Cross-posted from Kitchen Table Math:

A few nights ago, I was having dinner with a friend and her very smart fourteen year-old son.

My friend told me the story of how her son, who is in eighth grade, had come home from school with an assignment to write an 8-10 page paper.

The exceedingly nebulous instructions included brainstorming a “guiding question” and due dates for various drafts, but other than that, there was not one iota of specific information about how these thirteen and fourteen year-olds were supposed to go about writing the paper.

Never mind high school, it looked like the assignment sheet for a college term paper.

My friend, a teacher herself, was a bit concerned that the assignment was unclear and emailed his teacher. She couldn’t figure out whether the paper was supposed to be thesis-driven or whether it was just a research project, but the teacher wouldn’t give her a straightforward answer.

She asked her son whether he’d been given clearer instructions in class.

He shook his head.

“Do you know whether you need to have a thesis, or is it just research?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“Wait,” I said. “M., do you know how to write a thesis?”

He hesitated and looked confused. “What exactly do you mean by thesis…?”