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?

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.”

Published April 23, 2013