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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Are you ready for the Common Core?

One of my sabbatical projects involves working with the San Diego Center for Economics Education to develop workshops for K-12 teachers related to economics and the Common Core State Standards. For any readers who are not familiar with the Common Core, here’s a super-quick summary: The Common Core is a set of standards for K-12 math and English language arts that have been adopted by almost every state, including California. There’s been a lot of hoopla about them in the media, partly because of the politics (contrary to what you may have heard, the Common Core standards were not forced on states by the Obama administration!), but for college instructors, the big thing you need to be aware of is the difference between the standards that most states previously had in place and the Common Core standards. To put it in simplest terms, the previous standards (at least in California, and most other states that I know of) focused primarily on CONTENT – i.e., what students are supposed to KNOW – while the Common Core focuses primarily on SKILLS – i.e., what students should be able to DO. So, for example, instead of simply identifying facts that can be found within a reading, students have to show they understand how and why those facts are relevant to the story or document. In math, instead of simply memorizing multiplication tables, students are asked to show the process of how they arrive at a solution (with a recognition that there can be multiple ways to arrive at the same answer). For those familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, the Common Core basically is trying to move all students up to the higher levels of learning.

The implementation of Common Core has been rocky in many states – it certainly has been in California – in part because the new standards really require many teachers to completely change the WAY they teach. It’s simply impossible to imagine how you can get students to meet the Common Core standards if all you’re doing is having them read textbooks and listening to lectures. Teachers will have to adopt more interactive pedagogies that allow students to engage more deeply with material so they can really practice those higher order skills.

One thing that worries me is that people in higher education don’t seem to be very aware of what’s going on with the Common Core. This is problematic because although the Common Core standards apply to K-12 schools, they are eventually – hopefully – going to have a huge impact on college classrooms: if K-12 schools successfully implement the standards, the students who walk into our classes are going to start looking very different, both in terms of what they know and can do, and in terms of what they EXPECT from us. On the plus side, they should have much better communication and analysis skills than our current freshman, which means we can ask more of them and take our classes to a higher level; on the other hand, if students have just spent 13 years in classes where they are asked to participate, to work in groups, to discuss and analyze – chances are, they’ll be pretty unhappy if we then ask them to just sit and listen to us talk at them.

So for me, Common Core provides yet another reason why moving away from lecture to more active learning pedagogies is not only something that we really SHOULD be doing for the benefit of our students, but in many ways, I believe it’s something we MUST be doing, or else we risk becoming obsolete.

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