Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Common Core - introducing standards-based education

I have had a few comments on my Common Core posts showing a misunderstanding of standards so I think I should explore what is going on.

The traditional approach to education was content-based. Somebody somewhere decided a specific body of knowledge exists, which therefore can be defined, and education consists of transmitting that body of knowledge. In other words, education is a matter of acquiring stuff, or "facts".

However, content-based education presents three insurmountable problems.

Firstly, knowledge changes and so students can be learning "stuff" which is just wrong. Think of national borders (Yugoslavia for example) or the periodic table (element 115 has just been added); even the length of a second is not fixed.

Secondly, knowledge is arbitrary. How far is it to the Moon? Well, it depends on the season, and yet every child's science book gives a distance in miles. How long is the California coastline? Again, Grade 4 students in California learn a number and yet the actual distance depends on whether it is high tide or low tide, a bay is counted, how far up a river one travels before crossing.

Thirdly, knowledge is political. Did Columbus discover America? Is Taiwan a country? What are the ten most important events in English history?

Incidentally, many religiously motivated people support content-based education. As they believe God can be defined (Bible, Koran, Torah and so on), so too can knowledge. Similarly, many people inside and outside the field support content-based education because it can easily be tested, and of course it lends easily to multiple-choice assessment ...

I am not saying that we as a society should not require our students to know things; our shared knowledge is part of what defines us a community. However, the "know what" approach is clearly hugely problematic.

So, we saw a shift to skills-based education or the "know how" approach: teach someone to fish and you feed him/her for life. With this approach, knowing how to measure is what is important, not whether one measures a table or a football field. Knowing how to use scales matters more than weighing sugar, rice or flour. Similarly, it does not matter if one draws a cat, dog, or horse as long as one can draw.

Incidentally, true play-based or experiential learning is a form of skills-based education. This will be the subject of a later posting so please check back. Similarly, the Kumon (English, Math) and Suzuki (Music) approaches are also skills-based.

The next development was connected with concepts of identifiable stages in skills-acquisition, "developmentally appropriate" teaching and learning and of course assessment. Skills can be broken down into sub-skills, which fall into a logical progression and which can often be tied to age and stage. Desired and/or achievable outcomes can then be defined and, ipso facto, we have a standard.

So in a nutshell, the Common Core comes from the basis of establishing definable, observable, and measurable outcomes, which are derived from specific sub-skills which in turn come from the skills which are necessary to master the subject. Knowledge or content is the excuse for the acquisition or development of the skill, and the tool for the assessment of the meeting of the standard and not the driver of the teaching and learning.

That fundamental underpinning of the Common Core is what drives much of the debate. The need for teachers, parents and textbook / assessment publishers fundamentally to change what they have been doing and with what they feel comfortable is what drives much of the criticism.


Anonymous said...

A great discussion and I think you are right. It explains why we love spelling bees but cannot write a coherent sentence, and why multiple choice has triumphed over all other forms of assessment.

uofmpop said...

The problem is always in the details. The promise of Common Core is that it'll help kids to develop skills. But it won't for several reasons. Let's name only two here.

One: CC is tied to assessment via tests. Since teachers are also evaluated by these tests, they will teach to the test. Second: CC's expectation of skills simply don't match well with the age of the kids who are supposed to acquire the skills. If Finnish kids start reading and counting at age 7, why force US kids to read and count (and more) at age 5?