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Bruno: Do The Common Core Standards Tell Teachers How To Teach?

8571472456_eedf77c67eOne of the virtues of content standards is supposed to be that they tell teachers what to teach -- but not how to teach. Is that true about the Common Core?

James Shuls thinks not. Instead, he argues, the Common Core standards are so thoroughly informed by constructivist educational thinking that the CCSS can't help but require teachers to use constructivist methods - like discovery learning - and to avoid more traditional, guided methods of instruction.

 Shuls is probably right about the constructivist origins of the CCSS; their language makes the influence of progressive educational theorists difficult to miss. And I'm second to no one in my skepticism about the virtues of constructivist pedagogy, especially for the most vulnerable students.

Still, if the standards tie teachers' hands it is not through their language but through their assessments; the tests represent the bar that our students will eventually have to clear. And how, exactly, are the tests going to tell teachers how to teach?

It's not enough to point out, as Shuls does, that the standards (and their associated documents) stress that students should be able to demonstrate "not only procedural skill but conceptual understanding". After all, even critics of constructivism aren't opposed to conceptual understanding.

Rather, more traditional "instructivists" (like me) just think the distinction between procedural skill and conceptual understanding is overblown and emphasize that the former often facilitates the latter.

An assessment of "conceptual understanding", then, is no more objectionable to a teacher just because he happens not to be a constructivist. If I believe additional procedural fluency will help my students develop greater conceptual understanding, I remain free to allocate instructional time accordingly.

Similarly, while many CCSS supporters appear to endorse the constructivist - and mostly false - notion that critical thinking skills are readily transferable across contexts, this need not lock teachers into constructivist teaching methods aimed at fostering such skills.

On the contrary, if I believe that critical thinking about a subject is only possible given extensive related background knowledge, I am still free to use lots of direct instruction to promote factual fluency. If I doubt that constructivist methods will help my students on the tests, what about the standards requires me to use them?

I am concerned that the Common Core standards endorse - and therefore promote - numerous confused notions about teaching and learning. Nevertheless, even if a teacher is uncomfortable with the language of the standards, why should he feel constrained in his methods by the likely nature of their assessments? - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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Aren't the "critical thinking skills" in CC just assessing if claims are supported by logic and evidence? You don't think that's transferable?

@Tom - That skill is probably transferable in some minor ways but, no, I do not believe it is substantially transferable. I'm reasonably good at supporting claims with logic and evidence when I know a good deal about the subject - say, cell biology or education - but if you asked me to make a claim about meteorology or early 18th century British history I would probably not be able to support it with logic or evidence. After all, if I do not know about the subject I will not have evidence to marshal or be able to easily distinguish good logic from bad.

That's my logic on the question. As for supporting my claim with evidence, I'll note that the National Research Council looked at claims that such critical thinking skills are transferable and found no evidence to show that they are to any significant degree:


To be clear, there are probably some minor, related skills that are somewhat transferable - say, how to physically format a written argument - but I doubt those kinds of skills make up more than a small fraction of what we think of as "critical thinking".

Paul is right, Tom, that critical thinking isn't a "skill" that's "transferable" to just any old essay prompt. The critical thinking blather in the common core documents is there for decoration only.

I would go further and say the assessments PARRC is planning aren't remotely measuring critical thinking, anyway. The assessment parameters are dictated by the need to define a set of rote stimulus processing activities which can be scored by a computer. Higher ed people who got access to the proprietary essay scoring instruments had a field day producing howler papers which scored six in spite of their comical absurdity and lack of any logic whatsoever.

Paul has a bogeyman definition of constructivism he got the last time it was misappropriated by curriculum salesmen, and used to justify the "discovery learning" product line. Relax, everybody. Knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, even if it is accessed through direct instruction and the instructor never notices. In a Cartesian sense, human children are the creators of their own minds, but it's done in a complicated interactive response program that includes listening when caring adults explain something, and group task activities. I would also include heady interpersonal experiments and the high adventure of individual explorations of nature.

One thing child development isn't is data-driven, and neither is real education.

@Mary - The fact that there is a distinction to be made between between constructivist learning theory and constructivist teaching theory - with the former being mostly true and the latter being mostly false - does not mean that the latter is a bogeyman. Discovery learning theory is as alive in the research community as it is in the curriculum sales industry, and no small number of teachers subscribe to it (or to watered-down versions of it).

There is a pedagogical bias inherent in the Common Core math standards, though it is entirely possible for a teacher to ignore that bias and teach whole class/direct instruction. William McCallum, lead writer of the CC math standards wrote in a comment on my article in The Atlantic on these standards, that the standards do not say anything about critical thinking or collaborative learning. In another comment that he wrote on Rick Hess' blog, he stated that the standards neither prohibit nor encourage any kind of pedagogy.

Unfortunately, the standards are being interpreted in this manner. The Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are 8 standards at the very beginning of the CC math standards are being interpreted by schools, school districts, and Professional Development vendors to require student-led, inquiry-based learning.

See: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/11/why-the-new-common-core-math-standards-dont-add-up/265444/

@Barry - As I said, I think there is a real problem with perceived or implied pedagogical endorsements in the standards but, as you say, they're not strictly binding. (Unless, I suppose, districts choose to make them so.)

I do wonder what effects the assessments will have. Will schools that double down on the constructivist interpretation of the standards find themselves getting clobbered by the scores? Will the tests water down the content so much that it's hard to distinguish the more- and less-knowledgeable students? Or something else entirely?

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