Teachers, you’re killing us with this Common Core stuff!

If you asked a hundred teachers their thoughts and observations about Common Core, you would probably get a hundred different answers.  A recent poll done by The Association of American Educators showed that teachers are completely split on their views of Common Core, with a bit less than a third (30%) reporting they believe Common Core State Standards will improve the quality of education in their community, about 1/3 (34%) believe the new standards will decrease the quality of education, and a bit more than a third (36%) believe the standards will have no effect.  But despite their thoughts and feelings one thing is clear; teachers who teach in states that have adopted Common Core will be teaching the concepts outlined in these standards.  While teachers represent a widely varied group of attitudes and beliefs one thing that most of them have in common is a desire to be effective teachers.  Most teachers, no matter the curriculum, the standard, the materials or the challenges, will find ways to be as effective in instructing their students as possible.  A few weeks back I wrote about why we hate Common Core, and my main point was, we are doing it wrong.  The news and the internet overflow with examples of Common Core gone wrong.  We, as a society, don’t get it, we don’t see the point, it may even be detrimental and designed to circumvent our liberty, and we don’t even really get what the standards are or why we need them.

Fortunately, the research that convinced me we were doing it wrong, also helped me to pinpoint what we could do to adopt these standards more effectively.  My findings, along with some personal experience, leads me to recommend three changes I believe teachers should make in regards to Common Core:

  • Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core
  • Be smart with class time and
  • Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research.

Now, when all of my recommendations are for teachers it all may seem a bit like blame the teacher, but contrary to the way it may sound I don’t think it is mostly the teachers’ fault.  I say mostly because although most classroom teachers have very little control over if and when Common Core happens, they have a lot of control on the how.  While I think there is a lot that schools, districts and states can do to better transition to and implement Common Core effectively I think I have very little power to change or affect that.  What I think I can have an effect on is my little part of the world.  And I think that if every teacher that read this took my advice and had an effect on their little part of the world, then that will affect much more of the world than a top down approach would.  So my focus here will be what can, and should, individual teachers do in their part of the world, with their limitations of time and resources to make this transition smoother and most successful for their students.

#1- Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core

I hate to say it teachers, but I think we really blew it here.  Much of what the general public knows about Common Core was fed to them by the media, and often not even the mainstream media.  The spread of social media at about the same time as the implementation of Common Core standards provided the ideal environment to spread rumors and accusations on how and why the standards came to be, how they will be taught, and even what they are.  Even though the public does not have a lot of confidence in the public school system in general, most people have confidence in teachers in their local area and rate them as being above average.  With that fact in mind it is time that we teachers speak up and share with the public what we really think.

Now, as I said earlier, what we think about Common Core is widely varied, so I am not necessarily talking about sharing your preference of Common Core.  What I am talking about is sharing what you know about the standards, how you are working toward implementation, the positives about the standards and yes, the challenges.  I don’t think the general public quite understands the plight of the public school teacher when it comes to shifting expectations.  I don’t think they understand how often we are called upon from those above to completely change the way we do things.  I don’ t think they understand the hoops we need to jump through, or how much our workload has increased with all that we are now called upon to do.  When we share with our friends, our neighbors and community members and parents of our students about our experiences they have authentic information, instead of information spun through groups with an agenda.  When we share that, “Yes, there may be some issues with new standards (or new anything) but there may be some strengths.  And, we are using whatever changes come along to our benefit to educate our children,” then the public starts to see things through our eyes, instead of those who would tear down educators.

Speaking out and telling the public what we think may not come easily for many of us.  We teachers have no problem speaking up in our classroom and with our students, but for some reason we are not all that good about speaking up in our communities. Teachers have gotten pretty used to letting groups that represent them do the talking, like administrators and teachers’ unions.  But I am not talking about administrators explaining to parents, I am not talking about teachers’ unions or union reps communicating with our communities, I am talking about regular, everyday teachers opening their mouths and sharing their thoughts and experiences.  Not complaining, not whining, not blaming it on someone else, but sharing what our work is, how we do it, what is rewarding and what is frustrating.   With the spread of social media there has never been a better time.  Don’t let those who know little about public education be the ones who dictate what the public hears and believes.  And, don’t let school districts or teachers’ unions paint us with a broad brushstroke that makes us look like we don’t have minds of our own.  When we speak up in a respectful and professional manner we become known for the varied, highly educated, highly trained group that we really are.

#2- Be smart with class time

Most teachers probably already know this, but contrary to many of the rumors circulating about Common Core, the shifts in the standards are based on research on how children learn best.   For my teacher friends who may have forgotten, or the general public who may also be reading this, they include basic shifts in not only what is taught, but, ideally, the way it is taught.  The shifts include:

    • Greater focus on fewer topics
    • Coherence: Linking topics and thinking across grades
    • Rigor: Pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity

In math, and in ELA:

    • Regular practice with complex texts and academic language
    • Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
    • Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction

In recent years, to explore the seeming disparity in proficiency scores between countries around the globe, educators have studied how students are educated in different countries.  In their book, “The Teaching Gap, “ James Stigler and James Hiebert observed math lessons in Japan, the US and Germany.  The team observed many differences in the way concepts were taught, but one of the main findings was in the German and US classrooms much of the class time was spent in listening to a teacher, whereas the majority of time spent by Japanese students was spent in problem solving.

Some of the shifts associated with the move to Common Core are based on the evidence that the Japanese model, focusing on problem solving rather than teacher lecture on “how to,” improves achievement.  But, are teachers really shifting the how they teach, and not just what they teach?

As I have already mentioned teachers are a very diverse group.  So, some teachers have probably made many changes, while others are determined to pour a new standard into the same old mold.  As I reported in my previous post part of my job is to assist other teachers.  The research that I did to assist our middle school math teachers better incorporate the new standards is what prompted this entire line of thinking on my part.  From my understanding of what had been learned from Japanese instruction, the shifts in Common Core and what I observed in the typical middle school math class it seemed that most teachers were just not doing enough to shift their classroom teaching.  Teachers reported a great frustration to fit the new standards into their class time, so I determined that I would look for ways to assist them.  To assist me I did a very small, very unrepresentative study of how much time our math teachers spent on typical classroom tasks.  What I found backed up what I had observed, and gave me thoughts on what needs to happen to better address the new standards in the classroom.  My examples will all be from the point of view of a math class, however I believe the concepts are very similar in other subject areas.  Keep in mind, however, that in some ways math is very different than other subjects.  Math requires much more practicing of skills than many content areas, so not everything I found here may apply.

Part of what makes the Japanese model so different than the US model is the amount of time students spend engaged in performing math.  Not taking notes, not listening to the teacher, not watching the teacher solve problems, but actually doing math.  Part of the philosophy behind which a typical US classroom operates is that the teacher has advanced knowledge about a subject and the teacher’s job is to impart the learning to the students.  In turn, the students performs some sort of task, an assignment, a test, etc., to demonstrate that they absorbed and understood the knowledge.  The philosophy behind which the Japanese method, and to some extent the principles of Common Core, operates have less to do with the teacher imparting knowledge to the student, and more to do with the student gaining knowledge through their own enquiry, exploration, activities and  experiences.  This is a bold and risky change for teachers because instead of just telling kids what they need to know, we need to develop activities for students that will lead them to the knowledge that we believe is important for them to learn, and trust that they will indeed discover the important elements.

If this type of a model were implemented you would expect to see students spending the majority of their class time doing math.  So here is where my very unscientific study comes in.  I polled our math teachers and asked them to group their class time into 4 categories: 1-Homework- correcting and going over the previous night’s assignment, 2-             Direct Instruction- teacher talk, notes, examples, etc., 3-     Guided Practice- teacher guides students through the steps of the process and 4-                Independent Practice- students are solving math problems.  What I found with our teachers, and I believe this is typical, is that they were spending their largest proportion of their time, an average of 34 minutes in an 84 minute block period, in direct instruction and only an average of 19.2 minutes in independent practice, or actually doing math.  Now some may argue that much more of the period is really doing math.  After all, they are watching problems being solved, writing down notes filled with math problems, and being walked through the correct process to solve problems.  But I submit to you, that none of this is doing math.

The brain operates quite differently when we watch someone doing something, versus when we do it.  When you learned to drive, did you take notes on where the brake was, how to shift and when to look in your mirrors?  Probably not.  You may have had instruction on driving laws and rules, but the procedures you learned by doing.  In my work with children who struggle quite often I have a child come to me needing help.  They listened to the lecture, they wrote the notes, they completed the guided practice but they have no ability to duplicate the process.  This is because they were not doing math at all; they were copying what the teacher was doing.  Teachers do need to teach students about the rules that govern mathematical concepts, but it seems that our students are stuck in math training, and spend very little time “behind the wheel” and solving problems on their own.

So what should the ideal classroom look like?  In my opinion, and based on my experience working with all types of students and many teachers, here is what will help teachers better move toward the Common Core shifts.

First, limit time spent going over previous homework.  In most middle school classrooms I have observed the first part of class is spent going over homework from the night before.  Our teachers reported that they spent between 10 and 30 minutes on this.  While it is important that students get feedback and help if they struggle, I submit that spending a lot of time on this does not give you the best bang for your buck.  More about this below, but I submit if you restructure your time as I am recommending you won’t even need that much time for this activity.

Second, some notes and examples are good, but the sooner kids actually engage their brains in math activities, not just notes or copying, the more time they have to understand the concept.  Find a way to streamline this, and understand that not every lesson has to start with directions.  For some concepts an exploratory activity that gets kids immediately into doing math may be better.  Then follow with notes, and the “rules of the road” later.

Third, build in procedures to check for understanding as soon as possible.  Work a problem, check with your neighbor; work problems on a whiteboard; using hand signals to show understanding are all ways that students can all be working, and show they understand.  Try to stay away from, or limit, teaching methods that require only one student to answer at a time.  I have observed plenty of students who will quite happily just sit there and not participate at all unless required to.  Make sure you have procedures that require all to actually engage their brains, not just their eyes and ears.

Last, leave plenty of time for independent practice, in class.  This is the most key part and will do two things for you.  First, it will increase the likelihood that students will actually complete and understand their homework.  Students should not be sent out your door with homework that they do not know how to complete.  Unless you know who understands what, it is impossible to assure that this happens.  Also, if you have students who just are not getting it, this gives you an opportunity to modify their work, or suggest when and how they can get extra assistance so they can complete their homework.  In the past teachers relied an awful lot on parents as the “at home” teacher to get homework complete.  With Common Core, concepts may be taught so differently that teachers cannot really expect that parents can help.  Students should go home with practice they understand, not homework that parents need to re-teach.  The second benefit to leaving plenty of time for independent practice is that this is where you save time in the beginning of class.  If you are sure that most of your students understand the homework, then the checking and review portion is greatly lessoned and shortened.  This allows you to display the answers for self or peer checking, and then spend time answering questions on the most tricky, difficult or misunderstood items, instead of the concept you went over the day before.

Teaching is a very complex skill.  When a new way of doing things comes along it is not really advisable, or even possible, to just throw out the old and put in the new.  Change will and should be gradual, but that change should be guided by evidence on how children learn best combined with an understanding of what we are really changing.  I believe that if teachers will gradually shift the way their class time is spent that not only will they better be able to teach Common Core Standards, but they will also increase their practice and effectiveness.

#3- Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research

Homework is probably the area that will most affect, and confuse, parents in the shift to Common Core.  This is where we get topics of blog and Facebook posts of, what was this teacher thinking? Or, just what are they teaching my child?  Not to mention the ever popular, what does this even mean?

It is easy for teachers to get defensive and defend their homework choices, but I think a better strategy would be to just admit a few things.  First, we might not get it all either.  New terms, new ways of doing things and new procedures can have us all a bit confused.  Second, some of the transition materials are just not very good.  The hope is that as we begin to adopt new materials they will better reach the new concepts, but some of the things we are currently using are just not very effective, and sometimes they are just plain confusing.  And third, we need to be picky and careful about what and how we assign homework.  I think if nothing else, all of the bad publicity should have taught us we can’t just grab some worksheet and assign it as homework.  When the terms and procedures are so vastly different from what students have been taught in the past it does not work very well.

This is where we go back to the article, “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile” by Annie Murphy Paul which I quoted in my previous post.  Remember, her focus was on brain research and how it relates to homework?  Paul has five main suggestions on how to make homework worthwhile, the quality of the homework space reputation, retrieval practices, cognitive disgluency and interleaving.  We will discuss each of these areas and how teachers can use these skills to better implement Common Core, especially in the area of math.

Quality is more important than quantity.  One thing that Paul reported that parents complain of is that much of their child’s homework appears to be busy work.  The trick is not to make homework shorter or longer, but smarter.  Homework should be worthwhile and provide value.

  1. Spaced repetition– When I was an undergraduate psychology student I studied learning and how the brain operates to best learn and retrieve material. One concept of memory is that learning is enhanced when the method of retrieval matches the method of learning.  In other words, if you learn to drive in a car, you will better remember how to drive when you are in a car than in another location.  If you want to remember how to do something in the early morning, you are best learning that process in the early morning.  And if you want to remember something over a long period of time, you are better off learning that information over a long period of time.  That does not often match the way we teach.  Often we teach, assess, then move on to a new concept.  Students will remember concepts better if we expose them to material in brief periods over long periods of time.  This would indicate that a good use of homework is a brief review of concepts already learned that needs to be remembered on an ongoing basis.
  2. Retrieval practices– Teachers understand the important of assessment to determine what learning has taken place, but Paul asserts that assessment can also be used to enhance learning. There is evidence that frequent assessment enhances learning because it strengthens neural pathways.  If I ask your name you can immediately pull up that information, and answer the question.  Little thought, no searching for the correct answer, your brain knows just where to retrieve that information quickly and effectively.  Your brain is like that, it can best retrieve information that is frequently accessed.  So, frequent assessment ensures frequent use of the stored information, and enhances learning.  I find it also enhances homework completion rates.  If students are aware that they will be assessed often, they are more likely to keep up on homework assignments, and the practice has meaning, not just mindless practice.
  3. Cognitive disfluency– One thing I enjoy is singing, and I have sung in choirs for much of my life.  After years of singing many of the same songs I made an interesting discovery.  Sometimes, our choir will sing a song that we performed many years ago, and yet I have trouble remembering my part.  Other times, the part is so familiar that I could almost perform after not seeing it for many years.  One thing I began to notice is that often the parts I remembered the best were the most difficult to learn.  This illustrates the concept of cognitive disfluency.  I used to think that I remembered those parts better because I had to practice them more to learn them.  But, according to Paul, that does not quite explain the phenomenon.   Paul says that when we learn material that is a bit difficult to learn it signals the brain that this information is important and needs to be remembered.  As important as it is for homework to be something that students can complete, the concept of cognitive disfluency illustrates that it is equally important that homework be meaningful and rigorous.  Homework, and classwork for that matter, should not be busy work or meaningless.
  4. Interleaving– This concept has to do with mixed practice. When homework or practice of any kind is all of the same type, for instance and entire page of similar addition problems, learning is compromised.  Studies show that when students practice skills of mixed types that learning is enhanced.  This makes sense when you think about the way the brain works.  An entire page of similar problems only requires the brain to make one trip down the neural pathway to that information.  When the task contains mixed practice, however, the brain must visit the locations of several memory locations, thus strengthening those neural pathways.

This week a teacher friend of mine posted a picture of an assignment that his kindergarten son brought home as homework.  I have included it as the image for this article.  He was not quite sure what the directions meant, or if his son had completed the assignment correctly.  Several other middle school teachers, including math teachers, commented on the post and no one could understand what was being asked or if what was done was correct.  There were a few theories, but no definitive conclusion.  I think the child’s teacher probably assigned this activity in good faith that the student could complete it, but it appears there is a problem.  If a handful of highly educated teachers cannot figure out what needs to be done, what of the typical parent?  Teachers, help us all out here, look at my advice and help make the move to Common Core a little bit smoother.  We can do this, but it needs some work before we can say we are doing it right.

Next, advice for parents.