2nd Graders Can Write Policy Briefs. 12th Graders Too.

In the inquiry-based social studies classroom, a summative assessment in the form of a policy brief allows students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to a real problem or current event.  For the high school student, the title of policy brief sounds mature and official, especially after they learn its purpose! But a policy brief can be used as an assessment for almost any grade level.

The successful use of a policy brief as a summative assessment depends on well-planned, student-centered instruction throughout a lesson or unit. The issue addressed by the brief should arise organically from students’ interests and be nurtured by the teacher’s skillful assistance in guiding students as they make connections between past events and current issues.


“The successful use of a policy brief… depends on well-planned, student-centered instruction throughout a lesson or unit.”


The first two initial steps in writing a policy brief are of equal importance; first students must identify a problem and then choose an audience to whom to address the brief. The problem or problems can usually be identified through classroom discussion or collaborative group work. Students will often want to consider the macro problems, so the teacher’s role is to help them consider the micro level of social action or agency.  Once students have selected a problem, they need to consider the audience. The audience should be a change maker; a person who can directly influence the solution to the problem they have identified. For example, in an 8th grade unit on child labor during the Industrial Revolution, the teacher introduces primary sources from both the past and present. After studying the past events, students research child labor in different parts of the world today. The teacher can skillfully question students to find out if a form of child labor exists in their own community. Are they or their peers asked to babysit for their siblings? Do some of them babysit (mow the lawn, run errands, etc) outside their family unit? Do they have to do chores or contribute in some other way to their family unit? Are they part of a school or community group that has expectations for them to work? As part of their inquiry, students can research expectations for students regarding work or supporting the family in different countries. Questions arise: What is work? Is it important to contribute through work to the community, family or school? Eventually, through discussion and inquiry, students in collaborative groups or individually will identify a problem in their school, community and world. The next step is to consider who the change maker is for the problem they’ve identified. Is it a school administrator, a parent or a world leader? Once they have identified their audience, they are now ready to write their policy brief.

The policy brief is composed of 5 basic parts which can be modified based on grade or academic levels:

  1. Summarize the problem
  2. Explain the problem – Why does this problem need to be solved?
  3. Offer possible solutions
  4. Recommend one solution
  5. Use evidence to explain why this solution is the best one
  • High school/advanced students: Research how to write a policy brief, choose audience and then write the brief as a final assessment making sure that the brief addresses a real-world problem. These briefs can become the basis for a service learning project if this is part of the school expectation.
  • Middle school: The teacher can introduce the policy brief and explain its purpose with a clear outline and format. A clear description of a policy brief can be found here.
  • Upper Elementary School: Students can be given questions or prompts for each section of the brief.

First, remember your audience! Who should read this policy brief? (Who are the decision makers or people you want to influence)

Can you describe the problem/issue?
Why is this problem important?
What are 3 possible ways this problem could be solved
What do you think is the best way to solve this problem?
Why do you think this is the best way to solve the problem? (Find examples to support your ideas)

 

Lower Elementary School:  Students can be given prompts and sentence starters for their policy briefs

First, remember your audience! Who do you want to read this?

The problem is ______________________________________________________________________

This problem is important because ______________________________________________________

One way to fix this problem is __________________________________________________________

This is a good way to solve this problem because __________________________________________

For K-12 students, policy briefs are a natural/organic assessment combining all of the critical elements of an inquiry unit. Writing a policy brief helps students synthesize the inquiry process while demanding output that is creative and evidence-based.  It is a purposeful activity, and under the management of a skillful teacher fosters writing that is clear, direct and concise. The assignment helps teachers assess student learning, and then refine the lesson and instruction.  Students dig deeper, become more engaged with the content, improve skills and ultimately, if the brief is presented to the ‘right’ audience, achieve agency in the school or community.

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