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Three Classic Essays On How To Change The World

Bring in a few print copies of a newspaper, whether The Times or a local or school paper, and have your students work in small groups to contrast a news page with an opinion page and see what they discover.

Though this piece, “And Now a Word From Op-Ed,” is from 2004, it still provides a useful and quick overview of The Times’s Opinion section, even if the section then was mostly a print product. It begins this way:

Here at the Op-Ed page, there are certain questions that are as constant as the seasons. How does one get published? Who chooses the articles? Does The Times have an agenda? And, of course, why was my submission rejected? Now that I’ve been Op-Ed editor for a year, let me try to offer a few answers.

This 2013 article, “Op-Ed and You,” also helps both readers of the section, and potential writers for it, understand how Times Opinion works:

Anything can be an Op-Ed. We’re not only interested in policy, politics or government. We’re interested in everything, if it’s opinionated and we believe our readers will find it worth reading. We are especially interested in finding points of view that are different from those expressed in Times editorials. If you read the editorials, you know that they present a pretty consistent liberal point of view. There are lots of other ways of looking at the world, to the left and right of that position, and we are particularly interested in presenting those points of view.

After students have read one or both of these overviews, invite them to explore the Times’s Opinion section, noting what they find and raising questions as they go. You might ask:

• What pieces look most interesting to you? Why?

• What subsections are featured in the links across the top of the section (“Columnists”; “Series”; “Editorials”; “Op-Ed”; “Letters”; etc.) and what do you find in each? How do they seem to work together?

• How do you think the editors of this section decide what to publish?

• What role does this section seem to play in The Times as a whole?

• Would you ever want to write an Op-Ed or a letter to the editor? What might you write about?

If your students are confused about where and how news and opinion can sometimes bleed together, our lesson plan, News and ‘News Analysis’: Navigating Fact and Opinion in The Times, can help.

And to go even deeper, this lesson plan from 2010 focuses on a special section produced that year, “Op-Ed at 40: Four Decades of Argument and Illustration.” It helps students understand the role the Op-Ed page has played at The Times since 1970, and links to many classic pieces.

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2. Know the difference between fact and opinion.

In our lesson plan Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion, you’ll find activities students can use with any day’s Times to practice.

For instance, you might invite them to read an Op-Ed and underline the facts and circle the opinion statements they find, then compare their work in small groups.

Or, read a news report and an opinion piece on the same topic and look for the differences. For example, which of the first paragraphs below about the shooting in Las Vegas is from a news article and which is from an opinion piece? How can they tell?

Paragraph A: After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, the impulse of politicians will be to lower flags, offer moments of silence, and lead a national mourning. Yet what we need most of all isn’t mourning, but action to lower the toll of guns in America. (From “Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack”)

Paragraph B: A gunman on a high floor of a Las Vegas hotel rained a rapid-fire barrage on an outdoor concert festival on Sunday night, leaving at least 59 people dead, injuring 527 others, and sending thousands of terrified survivors fleeing for cover, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. (From “Multiple Weapons Found in Las Vegas Gunman’s Hotel Room”)

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3. Analyze the use of rhetorical strategies like ethos, pathos and logos.

Do your students know what ethos, pathos and logos mean? The video above, “What Aristotle and Joshua Bell Can Teach Us About Persuasion,” can help. We use it in this lesson plan, in which students explore the use of these rhetorical devices via the Op-Ed “Rap Lyrics on Trial” and more. The lesson also helps students try out their own use of rhetoric to make a persuasive argument.

In the post, we quote a New Yorker article, “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” that explains the strategies in a way that students may readily understand:

In 350 B.C., Aristotle was already wondering what could make content — in his case, a speech — persuasive and memorable, so that its ideas would pass from person to person. The answer, he argued, was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic — it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.

Take the New Yorker’s advice and invite them to choose viral content from their social networks and identify ethos, pathos and logos at work.

Or, use the handouts and ideas in our post An Argument-Writing Unit: Crafting Student Editorials, in which Kayleen Everitt, an eighth-grade English teacher, has her students take on advertising the same way.

Finally, if you’d like a recommendation for a specific Op-Ed that will richly reward student analysis of these elements, Kabby Hong, a teacher at Verona Area High School in Wisconsin, who will be our guest on our “Write to Change the World” webinar, recommends Nicholas Kristof’s column “If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?“

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4. Identify claims and evidence.

The Common Core Standards put argument front and center in American education, and even young readers are now expected to be able to identify claims in opinion pieces and find the evidence to support them.

We have a number of lesson plans that can help.

First, Constructing Arguments: “Room for Debate” and the Common Core Standards, uses an Opinion feature that, though now defunct, can still be a great resource for teachers. Use the archives of Room for Debate, which featured succinct arguments on interesting topics from a number of points of view, to introduce students to perspectives on everything from complex geopolitical or theological topics to whether people are giving Too Much Information in today’s Facebook world.

We also have two comprehensive lesson plans — For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments — that were written to support students in crafting their own editorials for our annual contest. In both, we first introduce readers to “mentor texts,” from The Times and elsewhere, that help them see how effective claims, evidence and counterclaims function in making a strong argument.

Finally, if you’re looking for a fun way to practice, we often hear from teachers that our What’s Going On in This Picture? feature works well. To participate, students must make a claim about what they believe is “going on” in a work of Times photojournalism stripped of its caption, then come up with evidence to support what they say.

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5. Adopt a columnist.

We have heard from many teachers over the years that a favorite assignment is to have students each “adopt” a different newspaper columnist, and follow him or her over weeks or months, noting the issues they focus on and the rhetorical strategies they use to make their cases. Throughout, students can compare what they find — and, of course, apply what they learn to their own writing.

For example, here is a sample assignment we found online called “Summer Reading Columnist Project.” If you would like to try it with The Times, here are the current Op-Ed columnists:

Charles M. Blow

David Brooks

Frank Bruni

Roger Cohen

Gail Collins

Ross Douthat

Maureen Dowd

Thomas L. Friedman

Michelle Goldberg

Nicholas Kristof

Paul Krugman

David Leonhardt

Andrew Rosenthal

Bret Stephens

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6. Explore visual argument-making via Times Op-Art, editorial cartoons and Op-Docs.

The New York Times regularly commissions artists and cartoonists to create work to accompany Opinion pieces. How do illustrations like the one above add meaning to a text, while grabbing readers’ attention at the same time? What can students infer about the argument being made in an Op-Ed article by looking at the illustration alone?

In this lesson plan, students investigate how art works together with text to emphasize a point of view. They then create their own original illustrations to go with a Times editorial, Op-Ed article or letter to the editor. We also suggest that they can illustrate an Opinion piece or letter to the editor that does not have an illustration associated with it.

Recently, Clara Lieu, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, told us how she uses that very idea to help her student-artists to create their own pieces. To see some of their work, check out “Finding Artistic Inspiration in The New York Times’s Opinion Section.”

If your students would like to go further and create their own editorial cartoons, we offer an annual student contest. Invite your students to check out the work of last year’s winners for inspiration. This year’s runs through Oct. 17, and we have a lesson plan, Drawing for Change: Analyzing and Making Political Cartoons, to go with it.

Another way to use visual journalism to teach argument-making? Use Op-Docs, The Times’s short documentary series (most under 15 minutes), that touches on issues like race and gender identity, technology and society, civil rights, criminal justice, ethics, and artistic and scientific exploration — issues that both matter to teenagers and complement classroom content.

Every Friday during the school year, we host a Film Club in which we select short Op-Docs we think will inspire powerful conversations — and then invite teenagers and teachers from around the world to have those conversations here, on our site.

And for a great classroom example of how this might work in practice, check out Using an Op-Doc Video to Teach Argumentative Writing, a Reader Idea from Allison Marchetti, an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Va. She details how her students analyzed the seven-minute film “China’s Web Junkies” to see how the filmmakers used evidence to support an argument, including expert testimony, facts, interview, imagery, statistics and anecdotes.

Ideas for Writing Opinion Pieces

7. Use our student writing prompts to practice making arguments for a real audience.

Does Technology Make Us More Alone?

Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?

Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?

Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?

Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?

When Do You Become an Adult?

Is America Headed in the Right Direction?

Every day during the school year we invite teenagers to share their opinions about questions like these, and hundreds do, posting arguments, reflections and anecdotes to our Student Opinion feature. Last year, we created a list drawn from this feature of 401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing on an array of topics like technology, politics, sports, education, health, parenting, science and pop culture.

Teachers tell us they use our writing prompts because they offer an opportunity for students to write for an “authentic audience.” But we also consider our daily questions to be a chance for the kind of “low-stakes” writing that can help students practice thinking through thorny questions informally.

This school year, we’ve also begun calling out our favorite comments weekly via our Current Events Conversation feature. Will your students’ posts be next?

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8. Participate in our annual Student Editorial Contest.

What issues matter most to your students?

Every year, we invite teenagers to channel their passions into formal pieces: short, evidence-based persuasive essays like the editorials The New York Times publishes every day.

The challenge is pretty straightforward. Choose a topic you care about, gather evidence from sources both within and outside of The New York Times, and write a concise editorial (450 words or less) to convince readers of your point of view.

Our judges use this rubric (PDF) for selecting winners to publish on The Learning Network.

And at a time when breaking out of one’s “filter bubble” is more important than ever, we hope this contest also encourages students to broaden their news diets by using multiple sources, ideally ones that offer a range of perspectives on their chosen issue.

This school year, as you can see from our 2017-18 Student Contest Calendar, the challenge will run from Feb. 28 to April 5, 2018.

And, as we mentioned above, we have published two lesson plans to help guide every step:

• For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials and

• I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments

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9. Take advice from writers and editors at the Times’s Opinion section.

How can you write a powerful Op-Ed or editorial?

Well, over the years, many Times editors and writers have given the aspiring opiners advice. In the video above, for instance, Andrew Rosenthal, in his previous role as Editorial Page editor, detailed seven pointers for the students who participate in our annual Editorial Contest,

This summer, the Times Op-Ed columnist Bret Stephens wrote his own Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.

And on our Oct. 10 webinar, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests his own ten ideas. (Scroll down to see what they are, as well as to find related Op-Ed columns.)

Finally, if you’d like to get a letter to the editor published, here is what Tom Feyer, the longtime head of that section, recommends. Right now, from Oct. 9-Oct. 16, 2017, that section is offering a special letter-writing challenge for high school students. Submit a letter to the editor in response to a news article, editorial, column or Op-Ed essay in The Times from the past week, and they will pick a selection of the best entries and publish them on Sunday, Oct. 22.

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10. Use the published work of young people as mentor texts.

Last year, five students of Kabby Hong, the teacher who joined us for our Oct. 10 webinar, were either winners, runners-up or honorable mentions in our Student Editorial Contest.

How did he do it? First, he helps his students brainstorm by asking them the questions on this sheet. (The first page shows his own sample answers since he models them for his students.)

Then, he uses the work of previous student winners alongside famous pieces like “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to show his class what effective persuasive writing looks like. Here is a PDF of the handout Mr. Hong gave out last year, which he calls “Layering in Brushstrokes,” and which analyzes aspects of each of these winning essays:

•“In Three and a Half Hours, an Alarm Will Go Off”

•“Redefining Ladylike”

•“Why I, a Heterosexual Teenage Boy, Want to See More Men in Speedos”

Another great source of published opinion writing by young people? The Times series “On Campus,” where you can read essays by college students on everything from “The Looming Uncertainty for Dreamers Like Me” to “Dropping Out of College Into Life.”

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Update: Oct. 10: Links from Our Oct. 10 Webinar

On our Oct. 10 webinar (still available on-demand), Nicholas Kristof talked teachers through ten ways anyone can make their persuasive writing stronger. Here is a list of his tips, along with the columns that relate to each — though you’ll need to watch the full webinar to hear the stories and examples that illustrate them.

Nicholas Kristof’s Ten Tips for Writing Op-Eds

1. Start out with a very clear idea in your own mind about the point you want to make.

Related: Preventing Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack

2. Don’t choose a topic, choose an argument.

Related: On Death Row, but Is He Innocent?

3. Start with a bang.

Related: If Americans Love Moms, Why Do We Let Them Die?

4. Personal stories are often very powerful to make a point.

Related: This is What a Refugee Looks Like

5. If the platform allows it, use photos or video or music or whatever.

Related: The Photos the U.S. and Saudi Arabia Don’t Want You to See

6. Don’t feel the need to be formal and stodgy.

Related: Meet the World’s Leaders, in Hypocrisy

7. Acknowledge shortcomings in your arguments if the readers are likely to be aware of them, and address them openly.

Related: A Solution When a Nation’s Schools Fail

8. It’s often useful to cite an example of what you’re criticizing, or quote from an antagonist, because it clarifies what you’re against.

Related: Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl

9. If you’re really trying to persuade people who are on the fence, remember that their way of thinking may not be yours.

Related: We Don’t Deny Harvey, So Why Deny Climate Change?

10. When your work is published, spread the word through social media or emails or any other avenue you can think of.

Related: You can find Nicholas Kristof on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, his Times blog, and via his free newsletter.

Continue reading the main story

Fifty years ago this month, one of the most influential books of the 20th century was published by the University of Chicago Press. Many if not most lay people have probably never heard of its author, Thomas Kuhn, or of his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but their thinking has almost certainly been influenced by his ideas. The litmus test is whether you've ever heard or used the term "paradigm shift", which is probably the most used – and abused – term in contemporary discussions of organisational change and intellectual progress. A Google search for it returns more than 10 million hits, for example. And it currently turns up inside no fewer than 18,300 of the books marketed by Amazon. It is also one of the most cited academic books of all time. So if ever a big idea went viral, this is it.

The real measure of Kuhn's importance, however, lies not in the infectiousness of one of his concepts but in the fact that he singlehandedly changed the way we think about mankind's most organised attempt to understand the world. Before Kuhn, our view of science was dominated by philosophical ideas about how it ought to develop ("the scientific method"), together with a heroic narrative of scientific progress as "the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors", as the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy puts it. Before Kuhn, in other words, we had what amounted to the Whig interpretation of scientific history, in which past researchers, theorists and experimenters had engaged in a long march, if not towards "truth", then at least towards greater and greater understanding of the natural world.

Kuhn's version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version. Where the standard account saw steady, cumulative "progress", he saw discontinuities – a set of alternating "normal" and "revolutionary" phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. The fact that his version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962 almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how science did – and should – work.

What made it worse for philosophers of science was that Kuhn wasn't even a philosopher: he was a physicist, dammit. Born in 1922 in Cincinnati, he studied physics at Harvard, graduating summa cum laude in 1943, after which he was swept up by the war effort to work on radar. He returned to Harvard after the war to do a PhD – again in physics – which he obtained in 1949. He was then elected into the university's elite Society of Fellows and might have continued to work on quantum physics until the end of his days had he not been commissioned to teach a course on science for humanities students as part of the General Education in Science curriculum. This was the brainchild of Harvard's reforming president, James Conant, who believed that every educated person should know something about science.

The course was centred around historical case studies and teaching it forced Kuhn to study old scientific texts in detail for the first time. (Physicists, then as now, don't go in much for history.) Kuhn's encounter with the scientific work of Aristotle turned out to be a life- and career-changing epiphany.

"The question I hoped to answer," he recalled later, "was how much mechanics Aristotle had known, how much he had left for people such as Galileo and Newton to discover. Given that formulation, I rapidly discovered that Aristotle had known almost no mechanics at all… that conclusion was standard and it might in principle have been right. But I found it bothersome because, as I was reading him, Aristotle appeared not only ignorant of mechanics, but a dreadfully bad physical scientist as well. About motion, in particular, his writings seemed to me full of egregious errors, both of logic and of observation."

What Kuhn had run up against was the central weakness of the Whig interpretation of history. By the standards of present-day physics, Aristotle looks like an idiot. And yet we know he wasn't. Kuhn's blinding insight came from the sudden realisation that if one is to understand Aristotelian science, one must know about the intellectual tradition within which Aristotle worked. One must understand, for example, that for him the term "motion" meant change in general – not just the change in position of a physical body, which is how we think of it. Or, to put it in more general terms, to understand scientific development one must understand the intellectual frameworks within which scientists work. That insight is the engine that drives Kuhn's great book.

Kuhn remained at Harvard until 1956 and, having failed to get tenure, moved to the University of California at Berkeley where he wrote Structure… and was promoted to a professorship in 1961. The following year, the book was published by the University of Chicago Press. Despite the 172 pages of the first edition, Kuhn – in his characteristic, old-world scholarly style – always referred to it as a mere "sketch". He would doubtless have preferred to have written an 800-page doorstop.

But in the event, the readability and relative brevity of the "sketch" was a key factor in its eventual success. Although the book was a slow starter, selling only 919 copies in 1962-3, by mid-1987 it had sold 650,000 copies and sales to date now stand at 1.4 million copies. For a cerebral work of this calibre, these are Harry Potter-scale numbers.

Kuhn's central claim is that a careful study of the history of science reveals that development in any scientific field happens via a series of phases. The first he christened "normal science" – business as usual, if you like. In this phase, a community of researchers who share a common intellectual framework – called a paradigm or a "disciplinary matrix" – engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies (anomalies) between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Most of the time, the anomalies are resolved either by incremental changes to the paradigm or by uncovering observational or experimental error. As philosopher Ian Hacking puts it in his terrific preface to the new edition of Structure: "Normal science does not aim at novelty but at clearing up the status quo. It tends to discover what it expects to discover."

The trouble is that over longer periods unresolved anomalies accumulate and eventually get to the point where some scientists begin to question the paradigm itself. At this point, the discipline enters a period of crisis characterised by, in Kuhn's words, "a proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals". In the end, the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary change in world-view in which the now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one. This is the paradigm shift of modern parlance and after it has happened the scientific field returns to normal science, based on the new framework. And so it goes on.

This brutal summary of the revolutionary process does not do justice to the complexity and subtlety of Kuhn's thinking. To appreciate these, you have to read his book. But it does perhaps indicate why Structure… came as such a bombshell to the philosophers and historians who had pieced together the Whig interpretation of scientific progress.

As an illustration, take Kuhn's portrayal of "normal" science. The most influential philosopher of science in 1962 was Karl Popper, described by Hacking as "the most widely read, and to some extent believed, by practising scientists". Popper summed up the essence of "the" scientific method in the title of one of his books: Conjectures and Refutations. According to Popper, real scientists (as opposed to, say, psychoanalysts) were distinguished by the fact that they tried to refute rather than confirm their theories. And yet Kuhn's version suggested that the last thing normal scientists seek to do is to refute the theories embedded in their paradigm!

Many people were also enraged by Kuhn's description of most scientific activity as mere "puzzle-solving" – as if mankind's most earnest quest for knowledge was akin to doing the Times crossword. But in fact these critics were over-sensitive. A puzzle is something to which there is a solution. That doesn't mean that finding it is easy or that it will not require great ingenuity and sustained effort. The unconscionably expensive quest for the Higgs boson that has recently come to fruition at Cern, for example, is a prime example of puzzle-solving because the existence of the particle was predicted by the prevailing paradigm, the so-called "standard model" of particle physics.

But what really set the cat among the philosophical pigeons was one implication of Kuhn's account of the process of paradigm change. He argued that competing paradigms are "incommensurable": that is to say, there exists no objective way of assessing their relative merits. There's no way, for example, that one could make a checklist comparing the merits of Newtonian mechanics (which applies to snooker balls and planets but not to anything that goes on inside the atom) and quantum mechanics (which deals with what happens at the sub-atomic level). But if rival paradigms are really incommensurable, then doesn't that imply that scientific revolutions must be based – at least in part – on irrational grounds? In which case, are not the paradigm shifts that we celebrate as great intellectual breakthroughs merely the result of outbreaks of mob psychology?

Kuhn's book spawned a whole industry of commentary, interpretation and exegesis. His emphasis on the importance of communities of scientists clustered round a shared paradigm essentially triggered the growth of a new academic discipline – the sociology of science – in which researchers began to examine scientific disciplines much as anthropologists studied exotic tribes, and in which science was regarded not as a sacred, untouchable product of the Enlightenment but as just another subculture.

As for his big idea – that of a "paradigm" as an intellectual framework that makes research possible –well, it quickly escaped into the wild and took on a life of its own. Hucksters, marketers and business school professors adopted it as a way of explaining the need for radical changes of world-view in their clients. And social scientists saw the adoption of a paradigm as a route to respectability and research funding, which in due course led to the emergence of pathological paradigms in fields such as economics, which came to esteem mastery of mathematics over an understanding of how banking actually works, with the consequences that we now have to endure.

The most intriguing idea, however, is to use Kuhn's thinking to interpret his own achievement. In his quiet way, he brought about a conceptual revolution by triggering a shift in our understanding of science from a Whiggish paradigm to a Kuhnian one, and much of what is now done in the history and philosophy of science might be regarded as "normal" science within the new paradigm. But already the anomalies are beginning to accumulate. Kuhn, like Popper, thought that science was mainly about theory, but an increasing amount of cutting-edge scientific research is data- rather than theory-driven. And while physics was undoubtedly the Queen of the Sciences when Structure… was being written, that role has now passed to molecular genetics and biotechnology. Does Kuhn's analysis hold good for these new areas of science? And if not, isn't it time for a paradigm shift?

In the meantime, if you're making a list of books to read before you die, Kuhn's masterwork is one.

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