Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 1

by Guest Blogger
August 12th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core

 

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, c. 1817

 

As a special education teacher in the Bronx, I have worked in self-contained and inclusive settings, first in an elementary, and now, in a middle school. I welcome the Common Core standards as beneficial to transforming practice in my school and classroom, and have worked to interpret them as a NYC Common Core ELA Fellow, as well as create curriculum and materials aligned to them within my own school, and with other teachers across the nation as part of the 2013 LearnZillion “Dream Team.”

I believe that the adoption of the Common Core standards has provided us with a golden window of opportunity for engaging and challenging our students with rich content, empowering teachers as scholars and content experts, and establishing a modicum of academic coherency in classrooms across our nation.

Here’s how we can all too easily squander this great opportunity:

  • Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant.
  • Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.
  • Infantilizing teachers.

If we perpetuate these three practices, then the Common Core will do little to transform much of anything.

Right now the Common Core standards stand at a pivotal moment, as they move from grand vision into the classroom and from rhetoric into curriculum. In this and two blog posts to follow, let’s examine the three missteps noted above in greater depth, and consider how we can correct them before it is too late.

Mistake #1: Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant

By political necessity, the Common Core generally avoid specifying what content should be taught in literacy, beyond providing a general directive to teach “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.” However, the great shift that the standards make is that they put a strong focus on what they term “text complexity.”

Appendix A of the Common Core literacy standards is integral to understanding this shift, and well worth analyzing. In an outline of research supporting a call for complex text, for example, the authors note that “what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who [scored well on ACT tests] from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts.”

So, big surprise: skills—such as inferencing, using context clues, or finding the main idea—are secondary to a student’s ability to deeply comprehend the content of what is read.

Where does such deep comprehension of a complex text arise? Again, let’s turn to Appendix A on this:

A turning away from complex texts is likely to lead to a general impoverishment of knowledge, which, because knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability, will accelerate the decline in the ability to comprehend complex texts and the decline in the richness of text itself. This bodes ill for the ability of Americans to meet the demands placed upon them by citizenship in a democratic republic and the challenges of a highly competitive global marketplace of goods, services, and ideas. (Bold added)

Eloquently put. Deep comprehension of complex texts arises from knowledge. What is powerful about such a focus on knowledge-rich complex texts is that this represents a major shift in current teaching practice. In many elementary schools across our nation, teachers train their students to select “just right” books for independent reading each day. A “just right” book is a book that a child can read on his or her own with relative ease. When a book is selected by the teacher for sharing with the whole class, it is often simply as a prop for the demonstration and modeling of a given skill. Students are mostly expected to utilize class time reading books at their independent reading level.

While the idea that students pick and read books that match their interest and ability sounds like good practice, in reality, what is lost over the long-term is the cultivation of a coherent body of knowledge, in addition to academic discipline. Given the great weight of English Language Arts (ELA) in elementary school, and the time thus allotted to skills-based reading, students end up getting passed from grade to grade without any sort of cumulative base of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, too many students arrive at our middle schools, high schools, and colleges with little understanding of literature, their nation and its place in the world, or the historical context of scientific discovery.

That the Common Core standards are now asking teachers to make more careful and rigorous text selections based on complexity and knowledge is therefore momentous. That this is even momentous, however, is disheartening, as even this shift remains a half-measure.

Appendix A outlines factors that must be considered in the selection of a complex text for a given grade level: qualitative factors, quantitative factors, and reader and task considerations. The reality, however, is that texts that will build student knowledge and understanding of literature and of the world are more than a set of qualitative and quantitative factors. A literary text should be selected with an eye toward its place in literary history.

It should be obvious, however, that for the Common Core standards to specify what texts or authors should be foundational or essential to a given literary or historical epoch, beyond its already vague gestures at classic myths and Shakespeare, would be political suicide. The writers of Common Core acknowledged this limitation when they cautioned that the standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn.” It is therefore up to teachers and curriculum designers to select texts that they believe will cumulatively build student understanding of literary history and domain-specific knowledge.

This is where effective implementation of the Common Core is in most danger. Most teachers, schools, and the consultants who support them are accustomed to skills-based teaching. Furthermore, the development or adoption of a coherent, thoughtfully sequenced curriculum is unfortunately not a priority in most American public schools.

The writers of the standards made it clear that curriculum is the key to effective implementation when they stated that the standards must “be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document” (bold added).

They furthermore note that a foundation of knowledge across different domains is required to become strong readers, and that “students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (bold added).

Such a curricular foundation is not haphazard. According to the standards, “Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students” (bold added).

This careful selection of rich texts that will systematically build student knowledge within specific domains thus requires a momentous shift in practice for classroom teachers and their schools.

Here is one simple short-term measure we could take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not retain its dominance in the classroom:

  • Common Core-aligned assessments should select texts that explicitly demand knowledge of literature and of the world.

Test makers could broadcast the pool of texts that might be selected for a given test a year before the tests would be administered. For example, if a 6th grade teacher knew that students might be tested on passages from Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the United States Constitution, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then chances are probably much greater that the teacher will spend time studying those works, the historical epochs in which they were written, and the authors who wrote them, as opposed to teaching isolated skills such as how to find the main idea or how to make an inference.

One long-term measure we can take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not remain predominant:

  • Assess curriculum and consultancy programs by how well they build domain-specific knowledge both horizontally (across content areas by grade level) and vertically (sequentially by grade).

Curriculum programs and consultants to schools have been given a free pass in this area for far too long. If we know that “knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability,” then it is unconscionable that we should allow the cultivation of knowledge to continue to be treated haphazardly, or as a consideration of secondary importance, by any school curriculum.

In my next two posts, I’ll suggest ways to avoid the two other mistakes—placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA and infantilizing teachers.

28 Comments »

  1. “This careful selection of rich texts that will systematically build student knowledge within specific domains”…so, in this way, the “not a curriculum” Common Core Standards can become a curriculum after all—through the assessments!! And somehow this will NOT be political suicide???

    Will Fitzhugh
    http://www.tcr.org
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — August 12, 2013 @ 11:52 am

  2. Pedantry renewed.

    Data driven instruction – in an era of BYOD in real life for virtually any occupation – is absurd. Most certainly, that does not mean everything is a “skill,” but it also does not mean that testing recalled knowledge of Mark Twain or Constitutional vocabulary or Shakespeare’s imagination of Julius Caesar measures anything but memory. And “teaching to the test” guarantees ignorance of WHY such questions may or may not be useful, interesting, or relevant to the real world of tomorrow.

    In other words, it’s not a “pool of texts,” but rather a network of problems that need be explored, and the tests should reveal how students address such problems rather than the nuances of “complex text.” Themes like “participation” or “community” to explore constitutional issues are much, much more useful, applicable and concrete than interpreting 18th century texts (some of which have grown “complex” with antediluvian vocabulary). Rich ideas need not be sacrificed in discussing how a class decides a punishment, for one example, or how the town decides, or how state or national governments address THE SAME PROBLEM. The general “text” for that discussion that year could be the constitution or the city charter. And that does not elevate “process” over “content,” “relevance” over “knowledge,” or any of the other rhetorical rationales for recall rather than reason.

    By the way, “complex content” is most often the result of inadequate thought. Simplicity trumps complexity in both language and process: it is only when “over-simplifying” skips key steps and thereby obscures clarity that “complexity” is either needed or justified. Keep it Simple Stupid.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 12, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

  3. What a great piece. I can’t wait to read parts 2 and 3!

    Yes, it would be great if test makers broadcasted a pool of texts that might be included on a test. Schools and teachers would not be limited to those texts, but there would be actual content.

    A few additional thoughts:

    First, literature is a subject in itself–and it deserves protection, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Yes, it’s important for students to read more nonfiction, but not because it’s more serious, challenging, or important than literature. I imagine you’ll be bringing this up in your next post–but ELA teachers should not be expected to have students read texts across the subjects. Otherwise we’re going right back to turning ELA into “reading” class, which it should not be.

    Second, there should be no prescriptions against “pre-reading” or the teaching of background information. This means something different from one text to the next and from one course to the next. If my students are about to read Blaise Pascal, particularly his “wager,” I want them to know a few things about his life, including his work as a mathematician. This is both interesting and important. This will enhance the actual reading instead of distracting from it. In other cases, I might say little or nothing about the author’s life.

    If my students are reading Antigone, I want them to know the Oedipus myth; I also want them to know a bit about the structure of ancient Greek drama. I would have them read a portion of Aristotle’s Poetics. (Informational text! Informational text!) In addition, I might teach them some of the Greek words and phrases, so that they can start to see how a translation only approximates the original.

    Part of the work (or art, or craft) of teaching is to think about the subject and make judgments on such matters.

    Finally, I do not believe in having frequent group work and “turn-and-talk” activities. This is distracting, and it isn’t what students will encounter in college. In college, most of their humanities courses will be seminars and lectures. In seminars, one person speaks at a time; there is a focused discussion (that may take many directions). In lectures, the students listen and sometimes enter into dialogue with the professor. These instructional formats allow for focus and flexibility; instead of keeping everyone busy all the time, they make room for thinking. Unfortunately they do not receive adequate respect at the K-12 levels.

    I see much potential in the standards but agree that they could go badly wrong. Instead of preparing students for college, they could end up doing what other initiatives have done: squeeze everyone into a mold of mediocrity. Perhaps slightly higher-level mediocrity than before, but mediocrity all the same.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 12, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

  4. I agree with Joe Beckmann on one point: complexity in itself is not the same as quality.

    At the same time, certain kinds of complexity can take us to meanings, intimations, connections, and sensations that would otherwise lie out of reach.

    There are different kinds of complexity; we must distinguish among them when selecting texts. We must not run text through processors to determine whether or not they’re sufficiently complex, or complex in the right way. We must use our minds.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 12, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

  5. Will,

    The standards must necessarily become a curriculum, otherwise nothing would be taught. The question is how they will be interpreted by teachers and designers of curriculum during this conversion.

    Yes, for better or for worse, the assessments have a tremendous influence on what the curriculum will end up becoming, which is why my recommendation for the short-term hinges on those assessments. The reason why this is NOT political suicide is because state assessments have become an integral part of our education system, whereas establishing a consensus across districts on curriculum has proven to be unworkable.

    Assessments might therefore be the most effective lever states currently wield to establish a primary focus on coherency of content.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 12, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

  6. Joe,

    When I discuss “knowledge” in the context of literacy, I’m not suggesting that simple factual memorization and recall should be the basis for pedagogy and assessment. I’m suggesting that the teaching of literacy must be recognized as cumulative exposure to knowledge of the world, or a “network of problems” or themes, as you might say. I disagree with your premise that such a set of themes, however, can be disassociated from a “pool of texts.”

    Let’s look more closely at your example. To understand themes of “participation” and “community,” students will be enriched by an awareness of the history of democracy. In “The Federalist Papers,” for example, John Jay (in Federalist number 5) and Alexander Hamilton (in number 15), make explicit reference to other democracies in history in order to establish precedent. They aren’t recreating the wheel—they’re looking at other examples and seeking patterns for learning—or “a network of problems,” if you will. So one could very well look at a city charter in the instance you gave, but without reference to the constitution or other historical precedents, it will be a shallow study that does little to elevate students’ awareness of our system of governance.

    Understanding literature similarly requires an exploration of patterns, both within the text in the form of motifs and themes, and beyond the text, in its connection to literary history. The great disservice that we do to literature in our schools is that we explore isolated pieces with little reference to their context in history. How can you understand British or Russian literature without knowledge of Shakespeare or Pushkin? How can you understand Edgar Allen Poe’s or Nathanial Hawthorne’s writing without knowledge of the Romantic era?

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 12, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  7. Diana,

    Thank you for your insightful additions and comments.

    I fully agree with your first point and I will speak to this a bit more in the next post.

    I also agree with your second point. I understand that some Common Core advocates were trying to shift the emphasis to text-dependent questions (for good reason), but students need to be set up with the reference points to get deeper into the text. There’s an interesting article that goes more into that it here: http://www.nas.org/articles/common_core_state_standards_the_gettysburg_address . There’s a quote in it that speaks most directly to your point: “there’s a difference between background knowledge that takes you away from the text, and background knowledge that takes you further into the text.”

    I’m not in full agreement on your third point. For students who struggle with academic language, such as English learners and students with learning disabilities, having discussions focused on the use of academic language can be vital. However, I do agree that many “turn-and-talk” and small group interactions that teachers do is superficial. I think the key is that these discussions have a purpose and are carefully structured to build student understanding of the content.

    I also agree with your point that complexity in itself is not the same as quality. I would suggest that when we select our texts, that we not simply look at text complexity (whether qualitatively or quantitatively), but furthermore consider how that text will build student knowledge of the world and of literature. This goes back to your point that “literature is a subject in itself.” I believe that literature is a domain worthy of sequential and systematic study in the same manner as scientific theory.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 12, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

  8. When I began my “study” of educational theories and practices (in the 80s) I believed that I had not been affected by the practices I was then seeing as a high school teacher. But as my reading advanced the realization hit me that indeed, as a public grade school and high school student (in the 40s and 50s) I had been afflicted by the same anti-knowledge principles. Both of my parents had college degrees but this did not keep me from being in the situation described by Daisy Christodoulou concerning her parents: “..no more innately intelligent than (I) but […] had many more opportunities in life.”

    Now, after more reading, I have defined two comments I think should be clearly stated as attempts are made to really change our educational thinking. They do not encompass everything but I think they are embedded at the core of good educational policy. One is to remember that knowledge has no limits. All of progressivist theory seems to assume that what is “taught” constitutes an end in and of itself. The second comment refers to progressivist theory’s specious conviction that experience is an adequate teacher. On the contrary, school should provide knowledge that goes beyond the individual experience of each student, should show students what exists outside of their experience.

    This might seem simplistic, but evaluations of my own education reveal that these two progressivist errors provided nothing of value but instead, a great loss.

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 14, 2013 @ 9:09 am

  9. Susan,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I agree with your comment that students require exposure to knowledge beyond their experience. I believe this is why a strong literature curriculum is fundamental. Literature exposes us to knowledge of worlds beyond our own, and that is its power.

    I’m not totally clear on your first comment, that knowledge has no limits. Could you provide some more examples of what this theory–of content as an end in and of itself–looks like in practice?

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 14, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

  10. History exposes us to knowledge of worlds beyond our own, too, if it is still OK to mention history in polite academic company these days…

    Will Fitzhugh
    http://www.tcr.org
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — August 14, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

  11. It is OK to mention it but apparently it is not OK to teach history at least not in most elementary schools. “If you don’t test it there is no need to teach it.” As I have been told by more than one principal.

    Comment by Mary S. — August 15, 2013 @ 12:15 am

  12. Mark,

    I appreciate your comments.

    Yes, literature of course. My masters is in French Literature so I must agree there! Also, as Will says, history, a wonderful way to gain the kind of information that leads to understanding. I add all the other “subjects” because they describe what the world is, the world that the students will live in all their lives. Students need to acquire more understanding of the world than classroom “experience” can give. I think that is a major need of children for the K-12 years–to learn, usually conceptually, more than they can experience.

    I did not want to say that content is an end in itself. I wrote “progressivist theory seems to assume that what is “taught” constitutes an end in and of itself.” What is “taught” is more often skills than substance (Mary seems to agree), and teaching skills is the same at every grade. There is no sequence to move from one level of knowing to the next and, thinking of my experience in a progressivist school system, the skills are not then used in a study of substantial, sequential content, so they are an end in themselves. But this is not true of knowledge, and I apologize for speaking as if this were not a well known truth. A subject, once begun, can lead to a great deal more knowledge. One thing a content teacher can do is say, for example, we are studying this aspect now and we are not going into these other aspects, but I want you to know they exist!

    I took a thinking skills course, a course on group learning, and participated in teacher training sessions. In all I found the skills interesting, but naively wondered: Where is the space for content? The teachers seem to be saying that we should use this skill all the time! These experiences helped propel me to examine theory and policy more closely.

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 15, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  13. Susan, what do you mean by “progressivist?” In the US and UK, “progressive” implies Dewey, and even back to Montessori, which is far less data driven memory than skills focused activities. Few “progessives” (for a while considered “constructivists” based on the “social constructs of knowledge”) ever thought data recall a particularly revealing indicator of new knowledge. And sequencing “content” remained, and, in fact, increased as the responsibility of the student increased over time. And that increase represented growth, not more data poured into an empty vessel.

    In other words, I think there is some confusion in your definition of “knowledge,” “skill,” “practice,” “sequencing” and “content.” An effective school gives students the opportunity to explore skills in many content areas, and to generate knowledge through practice, using any sequence that “works” for that student and/or student peer group. That was true with Montessori, just as it is now true at places like Olin College, which has no pre-requisites to any course in engineering (of all subjects!) due to their use of Just-in-Time learning (“if you need a skill to solve a problem, you’ll acquire that skill much more quickly and memorably, and reinforce both the solution and its process in your memory”).

    In other words, I really do not understand your understanding of “progressive” or it’s opposite. It sounds like you’re content oriented, but content can be skill, knowledge, data, or its application, depending on the circumstance.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 15, 2013 @ 10:37 am

  14. Will,

    Yes, knowledge of history is fundamental! My next post goes more into the importance of history and other forms of domain-specific knowledge to literacy.

    Mary,

    I’ve also experienced that reality. This is why, in my next post, I advocate for the recognition that all content area teachers should be held accountable for student performance on literacy tests—otherwise this skewing of focus on ELA devoid of content and ignoring of history, science, music, and arts will continue.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 15, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

  15. Susan,

    Thank you for clarifying your statement. Yes, I can see what you mean about skills becoming an end in and of itself. This is why I believe one of the biggest mistakes in implementing the Common Core will be in perpetuating this form of teaching. The content—real, authentic, knowledge-rich content—is what lies at the heart of teaching. Skills are merely what we gain and employ in getting at that content.

    It’s a common misunderstanding, for example, in discussions of “21st century skills.” We have great technological tools at our fingertips, yet those tools are devoid of any power if we don’t have the knowledge and literacy to wield them effectively. For example, in order to conduct an effective Google search, you have to know how to paraphrase and generate the key words that will best pull up what you are looking for. This furthermore requires at least some level of domain-specific knowledge in the area of content you are investigating. There’s no magic involved in an effective Google search beyond that of the user’s knowledge and ability to parse that knowledge into key words. More on this idea from Lisa Hansel in this post: http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/07/29/core-knowledge-a-lifeboat-in-the-sea-of-information/

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 15, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

  16. Mark, it’s so good to see that you agree a Google search takes plenty of prior knowledge. I once mentored a very nice kid through three online recovery courses. He was the one who showed me that, when the stupefyingly dull test at the end of every lesson left him with several largely irrelevant answer options, he could cut that question and paste it in google to get precisely the right answer, as identified by past students. He well understood the “domain-specific knowledge in the area of content” he was investigating. Phooey! Fortunately, I could suggest, sometimes but not all the time, there my be other answers further down on the Google options.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 15, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

  17. Joe,

    That’s pretty funny. That aptly demonstrates the differentiation between the type of knowledge I’ve been discussing here versus empty skills. Cutting and pasting in response to a online recovery course test is a shallow skill. Answering an open ended prompt that asks you to get deep into a dramatic text by Shakespeare and research its historical context is a very different type of skill, which is enhanced by knowledge of literature and history.

    For example, if I gave you this prompt “Research British colonialism during the era (roughly 1550 to 1600) that Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest”. Write an essay in which you describe how colonialism is depicted in “The Tempest” and how that depiction might have been perceived by Shakespeare’s audiences at that time,” it might seem simple to find the information you would need for this. Why just look up colonialism and Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake! Right? Well, it requires a fairly sophisticated ability to parse the prompt, pick out the key words that will be most significant to your search, and then sift through online detritus to get at something useful.

    But that’s just the application of certain skills, right? Imagine if you had the knowledge to ascertain that the era referred to in that prompt was known as the Elizabethan era. That knowledge would assist you greatly in gathering useful resources and information, especially in determining the general context of colonialism during that time and how it might have been perceived by Shakespeare’s audience.

    Furthermore, having some awareness of Shakespeare’s ouvre and its place in literature will also assist the student attempting to complete this task. Shakespeare is worth studying for a reason: his strongest plays and characters allow for multiple layers of meaning and interpretation, and “The Tempest”, with it’s complex characterization of Prospero, is no exception.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 15, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

  18. Joe,

    Yes, when I speak of progressivism I do refer back to Dewey, Montessori, Piaget, and their colleagues who wanted to do wonderful things for the children. However, as far as school is concerned, I do not think that a skills focused program and a child-centered approach have realized their expectations.

    By a content program I mean transmitting the kind of information—not data-that actually tells children about the world they live in. That kind of knowledge is much more than “data recall,” (even that is better than the boredom of kids allowed to follow their “own interests”). I think it is a betrayal of the children not to tell them things they do not know innately. It isn’t as though whatever they could learn in school was the limit of what can be discovered.

    Concerning skills, for the most part they are actually habits (I have a long list) and they go hand in hand with a content curriculum, as has been pointed out by many. Content provides enough substance to actually develop the habits without having to talk about them. This is what school can do: place expectations and show the students how to meet them through the transmission of information about the world.

    So yes, when thinking of the purpose of school, I am content-centered. I agree with what Mark has put forth in his piece and in subsequent comments. I think that children are competent to make the effort needed to learn and do not have to be insulted by a program that allows them to learn without thinking about learning.

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 15, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

  19. Susan and Mark,
    I think you’re imagining a greater polarity between methods and knowledge development than really exists. Perhaps the disparity reflects the degree to which questions are open vs. close ended in presentation. My interest as a teacher is NOT to impose my opinions, but, rather, to elicit students’ own opinions, reflecting what those students have done to frame their own take on critical questions. I may be “right” about many things, but that’s not the point of teaching. Rather, it is to have students discover what’s right, and to test it in real – or at least realistic – circumstances, either as a laboratory or a critical quest.

    That is certainly “content-centered,” but the content is not in a book, it’s what students TAKE from that book. The challenge – to the teacher, and only to students as they, themselves learn-to-teach – is to ask, as they say at Harvard, “the right question.” Close ended questions – like, Mark’s example of colonialism and “The Tempest” – contains its answer and dictates a relatively narrow range of responses. Open ended versions of such a question might be “imagine ‘The Tempest’ played in Istanbul, London, New York, Buenos Aires, and Calcutta: what’s the difference in who’s good, who’s wise, and who represents YOU?” In other words, draw broadly on the meaning of the text, and apply that meaning to other situations that may reflect colonialism rather than produce a cookie-cutter answer in the question. Create what we think of as colonialism, and then explore what that means to people living in it, after it, and before it. And then, finally, understand what Shakespeare understood.

    A teacher has a lot of direction in framing an open ended question, but not a lot of detail. Kids own those details, and the more they own, the more they learn. And that is not just data, nor content, nor skills, but, rather, the synergy created by applying skills to content and using data to build a case.

    For much too long traditional instructors have mis-understood Dewey and Montessori, and raged at a false shibboleth. So also, many progressives dismiss as “traditional” those who over-simplify these subtleties. In most schools, both traditions co-exist, sometimes with tension, sometimes productively. In any case, kids see ‘em, and learn from both the differences and the similarities. It is a shame that they are the only ones learning from such differences, since teachers ought to be learning from their kids NO LESS than the kids learn from teachers.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 16, 2013 @ 9:39 am

  20. Joe,

    I like your example, it’s a really interesting approach to the content. Though it might need some work to ensure that students are basing their responses primarily on evidence from the text or research, not only on personal responses. To answer your criticism of my prompt, I don’t see how my question would result in a cookie-cutter answer. The question requires research and an application of that research to the text. The response that a student would write is informational.

    In terms of the delineation between methods and knowledge development, I don’t think I am imagining a greater polarity. In the two examples of different prompts we gave here, we are still talking about a piece of literature, rich in meaning and in its connection to other texts throughout history and to texts written today. So the content is there, and the academic challenge is high.

    But in many schools, such content and academic challenge are not there. And even in cases where it is there, it exists largely in isolation. One point I’m making in this series of posts is that curriculum not only needs to be based on knowledge-rich complex texts, but that it furthermore needs to be coherent. If we don’t systematically address the sequential building of knowledge in our curriculum, then we are systematically failing our students. This is the great injustice that is perpetrated on students who are in most need of access to that knowledge.

    You stated that “teachers ought to be learning from their kids no less than the kids learn from the teachers.” I don’t disagree with that as a general pronouncement. But in actuality, the question is “What should we learn from them?” and “What should they learn from us?” And I think it is clear that it is our responsibility as adults is to provide them guidance on what they will need to know to be active, empathetic citizens in this complex society, not simply blind, heedless consumers. And yes, we need to listen to them in order to know what their strengths are, what they are struggling with, what they are passionate about, so that we can model for them what real leadership means and so that we can help them overcome the substantial obstacles in their path. But paying attention to our students does not absolve us of our duty to prepare them the best we can for their future by providing them with a coherent, structured, challenging, knowledge-rich curriculum.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 16, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

  21. I think, perhaps, our differences are more in nuance than substance, but those differences are – nonetheless – real. I once got to my “recovery” history class a little late, having been trapped in a discussion with the principal solving one of her problems. I found a student who had been very quiet running a discussion on “how to find the influence of the illuminati” on the American Revolution. It was remarkable, both because he pulled up texts from the net, illustrating his points, and his students answered his challenges with texts of their own. THAT was teaching history, and they taught me how to teach that night.

    Of course, I knew much of that before, but it was theory until they realized it. In fact I had taught teachers HOW to teach history, without realizing that I also taught my students much the same skill…. But it was not a concrete body of knowledge transferred with little difference ‘twixt me and them. It was, rather, an approach that left open many options, and, when they chose to use some of the more sophisticated of those options, I saw that they deliberately chose challenging methods for challenging problems.

    I really don’t think that I was asserting teacher primacy in that exercise. Quite the reverse: I was recognizing learning for the activity it really is: a test, a challenge, and a discovery.

    And, of course it is a way to acknowledge “our duty to prepare them,” but, in fact, in theory, and in practice, they acknowledge the same thing as a mutual contribution.

    I’m old – at 69, mostly retired – but that neither absolves me from accountability in dialog nor demands the compliance of youth. Quite the reverse: it stimulates challenge, and it acknowledges wisdom at any age, race, status, or event. Of course, if they choose to acknowledge my role as a model, I won’t contest it, but I also acknowledge theirs. If – or, rather, when – I screw up a computer demonstration or mis-fire a smartboard, I ask for help, as well they might in questioning the wisdom of Churchill, the insights of Shakespeare, or the aesthetics of Plutarch.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 16, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

  22. Mark,

    Thank you for saying so clearly that students need, and I quote, “sequential building of knowledge.” As someone whose schooling did not provide that, I tend to think it is important.

    Joe,

    What you say interests me; I do not doubt that students can do the kind of discussion you described. But I suspect that students with a solid knowledge background can do the same.

    Would you please clarify the misunderstanding of Dewey and Montessori, and describe the false shibboleth to which you referred? I am retired and spend more time with theory and philosophy than with lessons that I will not have the pleasure of teaching. So I am interested in this view that is not evident to me.

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 16, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

  23. Joe,
    I have come to see content knowledge as protein in the educational experience of our children. Strategies and tactics are like sugar and fat, empty calories containing no substance with which to build knowledge. A steady diet of these tactics is a form of intellectual starvation.

    Group discovery, in a similar way, sounds humane and democratic, but for children it is often boring, confusing, and intimidating, even in high school, because it is often substance-free, and as group dynamics are rarely ideal, children come away with discoveries suggested by whichever student has brought knowledge from home. That’s not a transformational experience of discovering something on your own. It’s an avoidance of directly providing children with the information they need.

    Children throughout their lives value the memory of their greatest teachers, and these are teachers who opened the world for them with respect and with an understanding that children can handle the challenge of listening.

    Comment by Linda Wood — August 19, 2013 @ 12:44 am

  24. Linda,

    Yes, absolutely yes, to what you have said!

    My daughter hated group work when she was in school. From my viewpoint as a teacher I thought that group work (and also project work) was useful occasionally, when it could introduce, or summarize, or provide practice. Otherwise it is, as you say, intellectual starvation. I believe it is necessary to give children information they do not innately possess.

    And they are able to deal with that information. It is necessary to begin with the conviction that children are capable, instead of with the notion that teachers must “do” education for the children.

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 19, 2013 @ 8:07 am

  25. In 1992 the US Labor “Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills” (SCANS) developed an elaborate hierarchy of “soft” skills, critical to achieving success in life, career, college, and professions. While it’s quite true that many children and adults, many times, find group work oblique, boring, or tangential, that is increasingly the means by which people achieve success, and the skill to work in groups is hardly intuitive. For some – teachers and kids – school really is like pouring knowledge into a empty vessel, but they are relatively rare, and even rarer are those who remember that stuff after a test day. In between the schmooze of “soft skills” like responsibility, teamwork, creativity, inquiry and the like, and the “hard skills” of names, dates, and formulae, most kids and teachers fall – as do most of our favorite teachers.

    Perhaps your favorite teacher stood in front and told only truth. All of my favorites floated around, provoked discovery, and helped identify the best ideas in the class. As Louis Agassiz (long before I went to school) noted, “watch your fish,” and observe before you label. As Larry Cremin (one of my many favorite teachers) noted, grade schools were created by builders, not educators, and real teaching builds on what kids know, not what teachers think they ought to know. For Neil Postman, in the 1970′s, teaching was a “subversive activity.” As a very insightful teacher with whom I worked in the 1970′s noted – of a common activity most people practice – “you do it your way, I’ll do it mine.”

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — August 19, 2013 @ 9:42 am

  26. I commend this blog’s participants for bothering to police their own thinking and reflections. I’m not altogether sanguine about the way Common Core (CC) thinking was developed, out of public view, if not in a smoky back room, and by hand-picked ‘education specialists’ chosen by a political class that has excelled at finding ways around difficult moral issues bearing on equity of opportunity in today’s post-World War II national and developing global reality.

    Mark’s enthusiasm with Common Core for its technical innovations I share to a considerable degree. However, I do share the worry of some of those who comment here that, while CC provides a prescriptive structure as a management tool to direct teaching at a distance by remote control, it’s unclear linkage to content determined teaching and learning on the front line of the socialization environment of the schools is likely to exacerbate the culture gap growing between children from families connected to the highly integrated war mobilized economy and those on the outside growing increasingly left further out.

    The schools cannot resolve much larger social issues, but CC is another one-size-fits all solution where war-insprired, knee-jerk crisis mobilization and militarization of education fails to appreciate a globalizing reality that calls for educating a variety of equally legitimate intelligences capable of animating the consensus consultation process and accommodating harmoniously a new global community of vastly different world cultures.

    In an increasingly networked, integrated social reality (as variously appreciated by John Searle, Charles Taylor, Anthony Giddens and Jurgen Habermas), institutional collaboration, cooperation and organizational sophistication are vital skills needed for employment in today’s modern conventionalized practical and intellectual practices. Housing a core of personal knowlege is less important than having the individual ability to access the vast storehouse of digitalized information and actively give it form to provide adequate grounds for belief; knowledge is only a special case of the believable and hardly sufficient for what we need in order to choose what to believe in order to act.

    What I find most defficient about the all-prescriptive CC approach, however, is the total lack of consideration of the moral autonomy of the learner. Making knowledge-industry fitted citizens and defenders of American dominance in the world is not the job of American schools. The genius of the American experiment is our ability to intergrate people of vastly different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and our ability to govern collectively, as a single unit, expandable areas of the earth. Schools have the perfect right to socialize us in group practices and give us an understanding of the tools to participate productively in collective life, but we need to resist the seductive voice of fear and mindless social conformity; the ‘best teachers’ are the ones we choose to learn from, without asking their permission, often without their even knowing that we purloined their infectuous curiosity and their intellectual honesty and rigor.
    An independent criitcal mind— and don’t confuse this with ‘personal development’ —has to go to the market-place of ideas to see, and buy and consume what shows itself to be the best on offer. Morally adequate minds are active, and choose the principles they impose upon themselves to allow them the satisfaction of a free will.

    Comment by Michael Cassady — August 21, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

  27. [...]  Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant. •    Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA. •    Infantilizing [...]

    Pingback by Implementing Common Core Standards for Literacy | VIVA Teachers — August 26, 2013 @ 10:01 am

  28. […] would not likely mistake me for a Dewey eyed constructivist. I get kind of dogmatic against the teaching of skills over literary content, for example, though I’m not quite so hard line against progressive […]

    Pingback by Slouching Towards Progressivism | EcoSchools — August 17, 2014 @ 8:09 am

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