Common Core: Flat Solution to a 3D Problem? (Part 1)

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Common Core: Flat Solution to a 3D Problem? (Part 1)

Yesterday I found this blog post by Bob Gallagher, a retired Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, arguing that we have to give the Common Core Standards time to work, that the impatience of Americans often sacrifices long-term vision on the alter of short term results.  I have never met Bob, but my bet is that he knows a heck of a lot about how learning has taken place in our schools over the past several decades, and about the evolution of the Common Core Standards.

In this two-part blog I want to contribute to the critical discussion of how we view the CCS. Gallagher’s clear articulation of the goals of CCS allows me to argue its critical flaw.  The CCS is a step forward, but it is still a two-dimensional solution to a problem that has three dimensions.  Now, a construct of three dimensions needs a solid base plane, and therefore I am not amongst those who argue that the CCS is a drag anchor and should be scrapped.  BUT if the CCS is our goal, and that is where we put all of our focus, we are going to end up with an enhanced version of the current industrial-age model, because the thinking and goals that created the CCS are all in that same plane.  We need lift-off.

Last fall on my EdJourney I visited with Pam Moran and her team at Albermarle County Schools in Virginia and she allowed me to post this figure that they have used to get their community to visualize the three critical axes of the learning experience they are creating:

Screen shot 2012-11-01 at 4.26.48 PM

“What students will know” is what we call content.  “What students will use” is what we call skills or context.  Those two axes contain the plane of the Common Core, in my opinion.  Thank goodness the CCS requires us to move farther out on the “what students will use” axis, and thank goodness teachers have the latitude to move quite far in this direction.  It also, in theory, gives them the latitude to get off this plane all together.  But does anything in the CCS demand that a teacher or a school get off this plane?

The third axis is what creates great learning.  That is not my humble view; we should call this the Dewey axis.  None of us, student, teacher, parent, employee, learns well unless we find a compelling reason to do so.  This is the central tenant of my book, The Falconer. Thirty years ago I made the argument that great learning does NOT start with problem solving and critical thinking, which are core aspects of the CCS improvements.  This is what I wrote; it is the argument for the third axis:

Truly great teachers, in the classroom, on the playing field, at home, or in business, all share one common strategy. They serve up their subject in such a way that I, the student sitting in their classroom, their locker room, or their boardroom, feel a personal stake in learning what it is that they are trying to teach me. I need to know the answers to questions that are raised.  How do great teachers do that?

They do it by making us want to overcome the challenge of learning.  Teachers who hand out a problem and say “solve it” are not great teachers, because half of the students don’t give a damn about the question that was just asked.  They see no reason, no compelling personal motivation to delve into the unknown to find the answer.  So they don’t, or they don’t very well, and true learning doesn’t take place.

The excitement of learning, the compelling personal drive to take one more step on the path towards wisdom, comes when we try to solve a problem we want to solve, when we see a challenge and say, “yes, I can meet it”.  Great teachers lead us just far enough down a path so we can see a challenge for ourselves.  They provide us just enough insight so we can work toward a solution that makes us, makes me want to jump up and shout out the solution to the world, makes me want to step to the next higher level.  Great teachers somehow make us want to ask the questions that they want us to answer, overcome the challenge that they, because they are our teacher, believe we need to overcome.

We know in our educational souls that Dewey was right, that relevance leads to engagement and that engagement is THE key to learning.  Engagement is the difference between “doing” and “learning”.  Which gets me back to the thoughtful post by Mr. Gallagher. In summarizing some of the goals of the CCS he writes:

I have heard many teachers say that this is nothing new but rehashed curriculum reworded and reworked. Nothing is further from the truth. The Common Core is asking teachers to think and act differently across the board from the way schools are now organized. A couple of examples of this are:

a)    Reading and writing expectations is no longer the province of just reading or English teachers. Every teacher K-12 will play a part in working with literacy skills.

b)   Reading and writing is interconnected and will need to be a daily activity.

c)    There is a need to increase the volume of reading and writing each day. Across the curriculum, students should read for one hour and write for 30 minutes every day. That is much more than research shows happens in schools today.

d)   There is an emphasis in vocabulary development across the grades and disciplines.

e)    There will be an emphasis on supporting both struggling students and advanced learning students on an as needed basis.

The goals are admirable, but they represent flat thinking that is constrained within the two dimensions of our current industrial model.  Where is the voice of student ownership, of problem finding, of questioning, discovery, passion, and relevance?  Great teachers will take the CCS, just as they have for hundreds of years before there was a CCS, and create an environment where student engagement flourishes.  All of the other teachers will follow the guidelines and new assessments will show that their students have a better grasp of exactly what the teacher demanded that they have a better grasp of. It is a publisher’s dream, perhaps a statistician’s dream, but not an educator’s dream.

Tomorrow I will link to some other important voices on this subject, people on an array of the front lines, including students, thinking about the real impact of the CCS, not only what it IS, but what it is NOT.


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By | 2013-04-08T14:37:11+00:00 April 8th, 2013|Innovation in Education, Uncategorized|10 Comments

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  1. Holly Chesser April 8, 2013 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Grant, for this powerful, insightful post. For my part, I find the standards to be a worthy articulation of the content and skills we’d like our students to possess. The problem lies, or will lie since they haven’t even been created, in the assessments that will measure their success. Last summer, Will Richardson posted a graph on learning in a networked world that showed the increasingly difficult task of assessing what many call soft skills. The x-axis refers to learning in a networked world and moves from less to more important skills, and the y-axis measures difficulty of assessment. Not surprisingly, the top right quadrant measures curiosity, creativity, problem solving, empathy, and resilience.
    I love the graph and have found myself often reflecting and referring to it.

    I believe that what holds teachers back from making learning a three-dimensional reality is the constraint of two-dimensional assessment. Either we need to move beyond our national obsession with this type of assessment that can provide us talking point data at press conferences or we need to engage in some design thinking about how to develop assessments that judge engagement. Even a good farmer knows you don’t fatten your sheep by measuring them. You fatten them by providing them something appetizing.

    • glichtman April 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      I agree; not simple. But something tells me that guy you know down in Atlanta, Mr. Adams, might read this and like to respond to assessments as being an obstacle we cannot overcome!

  2. Angel Kytle April 8, 2013 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    I think this is great thinking here, and I couldn’t agree with you more! What it drives home yet again for me is that our planning and discussion remains entrenched in an old paradigm. I, too, must fight the tendency to sit down to curriculum writing or strategic planning in my comfort zone. What we all must recognize and address is that the new paradigm is messier, will take more time, and will look very different than what we have seen before. This means that we must be ready for critique and complaints that our conversations are not helpful because they do not provide the “results” we are used to seeing. The more collaboration we do, the more questions we ask, and the more problems we seek to find– the better off our lift to the jet stream will be. Thank you for being at the forefront of such discussions with other wise colleagues!

    • glichtman April 8, 2013 at 5:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Angel; I think you hit the nail on the head. It will be uncomfortable, but as so many change managers tell us, not only is the other side of change beautiful, you find in retrospect that it was not that bad. Let’s treat this as exciting exploration, not surgery!

  3. Lisa Lopez April 8, 2013 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    I almost feel sad, deflated and lost after reading this. However, I feel hope rise back up again when I read this (I love it) and I am thankful that you mentioned it because it exemplifies Norman Vincent Peales wise words: “Every problem has in it the seeds to its own resolution. If you don’t have any problems, you don’t have any seeds”
    And here are the seeds:
    “Great teachers will take the CCS, just as they have for hundreds of years before there was a CCS, and create an environment where student engagement flourishes.”

    The power does not lie in the Common Core, it is in the classroom, with the teacher and the students.

    What if our focus was not much on prophetic messages of failure for our public school brethren, but on celebrating their greatness, supporting through and sharing their challenges by co-creating innovative approaches to tackle, conquer and subsequently defeat the Common Core?

    How might we explore hybrid models, partnerships that allow us to get messy, creative and experimental together? How might we blur the lines of private and public?
    Let us embrace a new way of thinking where we are not victims of a system, or simply witnesses, where we help one another reclaim the responsibility and power of our craft. A place where our passion and purpose merge in response to the challenge in ways that empower all of us to make positive changes personally and professionally.

    Why not co-author this chapter?

    My vision:
    Grant Lichtman- Public and Private brushfire expert (Connects the right people)
    Chris Thinnes- Public and Private Partnership expert
    Bo Adams- Creates blueprints of change for both
    Holly Chesser- Leader Liasion Public/Private

    I like it!

  4. […] two recent posts on his blog The Learning Pond, Grant Lichtman has undertaken a critique of the Common Core Standards as a 2-D approach to a 3-D […]

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