The Standards: Moving from “Common” to Dynamic Learning

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Common Core standards in my state—and school—this year. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve heard conversations from a variety of stakeholders surrounding the standards: concerns about what and how students will be taught, who controls the curriculum, and whether the standards will live up expectations. Not surprisingly, many of those discussions have been contentious.

But I have an advantage over most people. I’ve had more exposure to the what, why, and how of the standards in my classroom. In Florida, the Department of Education held public meetings and invited comment on the standards.  I attended one of those meetings and gave testimony as a teacher and a mom. I voiced my support for the standards as a means of providing students with the support they need to be successful in college and beyond.  (You can read my blog post about it).

Changing teaching and learning

The truth is, the standards have changed how I teach. They’ve also changed the way my colleagues teach—for the better of all students.  We’ve had numerous trainings on implementing the standards in reading and math, and we will continue to learn from one another for years to come.  Teaching the standards has provided an enormous opportunity for us to reflect on our current practice and make improvements, to collaborate and innovate, and to learn and grow.

The standards have also changed how students learn. I’ve seen the different types of classwork and homework assignments my son is exposed to and the learning gains he’s made. I’ve also had the privilege of working with parents and community members during School Advisory Committee meetings and have heard their stories of how learning looks so much more different than when their older children were in school.

All of this change in just a few short years has been challenging for teachers, parents, and students. But I believe we will discover it was worth it in the end.

Here’s what I want parents to know: the Common Core standards have the potential to bring about dynamic changes in the way students learn. Here’s why:

  • The standards are designed to help students become critical thinkers and problem solvers. Learning designed around the standards helps students develop those skills.
  • Students are expected to use technology to research issues and communicate with their peers. They don’t just learn “on” technology but “through” technology use.
  • Students are expected to creative new literary works that support different points of view. Instead of just evaluating their response to someone else’s work, they use it as the basis for their own unique communication.

That’s far from a “common” education, at least the one that I was exposed to as a child.

Cultivating deeper skills

As a result of the standards, I’ve changed the way I teach literacy to even our youngest students. In the past, I would prepare kindergarten students for a story-time lesson by giving them the main idea upfront and then asking them to support my statement. For example, I would tell students we were going to read “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and that the story was written to encourage children to behave. Then I’d read the story aloud and ask them to point out examples of when Goldilocks disobeys her mother and the consequences. My students learned to find text evidence in support of what I had told them—but they were not developing their own critical thinking and analysis skills.

I teach that lesson quite differently now. I still set up the lesson by teaching students about the qualities of traditional stories, like passing on morals and norms. However, I don’t tell the students what they’ll learn from the story—I let them tell me what the lesson is after we’ve read the text together. They have to apply critical thinking skills to determine what message the story is trying to convey, and they have to give me evidence from the text to support their answer.

Same lesson, different focus—and what a powerful difference that makes for even our youngest students. By teaching a lesson aligned with the standards, I’ve given my kindergarten students the opportunity to think critically about a story and come to their own conclusions. What a powerful tool for future learning.

My son has experienced similar experiences in school. For example, this year, his science teacher gave his workgroup (another shift from traditional learning experiences) several problems to solve using research and experimentation. During a lesson on force and motion, the workgroups had to design a car that would travel the farthest using a predetermined set of household materials including straws, CDs, pencils, and string. His workgroup completed research on wind resistance, speed, and weight and used that information to design their vehicles.

He later transferred that information and interest in to a science fair project that won a prize at the district fair. And his next step? Redesigning the project to include what he learned and submitting it for next year’s fair. To me, that is a shining example of building lifelong learning skills.

As a teacher, I’ve seen my students grow as learners and thinkers. As a parent, I’ve seen similar growth in my own child’s abilities.

A message for parents

We still have a ways to go before most parents will see the long-term impact of the standards. But I would ask all parents: be patient. Ask your children’s teachers questions about the standards. Find out what your students’ schools and school district are doing to implement them. Or do your own research using this resource: a poster showing the 21st-century skills that teachers are helping students develop for future college and career success, with the help of the standards.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have a good feeling that the best for our children is yet to come. The standards are just one path toward their future success.

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