eliminated or skipped if you take the AP critical thinking or integration course? It sounds like the justification for the class is more remedial than advanced placement.

LSquared32 said...

I was trying to think of exceptions to your statement that college professors are only concerned about discipline specific knowledge, and I came up with two: college professors expect students to be able to write grammatical sentences, and they notice (and are unhappy) when they can't. Many professors also want students to be able to solve equations of the form ax=b. Pretty much if students are supposed to do more than that math-wise there's a math prerequisite for the course. So, my theory is that the two interdisciplinary courses in high school, so far as most college professors care about them, are English and math (and a fairly basic level of both)... Possibly education professors care about interdisciplinary stuff--I'm not sure.

Catherine Johnson said...

college professors expect students to be able to write grammatical sentences, and they notice (and are unhappy) when they can't.

Definitely -- good point.

However, writing isn't a discipline (not exactly --- I'm not completely clear about what Rhetoric is ---- )

Basically, when it comes right down to it, professors are trained in disciplines and work within disciplines.

The professors I know believe in liberal education; they believe, as a value, in students having broad knowledge of the disciplines.

But they don't ask students to do interdisciplinary projects and in fact aren't really qualified to assess an interdisciplinary project.

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't **think** you get college credit for this course (I was skimming quickly, so I could be wrong.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Did anyone think critically about the concept of 'Islamophobia?.

As in: does Islamophobia actually exist?

Or is "Islamophobia" itself a polemical term inventing and condemning a form of bias for political purposes.

That was not addressed.

"Islamophobia" was taken as a real thing requiring attention and investigation.

Ditto for "Islamophobia in France."

Anonymous said...

Does the school's annual report card have a statistic for percent of students enrolled in AP classes? If so, the administration will welcome the creation of new AP classes. And even better, AP classes with hard-to-define prerequisites. This gives you a way to offer the AP label to the students whose track records makes it clear that they won't make the cut in, say, AP Bio...

The college board has tightened up on their brand. School's can only call a course "AP" after submitting their curriculum to the college board for approval. But interestingly, there is no requirement as to the percent of the students enrolled who must sit for the exam -- to say nothing of a requirement to pass. So you can keep calling your class AP whatever even if only a tiny fraction of your students are earning 3's on the tests. And colleges are not throwing credits to even the kids who do get 3's. But the students don't care for the same reason that the high school's don't care: they all got what they wanted out of the course as soon as it appeared on the transcript.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Or is "Islamophobia" itself a polemical term inventing and condemning a form of bias for political purposes.

That is so far beyond the level of most of the high school students I've encountered that I think a teacher would probably have to spend a couple of *weeks* just trying to explain the literal meaning of that sentence. Understanding it requires that one:

1) understand the syntax of the statement.

2) know what the word "polemical" means or, if you've just memorized it (flashcards anyone?) be able to remember it long enough to have a discussion about it without consulting

3) be able to relate the abstract category "forms of bias" to the specific idea of Islamophobia.

4) be able to understand the relationship between language and politics, and the fact that words do not simply spring fully formed from the ethers but rather have the potential to be both political constructions and tools of manipulation.

5) actually know something about French history and culture beyond a five-second explanation of "la laicite" and "l'affaire du foulard."

I could go on like this for a while.

Any one of those things is a tall order, but all of it together. Not going to happen. Heck, I had a friend who wrote a thesis on "L'affaire du foulard" in COLLEGE, and even she was falling back on simplistic ideas about French exceptionalism. Better just to make them learn something about the Revolution and The Third Republic. Oh, right, that's called history class.

SteveH said...

"This gives you a way to offer the AP label to the students whose track records makes it clear that they won't make the cut in, say, AP Bio..."

This is huge at our high school. We even have a banner hanging up about the high percentage of students who take at least one AP class at our high school. We have open houses each year where parents and students come to listen to teachers and students talk about AP classes. Students know what the easier AP classes are, and the school hasn't offered AP Chemistry in years.

Add to that the weight given to AP classes. For a regular class, the GPA weight is 3. For an honors class, the weight is 3.4, and for an AP class, the weight is 3.7. That is huge and for the top students, 5 AP classes in their senior year is not uncommon. This is not done by taking AP Calculus, AP Physics, and AP Biology. Pretty soon, the junior year will be filled with AP classes. My son will be taking 3 in his junior year, and that's probably the limit for now. That may change if pre-requisites are reduced. Some might skip taking something like Spanish IV in their junior year just to take an AP class because you have to take AP Spanish IV before taking AP Spanish. That's impossible to do in your junior year. My son lobbied to skip Spanish III, but they didn't allow him to do that. So, the top students try to take enough (?) strong AP classes, but fill in the other slots with easier AP classes just to compete on class rank.

Outside of the AP arms race, AP classes are a good thing. Courses are defined externally to the school and that makes it easier to compare yourself with others. You can have someone who is struggling in math do extremely well in AP Music or AP Art.

Anonymous said...

Wow. A 5,000-word paper. Our 4th grader just turned in a 2,500 word one. Big deal.

Catherine Johnson said...

Does the school's annual report card have a statistic for percent of students enrolled in AP classes? If so, the administration will welcome the creation of new AP classes. And even better, AP classes with hard-to-define prerequisites.

Good point!

I didn't think of that.

The Cambridge Pre-U class I saw was explicitly adopted in order to have all students at all levels enrolled.

During the class, there was one student who was bringing up the problems in the presentation; listening to him almost became painful, because he was right, and he just kept going, pointing out the illogic.

After the class, the principal told us that some of the most vocal students in the class were **not** Honors students; they were students who weren't allowed to take AP/Honors courses. (The district has no open enrollment.)

I wonder if this is a general principle --- 'global' courses, courses where you Google the things you're going to read & give Powerpoint presentations on what you found --- are these seen as courses non-Honors kids can take?

Catherine Johnson said...

Wow. A 5,000-word paper. Our 4th grader just turned in a 2,500 word one. Big deal.

Why is a 4th grader writing a 10-page paper???

(Are you in favor?)

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi SATVerbal!

Ditto that!

I'm pretty sure the students didn't make up the topic --- which means that the teachers gave them that topic, thus endorsing "Islamophobia" as real in the same way "claustrophobia" is real when in fact this is a word of suspiciously recent vintage.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh, interesting

Pascal Bruckner says the term was invented in Iran at the end of the 1970s.

Took me about two minutes to come up with that.

I fail to see why the two teachers of the class (one an ELA teacher, the other a history teacher) couldn't have done the same.

Catherine Johnson said...

I must say...I would actually like to know how exactly the topic "Islamophobia and Technology in France" came to pass.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was also uncomfortable with the fact that neither of the teachers challenged the idea that one should automatically suspect anti-Arab bias in anything written in Israel.

To tell the truth, I would probably suspect anything written in Israel of anti-Arab bias (just because it would pop up in my mind) BUT I would also wonder whether my automatic suspicion was itelf a form of bias itself.

I have **no** idea what anti-Arab bias means in Israel or to an Israeli or to different groups of Israelis.

Basically, neither teacher seemed to have defined the concept of bias for students (or for themselves).

I'm not sure I could define it, BUT I also don't encourage my students to evaluate other people's biases.

Catherine Johnson said...

There were soooo many things wrong with that class, AND it was almost the opposite of what 'critical thinking' actually is.

What is bias?

What would you need to know to be able to assess an article written by an Israeli writer for anti-Arab bias?

Those are large questions, but in this class -- which one of the teachers repeatedly praised as being 'light' on 'content' -- the answers were simply assumed.

Anonymous said...


I definitely see this AP course as a merger of AP and IB. And for those of you who think the College Board promotes solid academic content you should see what they published in the last go-around at national ed reform-Goals 2000/School to Work.

The College Board backed off its revised World History course that was to have gone into effect this school year because too many people recognized what had changed and the erroneous views being pushed. This Ap course fits in with how Common Core is actually going to be implemented. And what the successor courses will be.

Pull up AACU's The Crucible Moment report and you will get a strong idea of just how much college is to change to match up with college ready.

Student of History

Catherine Johnson said...

I definitely see this AP course as a merger of AP and IB.

I agree.

That's what it sounded like as soon as I read.

The Crucible Moment?

(Do I want to look?)

SATVerbalTutor. said...


I figured the students wouldn't have proposed a topic like "Islamophobia in France" on their own. That would imply an outside awareness of the topic, and from what you were describing of the class, it seemed highly unlikely. If critical thinking and reflection about the nature of bias were truly involved in that discussion, however, the students might ask why their teacher had deliberately chosen a topic designed to portray France in a negative light (American kids tend to see the issue through the lens of American = multicultural and tolerant = good, France = prejudicial and intolerant = bad). Then they might have learned something about the sorts of biases that Americans tend to take for granted.

And side note, maybe I'm missing something huge here, but what do "technology" and "Islamophobia" have to do with one another?

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Just wanted to add: when college professors complain about what kids don't know, I would assume they're complaining about the fact that they can't *literally* understand statements like Ed's. They certainly have trouble when they encounter them on the SAT -- the sentence completions that are obviously taken from academic articles just destroy them because they can't follow the logic of the statements, never mind the passage-based reading -- and I would assume the problems are only compounded in college.

That has nothing to do with "critical thinking" or "interdisciplinary" work and everything to do with lack of exposure to a wide range of texts and ideas. Drawing relationships between concrete and abstract requires that you have pre-existing notions of abstract categories, and if you spend all your time looking things up on Wikipedia, you get the idea that everything exists in discrete bites of information fundamentally unrelated to anything else.

Anonymous said...

Our 4th grader was assigned a 5-paragraph paper for the science fair (some kids turned in a single page). He got so into it that it ballooned into 2,500 words. I didn't have the heart to stop him.

If it had been assigned that, I certainly wouldn't favor it at that age. But since it was his idea and initiative, I'm all for it.