As many have hoped, the Common Core standards are giving educators across the country a platform for sharing lesson plans. While some online instructional collaboration was happening before the Common Core, we clearly see the benefits of common standards: a common language aimed at common goals has opened the door to a massive increase in teachers learning from each other.
Of course, teachers are not the only ones uploading resources; the whole landscape of educational materials is changing. Sean Cavanagh of Education Week, writes, “The menu of products available to educators today includes not only textbooks and digital products offered at a cost, but also a growing number of ‘open educational resources’ developed or supported by nonprofit groups, universities, philanthropies, individual teachers, and entire states.”
What does this mean for teachers? One teacher Cavanagh spoke with has a compelling answer:
Mr. Lemon, a math teacher at American Fork Junior High School, south of Salt Lake City, worked on a team that helped design open resources in that subject. Today, he uses the state’s open resources to guide his 9th graders through “mathematical tasks,” core daily lessons. He said he still turns back to materials produced by commercial publishers, mostly to give students extra practice and increase their “procedural fluency.”
Open resources give teachers more power—and more responsibility, Mr. Lemon said. Teachers are obligated to vet open materials and figure out whether they make sense for lessons, rather than relying on textbooks for guidance, he said. States and districts would be wise, he said, to back professional development to help them figure that out.
I think Mr. Lemon is absolutely right—and I would extend his point further. Teachers have to make sure the materials suit their lessons; they also have to make sure their lessons form coherent units and courses, and contribute to a coherent prek–12 education.
That’s why I find growing efforts for teachers to share their curricula even more exciting than the websites for sharing materials and lesson plans. Better Lesson, for example, isn’t just offering a massive database of resources—it has a “Plan Your Curriculum” option that invites teachers to “upload, organize, and share with fellow educators, down the hall or across the globe.”
Having great lessons is essential, but great lessons do not automatically create a great education. Knowledge and skills must build within an across grades, so all those great lessons need to be organized into a coherent, spiraling curriculum.
Coordination within schools and across schools—especially in the transitions (i.e., elementary to middle school) and in areas of high student mobility—is essential to prevent gaps and repetitions. Students shouldn’t end up practicing persuasive letter writing two years in a row but never write a science lab report. They shouldn’t do two close readings of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but never read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Some structure for organizing lessons month to month and grade to grade is obviously necessary. With the Common Core, most schools now have a shared language and shared goals. Why should curriculum development remain a task that each teacher or school tackles in isolation? Just as lessons get better through being shared, critiqued, and revised, so could content maps and curricula. And just as teachers both upload lessons and revamp the lessons and materials they download, schools could both contribute to a shared curriculum and customize their particular curriculum. Nothing about sharing has to result in rigidity. Between the free-for-all of each teacher selecting his own content and the restrictiveness of a mandated, scripted curriculum, there is a fruitful middle ground in which students get a coherent education from teachers who have embraced both the power and the responsibility this new resource landscape provides.
I hope educators seize this moment to use their collective wisdom to not only develop great lessons, but to develop several paths to a great education. The Common Core standards provide a strong scaffold—could it lead to five or five dozen truly world-class curricula that have been developed (and are continuously enhanced) by tens of thousands of teachers?
There is no guarantee that will happen, but it is possible.
A quick example makes the importance of trying quite clear. As readers of this blog know, before the end of the summer kindergarten – third grade Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program will be online for free. Preschool will be online for free soon thereafter, with everything coming well in advance of when it needs to be taught. All of us at the Foundation are excited to see CKLA spreading as teachers are already downloading the sample units we’ve had online for the past several months.
And yet, I can’t help worrying just a bit. In March, when I helped with the final edits of CKLA’s Listening & Learning strand for third grade, I wrote about how carefully constructed the domains are:
In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.
The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary…. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.
This goes to the heart of why a string of great lessons may or may not result in a great education. And it highlights how right Mr. Lemon is when he says the new landscape of educational resources increases teachers’ power and responsibility.
Let’s look at the domains in the Listening & Learning strand in kindergarten:
1. Nursery Rhymes and Fables
2. The Five Senses
6. Native Americans
7. Kings and Queens
8. Seasons and Weather
9. Columbus and the Pilgrims
10. Colonial Towns and Townspeople
11. Taking Care of the Earth
12. Presidents and American Symbols
Each domain takes two to three weeks to teach, so a couple of questions arise frequently: Why does the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain come so late in the year? Wouldn’t it be better to teach that domain on Columbus Day?
Teachers certainly could preview the domain on Columbus Day, but if you study the list of domains, you’ll see why it comes so late in the year. We don’t want students to memorize a few isolated facts about Columbus; we want them to learn a great deal about Columbus and understand his place in history from multiple perspectives. That’s doable, even with kindergartners, but careful attention must be paid to slowly building up all the prerequisite knowledge.The information needed to really grasp Columbus and the Pilgrims starts with the Plants domain. That leads directly to Farms and Native Americans. Now children have a good foundation for understanding what Columbus encounters when he gets to the “New World.” But from what perspective is this land Columbus stumbles into either new or a different world? Students find out in the Kings and Queens domain.
Okay, you get the picture. Great lessons matter. Great lessons in a thoughtful, coherent, grade-by-grade, spiraling curriculum make for a great education.