Is it possible for teachers to meet standards without teaching in a standardized way? This question is at the heart of the ambivalence around Common Core State Standards for many educators.
Supporters of the Common Core, including the developers and many educators, maintain that the new standards are a move away from No Child Left Behind because they focus on developing students' skills rather than specific content areas that teachers should cover. But because a standardized test will be used to evaluate how effectively students are learning those skills, the temptation to try and teach to the test still exists.
Educators say they're already feeling pressure from administrators to teach the same things at the same time in an attempt to ensure strong test results. “It certainly isn’t how you inspire teachers to stay in the classroom,” said veteran teacher Diana Laufenberg at EduCon conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.
Still, it often seems easier or safer to standardize instruction instead of trusting educators to engage and challenge students. But Laufenberg says there's another way. “Teach past the test to this other meaningful, creative work and you will get the test, but you’ll get all this other stuff too,” Laufenberg said. “If you only teach to the test that’s all you’ll get.”
The standards are the learning goal, the “what” of education, but there are many approaches to how those standards are taught.
“When you empower kids in that way in a standards-driven space, you see amazing things,” Laufenberg said. Standards can also give teachers a common language to talk about one another’s ideas. “It can open up doors that you might not have otherwise had,” said Chris Loeffler, a third grade teacher at Wilmington Friends School.
STRATEGIES FOR TEACHING STANDARDS IN AUTHENTIC WAYS
1. Make the standards fit into student interests. “My job as a classroom teacher is to find how the standards fit what the kids want to learn,” said educator Michelle Baldwin. “I could present patterns in ten thousand different ways, but it’s not going to grab them unless they decide.” Using students' interests as the guide would prevent standardization by tapping into the unique qualities of each student.
2. Teach students to question. When kids develop effective questioning techniques they become active partners in constructing learning. They can shape and create meaning by questioning if educators encourage them to do so.
3. Focus on the skills and language of learning. When students can talk about their own learning, they can begin to make connections themselves, broadening conversations beyond standards and moving towards authentic, individualized learning.
4. Be open to many answers. When educators focus on discovering how students know what they know, and are open to that manifesting in multiple ways, it gives students the opportunity to bring creative demonstrations of learning to the table.
5. Have authentic conversations about motivations. Many students have significant responsibilities outside of school that have made them skeptical about what school can do for them. Starting the year with a conversation about why they are motivated to learn helps educators get to know their students and can help dispel the feeling that school exists in an alternate reality from life.
“You can’t just one day say ‘learn’ and then move on,” Laufenberg said. “It’s because they’re not engaged in it. They don’t feel connected. It’s not that authentic conversation.”
6. Emulate effective risk taking. Most schools have successful teachers that take risks and garner respect from fellow teachers. Emulate their methods. “It’s not about what they do, it’s about how they do it,” said one educator at Educon.
7. Use professional learning communities. It’s hard to go against the grain in education, especially without administrative support. Use groups of like-minded educators to work through ideas and to find inspiration.
8. Share the many success stories. Many teachers at Educon discussed the need for effective educators who teach standards in creative ways that resist standardization to share their work. Creating dialogue around the common goal of a standard “what” and multiple “hows” could help more timid educators find the courage to see the power of education that celebrates the individual.
There are many ways educators can push back against standardization, but too much change could cause even more confusion. “What we are supposed to be teaching has become a political football,” Laufenberg said. “The danger I see is that every new governor and new president could shift what we are expected to teach.” If education content turns into a constant “churn of the new,” teachers never have time to settle into one set of expectations and get creative with their teaching.