Tag Archives: Common Core

It’s Elementary: Playtime Equals Learning Time for Young Children

With elementary schools nationwide adapting their curricula to jibe with the Common Core, some parents and teachers argue that the littlest learners should be better prepared for the academic standards they will soon be required to meet. Others counter that increasingly structured schooling makes it even more important for younger kids to have some time to play, explore, and get messy.

Earlier this month, some educators told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that this debate is misguided. They argued that those who pit play against formal education create a false dichotomy—an either/or that does not, or at least should not, exist.

When preschool teachers talk about “play,” they are talking about behavior that spurs neurological and social development, said Roberta Schomburg, early childhood education professor at Carlow University.

“Children are learning about math every day when they play and they’re probably learning about it in a more solid way than if they were manipulating symbols,” she said.

One obvious example is playing with blocks, where kids fit geometric shapes and angles together and experiment with size and quantity. But in all kinds of play, kids are counting, solving problems, and dividing toys among friends.

Psychologist Alison Gopnik has studied how imaginary play helps young children explore real-life situations and cultivate social skills and empathy. A study from her lab at the University of California, Berkeley, also suggests that playing “pretend” often engages kids in scientific thinking.

Most preschools strike a balance where activities are structured, but they are structured so that students have opportunities to explore and discover. Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of early childhood education for Pittsburgh Public Schools, told the Post-Gazette that her curricula are deliberately designed “so children can play, but they can play in a way that develops certain outcomes.”

Other teachers make a conscious distinction between unfettered free time and structured academics but make sure to offer both. When kindergarten became a full-day affair in Bellingham, Wash., the district required all classes to include 60 to 90 minutes of play per day.

Writing in USA Today in 2009, Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation, agreed that play and education were not diametrically opposed. “We have to find ways to relieve the pressure on kindergarten without reaching back futilely to the early 20th century,” she wrote, “when expectations were lower and the urban and rural poor were virtually ignored.”

Guernsey suggested that teachers needed more support and training to help blend play with effective learning. She also emphasized the need to make preschool more affordable for working families and to build a “bridge between preschool and kindergarten” to allow the experience to be better integrated for teachers and their students. It is advice that needs to be heeded today.

In Pittsburgh, out-of-school organizations have joined forces to preserve play in the daily lives of our city’s children. Distressed by the decline of free play nationwide, the city, the county, arts and health nonprofits, and foundations formed the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative to support one another in pressing for more opportunities for play.

Neuroscientists and educators have spoken: play is critical in younger years. But a focus on play does not necessitate the exclusion of academic learning. Instead, play can facilitate learning, whether kids are let loose in a costume box or on a playground, or guided by thoughtful instructors in semistructured settings. Presenting play as the antithesis to academics can only hinder us from creating the best environments for learning.


The Common Core Meets the Maker Movement

Educators were out in full force this past weekend, for the annual World Maker Faire held in New York City. Billed as the “greatest show (and tell) on earth,” a good chunk of the DIYers, citizen scientists, crafting experts, and tech enthusiasts in attendance were, thankfully, also educators.

And in addition to working on their own projects, these educators were sharing ideas for how to use making in classrooms this fall. The Maker Education Initiative released an online resource library, a digital archive of sorts intended to help educators get started making in education.

But how do these maker projects jibe with the new demands placed on classroom teachers from the Common Core?

Back in June, Gary Stager, coauthor of “Invent to Learn,” told Education Week that he felt despite some “overlapping interests” between the standards and the maker movement, the two are ultimately “incompatible.”

Could this be true?

“The standards are rooted in this idea of a centralized body of knowledge that all kids must comply with, which is in stark contradiction to the notion that learning is more fluid, more intimate, more personal,” Stager explained. “That doesn’t mean that you couldn’t tick off boxes in the Common Core by having kids have meaningful making experiences. But the notion that some anonymous committee of grownups has made a list of stuff that all kids need to know because that’s what jobs are going to [require] in the future is preposterous. The maker movement prepares kids to solve the problems that [adults] never anticipated.”

The central goal of the standards is to cultivate critical thinking and collaboration and to reinvigorate deeper learning.

Stager’s point brings up many questions about how the two trending education topics relate. On one hand, the controlled chaos of a makerspace, where kids are soldering and 3-D printing, paints a much different image than the traditional classroom with partitioned topics and year-end assessments. But proponents of the Common Core say the central goal of the standards is to cultivate critical thinking and collaboration and to reinvigorate deeper learning. We don’t know what jobs will be ahead of us, they say, but we do know that being able to think critically will prepare learners.

But there’s a hitch.

Sylvia Libow Martinez, coauthor of “Invent to Learn,” said last May that schools tend to place too little emphasis on the standard’s overarching goals: making learning more relevant and experimental, and making it deeper. Instead, too many resources are directed to the specific standards and assessments.

“When we talk about how ‘making’ can align with Common Core, it requires schools and districts to refocus on those overarching goals, and away from how many computers you need to run the tests,” Libow Martinez wrote.

Science teacher, author, and blogger Marsha Ratzel is one of the thousands of teachers still navigating the Common Core implementation. Last year, she explained she was skeptical at first of how a student-driven science classroom (akin to the ethos in a makerspace) and the standards could be compatible. Although not specifically dealing with “maker” activities, she’s seen spots in the standards that align with her teaching methods, which revolve around keeping her classroom hands-on and student-driven.

“If assessments mirror the broad principles and effective pedagogy that the CCSS authors have championed, there is hope that rote learning and teacher-driven classrooms will not be necessary in order for students to pass the test,” she said.

A common misconception is that the Common Core dictates curriculum. Rather, the standards are goals. The path for getting students to achieve them is up to the teacher. First-grade teacher Tommy Young, who was invited to the White House Maker Faire, sought to reach those goals by using lessons embracing hands-on making activities, like having students build monsters using only materials they could afford in their budget.

Teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a project-based learning expert and blogger, recently explained at Edutopia that her method of designing a curriculum doesn’t use the Common Core standards as a starting place at all. Instead, in her English language arts classes, she develops projects and explorations that excite her and her students. Then she goes back, looks at the standards, and “fills in the gaps.” Most of the time, she’s already hit the Common Core targets.

Although the Common Core and the maker movement grew from two very different places, it’s no coincidence both reject memorization and the antiquated idea that schools should act as storehouses of information. Both reflect of a larger shift in how we think about teaching and learning, one that recognizes that rote testing isn’t going to prepare kids for the dynamic world ahead that will ask them to adapt to new technology and problems faster than we have ever had to.

Like Stager said in the Education Week interview, the maker movement equips kids to solve problems we don’t yet know exist. That should be a goal of education as a whole and, like any good maker problem, the best way to do that probably involves more than one solution.

Understanding the Common Core

A new survey finds that approximately 62 percent of Americans have never heard of Common Core. Even those who are familiar with the standards admit confusion.

These findings emerge from the 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll, which measures the public’s attitudes toward public schools and initiatives such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

Given the confusion, we thought a primer on the Common Core might be helpful. Below is a completely unscientific—and no doubt incomplete—gathering of what people are saying, writing, and thinking about the Common Core.

The basics: The Common Core Standards are an attempt to align curricula across states so students graduate with a shared set of knowledge that better prepares them for college-level work. They are designed to improve critical thinking and reduce reliance on rote memorization. Spearheaded by the National Governor’s Association, the standards apply to the English language arts and math—for now; science standards are in the works). The standards have been adopted by 45 states, though some are now considering retracting their “yea” vote.

The debate: The movement has met resistance from a variety of pundits and politicians, whose complaints center, sometimes in the same breath, on autonomy and control (something like, “I don’t need controls but everyone else does.”). From an education research angle, New York University’s Diane Ravitch leads the movement against Common Core. Ravitch, a liberal, has a strange bedfellow in the Tea Party, which also is resisting the Common Core. According to the Tea Party, the standards infringe on state’s rights; its opposition is perhaps also because the Obama administration has encouraged adoption of the standards through Race to the Top awards and waivers from No Child Left Behind. Business leaders and many editorial boards across the country tend to like the standards because they impart a shared knowledge base and improve high school graduates’ career-readiness. Here’s a handy cheat sheet to learn more about the debate.

What educators think: The opinions are varied, but many teachers and their unions are worried that the year is too short to cover the standards and, like “teaching to the test” under No Child Left Behind, the pressures will snuff out creative teaching and learning experiences. In addition, Common Core will introduce new teacher evaluations; 17 states have moved forward with them this year. A survey in February found that nearly half of the teachers felt unprepared to teach the standards. For more, Mind/Shift contributor Amanda Stupi has gathered thoughts from educators. Education Week offers thoughts as well, like this from algebra teacher Allison Crowley of why she thinks the standards will help students move from being the equivalent of GPS-dependent navigators to finding their way without a map.

Costs: Frankly, who knows? That’s the big question floating out there. The Department of Education has spent $330 million to develop new student assessments that align with the standards, which will start deploying in 2014. Here’s a map of each state’s adoption progress. The Pioneer Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Boston, approximated the potential costs of the CCSS implementation process at $15.8 billion across participating states over the next seven years. But really, no one has a good handle on this yet.

One thing is for certain: there will be more lingo to remember: GBL, CBL, or PBL? Edutopia’s Matthew Farber defines all the acronyms used to describe creative ways of meeting Common Core Standards.

Common Core Knowledge Can Get a Boost From After School Programs

What role might museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions in a city play in the Common Core movement? Can they help students become deeper thinkers?

As the nation moves toward Common Core standards in classrooms, school districts are bracing for a sudden drop in test scores. The Common Core standards, which 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted, are asking different things of students (and teachers). Eventually, supporters hope, the new standards will create true 21st-century learners who can master not only the facts but the ability to be a critical thinker, innovator, and lifelong learner. In the meantime, however, the big question mark is their immediate and longer term impact, particularly on low-income children or those for whom English is not their first language.

The standards are in essence asking kids to understand not how to measure but what to measure, not just how to read but how to think.

In math, for example, students will gain a deep understanding of how math works and  be able to explain it. In English Language Arts, as Susan Edelman writes in the New York Post, “students learn about the world — and build vocabulary — by reading more non-fiction, including biographies, historical stories, and articles.”

Robert Rothman, writing at the Harvard Education Publishing Group blog, stressed the ability to argue from evidence and evaluate the arguments of others, particularly in writing. Wilson Mizner, who said, “I respect the faith, but doubt is what gives you an education,” would be proud.

The Common Core standards focus on reading, math, and writing, but the National Academy of Sciences just released a companion set of standards in its Next Generation Science Standards.

The standards are designed to build on key concepts over a student’s career and stress the interrelationship between and across key concepts in science. Students will also need to understand the “how” of science—doing experiments, practicing methods of scientific inquiry, learning to be smart consumers of research and science.

In short, students will have to learn to think independently and solve problems. And this is where a city’s museums, libraries, and other learning opportunities come into play.

The world has always been a big game board for those who love learning. As kids, our learning and growing didn’t start and stop in the classroom. Indeed, for many kids who hated school, learning happened everywhere but in school. A young 20-something who is now a full-time car mechanic told me that he couldn’t wait to get out of school so he could head out to the garage where his dad was restoring vintage cars. He had to learn to convert measurements from metric systems for the European car parts, and he learned the meaning of viscosity when repairing engines. He honed his reading skills poring over manuals. That garage was his classroom.

Likewise for kids who find a robotics class after school like those at the Carnegie Science Center, or who learn about the science of color and light as they do at the Andy Warhol Museum, or who jump in surprise when the circuit they have created from a paper clip and play-dough lights a light bulb at a Makerspace, the joy of learning is transparent. And that joy can, with smart guidance, help transform kids into deeper thinkers.

As Dennis M. Bartels, executive director of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, wrote in a recent issue of Scientific American on the ability to teach critical thinking, or its cornerstone, the ability to ask questions,

“Museums and other institutions of informal learning may be better suited to teach this skill than elementary and secondary schools. …The Maker Faire, which conducts techie do-it-yourself projects, has reintroduced the idea that our learning is richer for our mistakes: D.I.Y. experimentalists get stuck, reframe the question and figure things out.”

He also noted that informal learning environments tolerate failure better than schools, which, when guided by mentors, is a great way to learn.

Afterschool spaces, like those at The Labs at the Carnegie Mellon Library can also widen kids’ horizons, allowing them to find and develop their interests, and to see the almost limitless possibilities before them—particularly for low-income children whose scope is too often limited. Afterschool programs also add key instructional time to a day—up to three hours, or another half-day of learning.

The hands-on, interest-based learning, individualized to a child’s burgeoning interests, can complement what transpires in the classroom. Kids become critical thinkers when they begin to understand the connections between ideas and execution, cause and effect, scientific principles and real-world results, all through hands-on experimentation.

In many ways, afterschool programs can be petri dishes of experimentation. As mentor Al Walus in Michigan City, Indiana, sees it, afterschool spaces are where schools and communities can tinker with curriculum innovation that can then bleed back into the daily classroom. In Michigan City, Purdue University joined with Safe Harbor afterschool programs where Walus was volunteering to get kids excited about STEM via robotics and engineering.

The program, part of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, caught the attention of the school superintendent, who has since instituted changes to the middle-school curriculum. The superintendent views afterschool as a “curricular extension” of the academic day—“a safe space where student can take risks, ask questions, try new things, and apply what they’ve learned,” according to a 2011 annual report of the Mott Foundation, which funds many afterschool initiatives.

For kids in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York, these opportunities to learn more deeply are being deliberately stitched together by Hive Learning Networks. Members of the network include youth-serving cultural organizations such as museums and libraries, and afterschool programs of all stripes, as well as higher education offerings and more.

But rather than stand-alone programming that kids must seek out and find on their own, the Hive is coordinating its offerings, joining with other institutions so kids and families can have a seamless path through learning. Families shouldn’t have to do the knitting together themselves, Hive organizers argue. In the Hive world, it is the community’s responsibility to make those pathways as integrated as possible.

Key to their success are mentors, who guide youth as they discover new passions, and most important, connect that newfound interest back to the classroom.

With continued support, our nation’s schools and afterschool programs can engage young people in deeper learning. We have to do something. As Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum write in “That Used to be Us,” “average is over.”