In classroom, Common Core means more thinking, less memorizing

Sep. 22, 2013 @ 08:23 AM

North Carolina, which adopted the Common Core in 2010, has had standardized curriculum guidelines since 1898. But the Common Core is different, both because of its national ambitions – proponents hope it will eventually be adopted in all 50 states – and its emphasis on in-depth work and project-based learning.

“The Common Core focuses more on why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Katrina McEllen, high school director for the Caldwell County Schools. “You’re going to see the teacher as more of a facilitator than as the traditional figure up in the front of the room.”

As the Common Core is implemented, students are doing more group work, and teachers are asking more questions, trying to guide pupils toward the answer instead of showing a specific example and having the copy it.

Before Common Core, dimensions and proportions were a lesson on the board for Janee Lowman, a seventh-grade math teacher at Granite Falls Middle School. Now, Lowman starts that lesson by gathering up a bunch of her daughter’s Barbie dolls and bringing them to school.

Students divide into groups and measure the dolls, then measure one student in the group. They work out the ratio between Barbie and that student. Then, they do the math to determine what Barbie’s measurements would be if she was brought to life.

Lowman compared pre-Common Core instruction to an iceberg – students were getting the surface, but they weren’t going any deeper.

“Before, there was a lot more, ‘I teach it, now you regurgitate it,’” she said. “It wasn’t going as deep.”

In English classes, the Common Core progressively moves students farther away from literature in the direction of “informational text.” The standards say 70 percent of students’ readings should be informational by their senior year of high school. That applies to newspaper articles, nonfiction textbooks, reference materials and digital information – but not to novels, which are fiction.

Caldwell administrators say the standards are good for North Carolina students.

The standardization across states will keep students who transfer into or out of the Caldwell County Schools from falling behind, said Keith Hindman, the district’s middle school director.

Caryl Burns, the district’s associate superintendent for educational program services, said the standards go deeper than North Carolina’s previous curriculum guidelines, which she said were often described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

“Common Core is very well-planned and thought out, from K5 to grade 11, and even pointing the way to college,” Burns said. “It does, as we say, spiral the curriculum beautifully.”

Ultimately, the goal of the Common Core is not to hand students a laundry list of information but to teach them how to learn, Burns said. In the Google-driven society where these students will live and work, answers are a click away, so the ability to analyze becomes more valuable.

“They can find the answer,” Burns said. “If the answer is all you need, they can go get it. But we need to know – do you know what the answer is? Do you know how to get it and do you know how to process it? We’re really trying to get them to learn how to think.”