Conversations from the Edge

Conversations from the Edge is a series of raw, honest and candid dialogues about education’s shifting learning landscape. Hosted by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson.

Dear Will,

I have been thinking a lot about our conversation yesterday about standards, Common Core, and the dynamic tension education is experiencing between content and context. My perception is that Common Core has a narrow focus, which is good and in terms of framework to the curriculum – it works. However, my fear is that the  Federal government will play in this sandbox pretty hard, so I wonder if it will be just one more power grab.

Maybe the reason National standards bother me is I feel it is an attempt at mass control of education, a one size fits all approach, and one more way to send the message that learning can be standardized. Maybe it is because standardization in some ways is demeaning to educators. They should be the designers of learning and orchestrators of creative curriculum implementation and student ownership of learning.

FrameworkI do not mind standards in and of themselves. They are a framework, a way for all of us to shoot for the same goal, to be on the same page or at least in the same ballpark. They are a minimum bar or a boundary that says when you cover this- at least get to here- but yet, not limiting anyone from taking the learning further.

I do not even mind outcomes. I think it is important to measure what we have accomplished, to look back and say we have been here and here and we have mastered these skills. A learning footprint of sorts. Even testing doesn’t bother me if it is one of many measures (data points) to show growth over time. Testing data should be used by students themselves to improve learning choices and reflect upon the learning experience. Testing should not be used by governments to decide funding, quality or make decisions about teachers. Testing should be tied to student outcomes and used for self-directed, appreciative growth.

In my mind the problem with State and National tests is they support a belief that we can create a standardization of the learning process. Standardization of learning is what I am against. The belief that somehow it is possible to standardize thinking, knowledge construction, aha moments, innovation, learning, creativity, and even teachers themselves.

Having agencies and governments determine content and common core doesn’t bother me. Give me the ingredients you want me to use, the map, the content I am to cover. Then get out of the way and let me at it. Let the co-learners in the room decide context- the how of what we will share, the teaching and learning processes and the why of how we learn it this way. Let us do our own wayfinding. Let us construct our own meaning and design, our own sense making activities. Let us show mastery of what we learned in ways that align not only with the standards but also with the self-directed processes and creative ways in which each learner chooses.common core standards

I love what Seymour Papert says, “Curriculum should be learning what you need to learn, when you need to learn it.” We cover the standards provided (Common Core) but the timing and methods are up to us, the community of learners in the classroom.

Teachers become part of the learning process. They bring the expertise in the art of learning, metacognition, research, and pedagogy. Their role should be to model best practice, to coach, facilitate, organize, ask good questions, negotiate learning contracts and to provide a safe, intriguing environment for learning. Teachers in the 47 states that have adopted Common Core should use it as an organizational construct, a framework, a guide- and avoid any suggestion of tying it to punitive means of standardizing the learning that occurs in the classroom.

We both know technology plays a powerful role in shifting what needs to happen inside of schools. The teachers and students we work with share horrible stories and are stifled by what is happening there. But like you, I am thinking we are having the wrong conversation-  it needs to shift from standardization of standards (common core content) to standardization of quality- of context (methods and dispositions).

What if content was a variable (rather than a constant) and how we taught (higher order thinking skills, creativity, student choice, and collaborative knowledge construction, and global connections) became the constant. In other words, maybe we need to standardize (make it business as usual) that learning should be self-directed and knowledge co-constructed. What if we had benchmarks for what a learner driven classroom looks like. Maybe that is the conversation we should be having. What if time was a variable (i.e. seat time and Carnegie units) and learning (individualized and student-directed) became the constant?

studio approach to educationJust think– in a system like this the curriculum guides and common standards could covers broad themes and topics of exploration.  The lead learner’s (teacher) role would be to come up with interesting questions and thought provoking problems that help guide participant learners (students) in choosing what interests them most about the topic. There could be topics for self exploration, group exploration, and team exploration. These topics and structures could weave together to create an entire unit of study around a global theme across disciplines. Each project could include a collective action and service learning outcome that was student designed. Kids would think about the purpose of what they were creating to inform and make the world a better place (in addition to how well it aligned with content standards).  But they could create their own standards/outcomes for the learning too- what they wanted to get out of the experience.  They would use various media and technology to publish their artifacts of mastery. For example, what if they created a global project and part of the outcomes measured was how global it became?

studio approach to learningCurriculum would be co-created and co-developed under the broad topic for the course and would be allocated based on interest and experience. Students could choose dilemmas and innovations to be created in a studio design approach and shared with the rest of the class/world as an expose’ or showcase experience.  If projects were crowdsourced out to student/teacher networks, other classes could join in and build and learn together. Rather than simply having a system of common core standards related to content criteria,  schools could do action research that resulted in benchmarks for creativity, connectivity, collaboration, collegiality, and other amazing words that start with C <wink>. (You get my drift).

The teacher could operate in the role of curator and bring in important content and resources he/she felt added to the understanding and expertise of the student designers. Technology would have an important role to play, but quietly in the background supporting the learning.

But then, as you said in our conversation, what would this look like in schools with 59 kids in a class? Could it work? What do you think?

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About the author
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice and an internationally-respected author and speaker. She is a 20-year educator with experiences as a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, and digital learning consultant. Sheryl writes the blog21st Century Collaborative and you can follow her on Twitter at @snbeach. Read more about Sheryl here.