‘Customers’ replace students

College students see themselves as “customers” who are always right, a professor complains.  He must cater to their “learning styles” to show respect, but they don’t feel obliged to turn off their cell phones in class.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Associate degrees and job-specific credentials will help close the skills gap, says a new report, which urges businesses to work with colleges to create “earn and learn” opportunities.

Common or uncommon curriculum

We need a common curriculum linked to the Common Core State Standards, conclude 250 educators, civic and business leaders ranging from Fordham’s Checker Finn to Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

Shared curriculum in the core academic subjects would give shape and substance to the standards, and provide common ground for the creation of coherent, high-quality instructional supports — especially texts and other materials, assessments, and teacher training.

Curriculum advocates promise their “guidelines” won’t prescribe how to teach, reports Ed Week.   

For instance, if the guide calls for 4th graders to study the solar system, accompanying materials could suggest ways to teach it. Some teachers could ask students to spend a week building scale models, while others might choose to give a lecture with accompanying video, and still others might weave the topic into lessons about the chemical properties of gases and solids or have students draw or write about the characteristics of the planets.

States’ use of the guidelines would be “purely voluntary” and would account for no more than 60 percent of what is taught in classrooms, leaving ample room for regional variations.

Rick Hess didn’t sign the statement, complaining that the common curriculum will represent “a national model of instruction.” 

Linda Darling-Hammond promises the guidelines will be “very lean,”  resembling curricula in Finland and Japan, where a K-12 math curriculum can run only 10 pages.

Finn says, “It’s dumb to have good standards not accompanied by good curriculum.”

EdReformer Tom VanderArk wants an uncommon curriculum  with “fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student.”

Next generation platforms will include digital content libraries and tagging schemes. Recommendation engines (like an iTunes Genius for learning) based on a full motivational profile will queue a sequence of the best learning experiences possible.  A Facebook-like social layer will support collaborative learning and will include a rich array of applications for learners and teachers.  Giant data warehouses will capture keystroke data and will support powerful analytical tools.  Platforms will be supported by vendors providing aligned services including student tutoring, staff development, school improvement, and new school development.

. . . Calls for a common curriculum come from a mental model of teacher-centric classrooms of age-cohorts on a common slog through a sequential curriculum.  

Get real, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

There are fewer ideas more seductive than the vision of customized education, where all children remain blissfully engaged solely by the ideas and subjects that interest them, and soar to ever-higher standards on tech-driven wings.  But this splendid vision ignores an inconvenient truth:  all of our most cherished goals for education are a function of the knowledge we possess and have in common with others.  To say that a common curriculum is the wrong idea is to say literacy is the wrong idea.  Let me not mince words:  If you don’t think  a common body of knowledge is important for all children, you don’t think it’s important to teach children to read with understanding, think critically, collaborate, or solve problems.  You can’t have one without the other.

Vander Ark’s vision for education “tacitly endorses a false and content-neutral, skills-driven notion that howchildren learn is more important than what they learn, writes Pondiscio in his No More Mr. Nice Blogger mode. All those  “comprehensive learning platforms” that support “customized playlists”  and service ecosystems are useless, writes Pondiscio, unless we figure out what knowledge to teach children so they can read with understanding.

I’m into sequence and knowledge, so I’m sympathetic to the argument for a common curriculum. But I worry that we’ve moved very quickly to common standards backed by a common curriculum — and, soon to come, a testing system. Are we sure about this?

Reading what?

Good readers need background knowledge — not just skills — concludes John Merrow after talking to E.D. Hirsch, Mike Smith and Linda Katz about reading development.

(Hirsch) explained what is called “the Matthew Effect” to Virginia’s legislators . . . “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” . . .  the more you have learned, the more you are capable of learning and likely to learn. The reverse is also true: the less you know, the harder it is for you to acquire knowledge.

“You have to read about something, whether it’s baseball or Patrick Henry or space travel or a pet dog,” Merrow concludes.

And it’s important that all children have common reading experiences — shared content. Finally, closing the vocabulary gap is best done in situations that replicate how vocabulary-rich children in the study acquired their larger vocabulary — through conversation, not in cold classrooms where drill is the M.O.

Merrow is touting the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

I’m tutoring two first-grade boys, one of whom has really struggled. On Monday, he doubled his reading speed. On Thursday, he enjoyed reading.

Common standards: First, do no harm

The proposed common English language standards should state clearly and forcefully that reading, writing, speaking and listening  “are not intended to be explicitly taught as skills,” writes E.D. Hirsch in Education Week.

Rather, even these preliminary standards need to stress that academic content—in literature, history, science, and the arts—must be taught coherently and cumulatively in order to impart the requisite language competencies.

The vague use of “standards” has “enabled writers to avoid making difficult but necessary curricular decisions that could guide the creators of classroom materials, teachers, and test-makers,” Hirsch writes.

There are two ways in which makers of standards could overcome the political difficulties of performing their chief duty: giving useful guidance. One would be to offer one or more exemplary curriculum guides. For “college- and career-ready” verbal standards, it would mean grade-by-grade curricular guides from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Another way of being actually useful would be to set forth in great detail the kind of criteria a local curriculum guide would have to fulfill to meet its pastoral obligations.

If we don’t decide what content should be taught, the textbook makers will do it for us, “even if it is trivial, fragmented, skills-based content,” Hirsch warns.

Flawed assumptions

After a Common Core discussion of 21st century skills, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham attacks the “flawed assumptions” of  the influential Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (P21) on Britannica Blog.

1. Knowledge and skills are separate.

No, “thinking skills are intertwined with domain knowledge,” Willingham argues. Those who forget that are likely to neglect the need for knowledge on the theory that “students can always google the facts, so teachers can focus on skills.”

2. Teachers don’t have cognitive limits.

P21 encourages teachers to use “incredibly demanding” teaching methods that can’t be used effectively without preparation and training, writes Willingham. These include small-group projects and student-directed learning.

. . .  teachers already believe the teaching methods promoted by P21 are the best ones. They are taught as much during their training. Yet classroom observation studies show that very few teachers use them, almost certainly because they are so difficult to use.

3. Experience is equivalent to practice.

Just because students do something doesn’t mean they’re learning, Willingham writes.

Practice entails trying to improve: noticing what you’re doing wrong, and trying different strategies to do better. It also entails meaningful feedback, usually from someone knowledgeable about the skill. This means that 21st-century skills like “working well in groups,” or “developing leadership,” will not be developed simply by putting people in groups or asking them to be leaders. Students must be taught to do these things. We simply don’t know how to teach leadership or collaboration the way that we know how to teach algebra or reading.

P2′s goals — “real world problem-solving and critical thinking skills” — have been goals for the last century, Willingham writes. People have tried for years to make P21′s methods work in the classroom with little success.

Another Common Core participant, educational historian Diane Ravitch, calls 21st century skills an “old familiar song” – and one that’s badly off key.  Hostile to learning subject matter, education professors “have numbed the brains of future teachers with endless blather about process and abstract thinking skills.”

We have taught them about graphic organizers and Venn diagrams and accountable talk, data-based decision-making, rubrics, and leveled libraries . . .  We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically unless one has quite a lot of knowledge to think about. One thinks critically by comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. One must know a great deal before she or he can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.

On her Bridging Differences blog, Ravitch thinks critically: Are “21st century skills” a way to derail “the effort to develop meaningful and reasonable academic standards by replacing them with vague and pleasing-sounding goals?”

In the Common Core question period, teacher Diana Senechal discussed lesson plans she found on the P21 site.

One activity was to have students read a story or play, then make a commercial or video with Claymation figures. Diana asked, “Why not discuss the ideas in the story instead of spending hours making Claymation figures?” Which approach is likelier to engage students in thinking critically? It seemed to me that she was spot-on.

Willingham suggests writing state standards that “delineate conceptual knowledge and factual knowledge, and make clear how the two are related,”  and give teachers the training and time to learn how to teach the standards.

Beyond that, he urges states to start small, with a meaningful assessment to judge whether students really are learning “21st century skills.”

Core Knowledge has more on the “fadbusters” discussion and on asking teachers to do the nearly impossible.

If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap and raising the level of performance of American education, we can’t be serious about asking teachers to walk on water and labeling them failures when they drown.

Eduwonk has lots more.