Friday, April 27, 2012

Common Core and Monkey Training

Wrote this before the RTT convening in Boston.  This is where I was - I will write more on this subject  with respect to the convening in the future.
I teach elementary music.  I’ll be touched more tangentially by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) than many teachers, but I do have wide experience thinking about and writing curriculum with reference to standards in both my endorsement areas, music and technology integration.  I don’t have to implement CCSS in my classroom at this point, but as an educator, I'm fascinated. 
The problem with grappling with the details of implementation is that it is important to be able to articulate the big picture, the broad principles which form the basis of the CCSS.  The big picture is helpful both to educators and administrators trying to get a purchase on how to begin the work of CCSS, and to parents and other stakeholders trying to understand the implications for students. 
Standards represent our aspirations for students, which then need to be interpreted through a rich matrix of curricula, increasingly fine grained plans for the delivery of instruction.  There many different types of curricula, such as the political curriculum, the district/building curriculum, the classroom curriculum, the shelf curriculum, the taught curriculum and the learned curriculum, all of which look very different.
I've come to the conclusion that the most important curriculum is the one that the teacher has internalized, enabling minute to minute decisions in work with actual students.  All of those other types just prepare the one that lives in the teacher's head.  In the heat of the moment we can't pull a binder off the shelf to make decisions; we need an internalized plan to guide appropriate instruction.
Hence the significance of the broad outline or principles.
·         The CCSS calls for fewer things taught in greater depth.
·         The CCSS puts greater emphasis on informational texts, which is a type of reading we use in real life.
·         CCSS calls for more persuasive writing and less personal narrative, again what we do in real life.
·         CCSS calls for an emphasis on higher order thinking skills, requiring new assessments that can actually capture them.
·         In math, CCSS calls for the ability to reason quantitatively, not just the ability to perform procedures.
·         CCSS aspires to have students be able to anticipate the next steps in their learning, and therefore be educational actors rather than passive recipients.
·         CCSS calls for higher order thinking skills (HOTS).
I'm interested in the potential applicability of broad principles of this sort in my discipline, music.  My Orff Schulwerk level III movement teacher Brian Burnett talks about how we make kids in into "trained monkeys" in music classes.  By the same token, math students who perform the steps of a procedure but can't ascertain whether their answer is within an order of magnitude of reality are also victims of monkey training.  I ask myself what a Common Core for music might look like.
I'm fond of giving carefully scaffolded composition/improvisation tasks to students as a means of assessment.  A couple of years ago I had a fourth grade class improvise pitches to the rhythm of a poem using their recorders.  The parameters I set were a Do pentatonic scale on G, using G as the home tone.  One of the students asked me if he could use an F.  I replied, "Convince me."  He proceeded to improvise a lovely piece in the Dorian mode, dutifully ending it on G, per the requirements of the assignment.  When he shared with the class, I asked him if there was a note that would be more suitable for the ending than G.  He paused and thought about it, listening inside his head, and replied "D".  I looked at him and said, "You understand the home tone."
Martin deployed judgment in his answer.  My only regret was that in the design of the task I had not provided easier avenues of deploying judgment - I guess we call that reflection.  In fact the other day I gave this same task to students again, but this time invited them to choose their own home tone from given pitch set, which most did quite effectively. 
Could this story be illustrative of how the broad principles of our Common Core aspirations could be appropriately deployed in non-tested subjects?  A rising sea lifting all boats....

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