Although the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics are still the subject of considerable controversy, they are probably coming to your classroom in the near future. You may need to build some new skills and implement some new kinds of instruction to make sure your students are successful.
Scaffold for Independence and Application
Both the language arts and math Common Core State Standards emphasize the transfer and application of learning to new situations. For language arts teachers, this means that instruction in literature will become more like instruction in writing—focusing on reading processes rather than literary content. Students need to learn strategies for understanding and interpreting different kinds of texts, rather than information about texts and authors. For example, students are not expected to name plays by Shakespeare or identify characters in a novel. What they do need to learn is how to take the skills they have learned from studying literature and use them to make meaning of a new text.
Although the standards for reading literature certainly lie in the domain of the language arts teacher, teachers in other content areas have a significant responsibility. Non-fiction is a key component of the standards, which must be addressed in all subject areas. The standards for writing focus on argumentation, in particular, a skill which needs to be addressed across the curriculum since what counts for evidence and good reasoning is different in different subject areas.
An emphasis on thinking strategies is equally important in math instruction. Simply put, meeting the Common Core math standards is all about solving problems. Students need to be able to analyze a problem, know what mathematical practices to use, use appropriate algorithms and formulas, and explain and defend their solutions. This means that students must develop the conceptual understanding to use mathematics to think flexibly, and teachers must remember that knowing a procedure is not the same as understanding a mathematical idea. Tricks and games can help students remember the steps of a procedure, but they don’t ensure that they will know when or how to use the procedure in new situations. In other words, math is about mathematically rich experiences and problems, rather than just the proficient exercise of calculations and formulas.
Model thinking strategies.
Students often need examples of how to think about problems and texts. As experts in your fields, you have ways of thinking in general as well as strategies that are unique to your subject area. Modeling these thinking processes with think-alouds shows your students how you ask questions, make predictions, wonder about ideas, pose and reject solutions, make mistakes, access resources, check your understanding, and evaluate the quality of your thinking. Your students probably think that “right answers” just come to you in fully blown form, and seeing how you stumble about to come up with viable solutions to problems or reasonable interpretations of a text gives them ideas of how to proceed.
Giving students guidelines and prompts along with frequent opportunities to discuss their thinking is critical for helping students develop thinking skills. When their thought processes are visible, both to themselves and others, they can more easily analyze how they are approaching problems. Student thinking can also be examples to their peers of strategies they might use.
It’s important to remember, however, that while students need to be supported as they think about application tasks with prompts and guides, it’s equally important to remove these supports as students become more proficient. The goal is independent thinking.
Enhance formative assessment.
If students are to learn effective thinking processes, whether in math or language arts, teachers must be aware of how they are thinking. There are two sides to this. First, students must learn how to make their thinking visible—how to talk and write about how they approach problems, tasks, or texts. Metacognition has to be part of every learning task. Then teachers must develop strategies for observing and analyzing their students’ strategies. They must listen to and watch students as they work with the subject matter at hand, drawing conclusions about how they are implementing what they have learned and thinking about what adjustments need to be made in instruction. Assessment and New Standards has more information about how classroom assessment can help students meet Common Core standards.
Design performance tasks.
For years, educators assumed that if students read and studied great books, they were learning literary analysis, and if they could accurately perform mathematical operations, they were thinking mathematically. The Common Core standards dispute that belief. To demonstrate that they have met these standards, students need to use what they have learned independently in new situations. That means that in the classroom, they need practice with open-ended tasks that require deep understanding of content as well as the efficient exercise of relevant skills.
This doesn't mean that all classrooms should be project-based classrooms, although well-designed projects can certainly help students meet the standards. What it does mean that students need lots of learning experiences that give them practice using what they are learning in new contexts. These can be long-term projects or short activities, but they must address the transfer and application of skills and knowledge:
Students work at tasks with multiple possible outcomes and paths to solutions
Tasks require students to incorporate deep understanding of content knowledge
They collaborate with peers and others to discuss their thinking in meaningful contexts.
Students explain and defend their conclusions and solutions
They reflect on their thinking and learning strategies.
The standardized assessments being developed for the Common Core State Standards are designed to elicit the kinds of problem solving that the standards promote. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers are both developing assessments for Common Core State Standards and have sample test items for review. These assessments reflect the process approach of the standards and can be a good model for teachers to follow when creating both formative and summative assessments for the classroom.
How do you feel about Common Core State Standards in your classroom?
Much has been written about how many teachers feel unprepared to implement the Common Core State Standards. How do you feel about your readiness? What kinds of training or information would help you feel more confident about teaching the Common Core?
Classroom Examples of Teaching to the Common Core
Explore the following sites to see classroom examples with real students and teachers of activities designed to address Common Core standards.