I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the common core standards and what they are really trying to accomplish. There are many supporters and many critics, and I find myself somewhere in the middle, mainly because in working with the standards and in trying to prepare for their implementation I have seen the good and the bad. However, there is one main “theme” that tends to stand out that distinguishes the supporters from the critics, and that is the way the following question is answered: What is the goal of education?
If one sees the goal of education as the transmission of facts or techniques, then the common core standards make no sense whatsoever. Reading through the standards and looking at some of the workbooks and other materials that have been produced, there is a feeling that the “basic skills” are not being emphasized, whether those basics are knowledge of parts of speech or memorization of arithmetic facts or whatever. In fact, at a glance, it appears as though these skills are not being valued at all. As such, the outcry against the common core standards tends to take the form of “just teach them to do the math” or “just teach them to write”. And in many ways I can understand the complaint.
However, I believe the complaint comes more from misunderstanding than it does from actual rejection of what the common core is actually trying to do. You see, the emphasis of the common core is on two things: (1) understand the material well enough to explain it simply; and (2) understand the material well enough to apply it creatively. This is the goal of education for the common core. Implied in this is the reality that the students still need to know the basics of writing a sentence and adding fractions. However, being able to go through the mechanical processes is not enough. In particular, mechanically getting the correct answer does not show a real understanding of the material. In many cases, what it shows is the memorization of a process rather than the understanding of a concept, and as such asking a student to explain what they did is important, since in the explanation you will see which of the two (memorization or understanding) the student has actually accomplished.
Unfortunately, the workbook pages I have seen on social media sites complaining about how we need to get rid of the common core seem to be pages from late in the learning process, and therefore are asking the student to go beyond the mechanical process and explain what they did. The misunderstanding on the part of the critics is that they see these worksheets as trying to teach the students the basics, when what the worksheets are actually trying to do is assess how well the student has understood the material.
The implications of all of this for the classroom teacher are quite profound. If all I do is show my students how to perform the standard multiplication algorithm, and then assess them on how well they can perform the algorithm, I will not be checking how well they understand what multiplication actually is nor how well they can use the algorithm in a problem-solving situation. The same would hold true for teaching a student the parts of speech, or factoring, or many other “basics”. However, if I emphasize problem-solving in my classroom, and as the need arises show the students the usefulness of a particular algorithm, then the students will still get the basics, but they will do so while developing a deep understanding of the material and creatively applying the basics.
This is where the discussion-based classroom is at its best. Students work collaboratively to creatively solve a problem, and in doing so they learn the basics because they need those basics to solve the problem. This is what the “real world” looks like. In life, we are rarely confronted with a problem we already know how to solve. Instead, we are confronted with a situation and we need to go find the tools and develop the skills necessary to solve the problem. A classroom centered on memorization of the basics does not prepare students for this; a classroom centered on the essential spirit of the common core, i.e., a discussion-based classroom, does, and it does so in a way that does not short-change the basics.
All that being said, the implementation of the testing regimen that is to accompany the common core standards is where this entire process meets with resistance from teachers, even those of us who agree with the intent of the standards. Asking the kids to be creative and then testing them for conformity is, in my mind anyway, a contradiction, and is a cause for concern. Yes, some of the exercises are performance-based, but I wonder just how flexible the graders are going to be. If a kid uses a method that is mathematically valid on an exercise, will the grader have the mathematical prowess to determine the validity of the method? For that matter, will the rubric constrain the ability of the grader to award credit for a mathematically valid response? Asking the kids to patiently problem solve and then testing them with a relatively short time constraint is contradictory as well. Add to these the fact that we are losing several weeks (or more) of regular class time to administer the tests, and you can see where a teacher might be concerned.
So, do I think we need to return to just teaching the basics? Clearly, the answer is no. Do I think the current implementation of the standards, and in particular the testing that comes along with them, is in the best interest of the students? Again, and despite the fact that I agree with the fundamental tenets of the common core, I would have to say no. There has to be some middle ground, where the basics are included in the bigger picture of problem solving (rather than problem solving being included as an add-on to the teaching of the basics), and where collaborative work and communication skills are the fertile ground in which the creative use of these skills take root and grow.
Sounds like Harkness to me.