Content vs. Reflection in the Common Core Standards

Regardless of how you feel about the Common Core State Standards, they’re coming, and while the debate over the necessity of a national curriculum is important, I want to focus on one of the controversies within the Common Core: the shift in focus on fiction texts (and the personal narrative relating to those texts) to a focus on non-fiction and content knowledge. While I agree that it is difficult to impossible to properly grapple with a text without an understanding of the content behind it, Common Core Architect David Coleman’s assertion that “[a]s you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think” misses out on what grappling with a personal narrative does for you as a growing person.

The Core Knowledge provides a counter-point:

As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. (“How do you feel about the character’s decision to hit her friend?”) The skill, common to most existing state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate—or to build—a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth, and comprehension. I understand the criticism of those who find the focus on texts and evidence as too narrow, but I don’t agree. Indeed, it has always struck me as inherently condescending to assume that children cannot be engaged or successful unless they are reflecting upon personal experience nearly to the exclusion of other subjects.

For starters, anyone with an understanding of logic recognizes the false dilemma (and strawman, for that matter, but I’ll leave that aside) in this statement. Presuming that all (or even most) personal responses to literature are “glom[ming] on to an inconsequential moment” undermines the growth that occurs when a student is forced to relate and engage with another person’s situation. It’s an empathy builder. Thinking critically about why someone did what they did is the first step towards understanding that person and understanding yourself as a result.

Tim Clifford makes a similar point in responding to the NY Times editorial opposing algebra:

While ripping “The Cat in the Hat” from the hands of kindergarteners and replacing it with “How Factories Work” may, in the long run, produce better factory workers, it is unlikely to produce better citizens. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be operated on by a doctor who couldn’t master “Dr. Zhivago,” nor do I want to be defended by a lawyer who thinks Sydney Carton is a box of Australian cigarettes. In truth, we should be encouraging students to read more literature, not less. Literature allows us to see how all humans are connected through common experiences and emotions. It allows us to examine our past and plan for our future. It can help make us more empathetic to our fellows. Perhaps most importantly literature exposes us to new ideas and forces us to think in new ways.

It’s not even certain that this narrow focus is even better for the US as a country. Part of the reason for the standards is to make our country more competitive, but the focus on content over character isn’t what made this country great. It’s innovation; it’s creativity. And the standards pretty much do the opposite of what is necessary to make us more creative:

In early childhood, distinct types of free play are associated with high creativity. Preschoolers who spend more time in role-play (acting out characters) have higher measures of creativity: voicing someone else’s point of view helps develop their ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. When playing alone, highly creative first graders may act out strong negative emotions: they’ll be angry, hostile, anguished. The hypothesis is that play is a safe harbor to work through forbidden thoughts and emotions.

The implementation of standards that stifle creativity will stifle the growth of our country. This isn’t about what we need to know in the workforce. It’s about providing the opportunity for students to grow into the type of people that build creative, innovative companies.  It’s much easier to teach creativity to the young than the old; one can always learn the content knowledge necessary for the task at hand, but once you’ve been taught to think a certain way, it is difficult to shake those habits of mind.

It’s giving kids room to grow into a complete person, not one who can merely ingest and regurgitate information.

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This post is part of the thread: Testing & Standards in Education - an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.