In my last few years of teaching high school English, I developed a senior elective called “The Art of Memoir,” for which students read such authors as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, and Mary Karr. The students wrote essays evaluating and comparing and contrasting the works; they also wrote short memoirs of their own that we workshopped in class.
Because this was a new course, I designed the curriculum, created the rubrics and assessments, and came up with the “big” questions I wanted students to consider, such as, “Does the reading public’s fascination with memoir suggest a healthy interest in other people, or does it too often indicate a voyeuristic urge to look through the debris of broken lives?” I also sought out colleagues for advice on choosing texts and dealing with the problems such a new endeavor would inevitably encounter.
In essence, the thinking and problem-solving I took on were akin to the kinds of things the Common Core State Standards now ask students to do in the 46 states that have adopted the standards for English/language arts: to analyze complex texts, to weigh evidence, to make clear and effective arguments, and to work with others with very different views.
In short, I had to think my way through this new course every day, exactly as students are supposed to do in courses aligned with the demands of what many call the common core’s “thinking curriculum.”
Teachers cannot push students to think more deeply unless they do so themselves."
This point is important because too much of the discussion about the common core has focused on what students are going to have to do—and not enough on the fact that the standards can succeed only if teachers become the critical thinkers we now expect students to become. There is no other way. Teachers cannot push students to think more deeply unless they do so themselves. All great coaches have to have played the game, and the teacher is first and foremost the students’ coach.
This represents a huge shift for teachers because, in the United States, the public has often perceived teachers—and the education schools that have prepared them—not as thinkers, but as taskmasters who force-feed “content” to students who have to be kept in line. The goal has long been coverage—to go at supersonic speed over everything from the Roman Empire to thermodynamics—without ever having to stop to explore anything in depth. In short, teachers have often been asked to focus on the lowest rung on the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid: remembering.
This is beginning to change, especially within the teaching profession itself. An increasing number of education schools are now emphasizing higher-order thinking skills, and many teachers rightly chafe at being seen primarily as purveyors of basic skills and information. Nevertheless, the historical tendency to dumb down teaching remains largely in force. This can be seen in some of the highly scripted common-core materials popping up in curricula and teacher-development materials.
One website marketing common-core products, for instance, writes of a “suite of solutions [that] takes the guesswork out of the common core so you can ensure ... all teachers consistently provide students with successful learning opportunities.” Another company advertises its common-core product as taking teachers from “Zero to Mastery in as Little as One Year.” Yet another consulting company actually calls its program “Common Core Made Easy.”
“Easy,” as it turns out, is a favorite word in common-core marketing. But it’s an illusion. It can never be easy, for teachers and students alike, to analyze texts such as the Federalist Papers, or to understand the causes of World War I, or to use effectively any of the intellectual skills the common core now charges students with mastering.
And it’s not easy to assess students on the common core, either—especially with a new wave of the same old fill-in-the-bubble tests. The common core requires, or should require, that teachers do the hard work of assessing real work by students—their writing, their labs, their presentations—that showcases what the standards are really about.
The proponents of the common core like to talk about how the standards set out a new vision of learning for students. And this is true; it will no longer be enough for youngsters to memorize information or rely on formulas. But if the common core is to succeed, it must set out a new vision for teachers, too—one that helps them practice the kind of deep-thinking skills they will now be required to preach.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Teachers as Critical Thinkers