Have you ever wondered what distinguishes a chemical chain reaction going fzzz-boom from one that takes a long time? Likely you haven’t. It’s a parable about more than chemistry, however. The key difference lies in the rate limiting factor: the chain reaction can go no faster than the slowest process within it.
Let’s say you have an automobile designed to cruise at 110 m.p.h. Due to bad gas, the fuel intake plugs up so you get only 5 m.p.h. You don’t just upgrade every process in the car. Rather, you diagnose and remedy the single rate limiting factor, and resume your customary speed.
Now to schools. Billions of dollars, thousands of facilities, millions of teacher hours, and multi-millions of student hours are at our disposal, yet results are mixed. We reasonably inquire about the rate limiting factor. What keeps us plugging along at our current speed? Substituting “proficiency” for “speed,” we want students to know what we teach. If they don’t, we search out the factor limiting proficiency.
A contemporary effort addresses “Common Core Standards,” which on the face of it seems sensible. Give districts better targets as they design instruction, and teachers and students better targets for effort. This implies, however, that the rate limiting factor lies in the curriculum addressed: We’ve aimed at the wrong things, so now common standards set us right. Yet if one listens in on the ongoing discussion about them, the main problem they’re meant to solve is still just proficiency.
In the nationwide discussion over Common Core Standards, one really notices concern over nearly everything done now. The “standards” issue can drive fresh discussion (and worry) about the physical plant, details of subject matter, aspirations for advanced learning, teacher development, district finance and decision-making processes, the publishing world, issues of turf and responsibility, and endless challenges of articulation between all of the above. At any point, this froth can turn up good ideas that deserve consideration.
But consideration by whom? If the picture above were of a business offering a product, who would be the customer?
It helps, I think, to envision teachers as customers who are free to buy or not as they perceive it enhances their task. The entire national discussion could go on a website of offerings that can be adopted by districts, schools (as teacher-groups), or even individual teachers. Local debates over whether to adopt this or that at whatever level then draws from the national discussion to improve instruction. Because of its far-reaching nature, however, it might better be nick-named The Movement to Fix American Education.
At a different level, however, it’s a circuitous route to its goal. To the extent that it becomes new material delivered at a prescribed pace, the developing standards are less likely to meet the need intended.
1. They are a labored way to solve a simple problem. Go back a few decades and remember where we came from. In the last half century, educators and the public have agreed that an intractable proportion of students drop out—a quarter to a third—and about as many coast through with a superficial education–low proficiency. No one wanted to tell teachers how to teach, since instruction appeared to be so idiosyncratic, and people accepted as given that some students won’t learn much.
Common standards were a promising idea, probably at the start expressed in a relatively simple way: “If students learn little, we’d like the little to include at least the most important.” Misdirection of effort was acknowledged, the intent was to refocus more precisely on what was needed for progress, and attention turned to what was learned.
But if the basic problem is that students learn very little, proficiency is still the issue. Why not diagnose the rate limiting factor, and figure out how to get students to learn more of whatever they have in front of them? This need not be hard. We can boil down learning to two distinct activities. First, get an idea right to begin with. Grasp an answer to the question that’s not just correct but completely correct (whether done by reading, research, group work, media, presentation, or whatever). Only after that’s done can the second activity kick in, practice. With a correct answer known, its depth (permanence) results entirely and solely from practice, which can occur in several ways.
The results of practice are retention, integration, modification, expansion, and finally application of ideas. They lie on a single continuum: a clear idea and then practice of it. This point is decisive because it makes proficiency available with any knowledge. Just get the idea right and then give it more practice. The problem isn’t solved by changing the knowledge. We want proficiency with anything we decide to teach, and needn’t confine ourselves to a few key points when we can learn the whole field.
2. They are a duplication. A strong theme in the standards discussion producing new materials that reflect more advanced thinking, and sequencing it in an ideal fashion. Publishers await a nod about where to put their resources. But reviewing curricula of states, districts, private schools, and home schooling courses, one discovers that they often cover the waterfront, even admirably.
So is this more wheel-inventing? If the problem is proficiency, it makes no causal sense to blame the thing learned: “Hey, we’re having trouble learning this, so let’s learn something else.” Libraries are jammed with great material. Do we really need more just in order to systematize X so everything is delivered to Y numbers of students at Z stage?
3. They can obstruct change. Because curricula are an outgrowth of a perception of a need, designs that remain local can be altered expeditiously when conditions indicate. Indeed they may benefit from nationally-derived suggestions: “We think material P is helpful for Q students at R stage.” We want locals able to decide whether their students need algebra more than they need, say, the mathematics of self-protection–consumer math, mortgage and auto purchase, and the statistics on the front page of the paper; whether subjects taught in the Great Plains should match those in a Maine fishing community.
4. They are likely to interfere with the discipline of learning. This is the “Aha!” I’m awaiting from educators that applies equally to mainstream instruction. We do something wrong now, and common core standards are likely to continue the problem.
Contrast two learning situations. In one, a boy discovers psychology as a senior high student. He has no course in it, but wants to learn it on his own. What does he do? Think back to what you did when you were interested in a subject. You read, thought, marked up a book, made notes, and tried to connect pieces. You found someone to talk with about it, and saved knowledge by thinking about it. The parts you knew formed a structure to which to attach new ideas, so that your new field steadily expanded. You read more, thought more, wrote more, and talked more, generating a network of information, a field of usable, base knowledge. That’s the discipline inherent in learning, each step building naturally upon a prior one but adhering within an ever-deepening framework. Comprehensive knowledge cannot remain at the level of isolated, individually remembered facts but must coalesce into a field.
Now consider a well-traveled social studies teacher who decides that as a section of his course, “We’re going to learn two letters of the alphabet of thirty languages!” What occurs is sheer memory of details impossible to develop into a field of knowledge. Every language has its own unique organization—the categories of sounds, lip and tongue position; implications about reality, society, relationship, and certainty. Each language comprises a system within which details cohere and make sense, and thirty different potential fields never cohere.
Yet most subjects appear taught like the 60 alphabet letters—learned piece by piece and discarded before they can coalesce into a system of thought. The difference is apparent if you teach a challenging course at any grade level to students having a range of ability. Those at the top start to think like you do and can converse about the subject. They possess a thought-field. Those at the bottom prepare for a test by cramming details that dissolve quickly. They never construct a field, can’t converse, and their learning, temporary as it is, remains at the factoid level.
So given that every subject has its own implicit field and order, how can we capture it with instruction carved up into artificial sections, disposable assignments, forgettable lectures, and forgotten tests?
5. We can try out the curriculum inherent in knowledge itself. Divide the universe of knowledge into fifty sectors. Every year students K-12 expand their answer to one question per sector: “Tell all you know” about mathematics, language, history, astronomy, health, biology, chemistry, physics, paleontology, climate, oceans, etc. Cover the universe of common knowledge with forty-five categories and use five for regional issues such as industry, economics, history, environment, and occupations. The point is not to “cover” anything, but progressively to expand and deepen one’s internal field of knowledge. From the start, students would grasp the essential principle that learning is integrated into systems of thought, and would build their life knowledge accordingly. Each subject would steadily become for them a rich and comprehensive thought-field.
The means are unavoidable. Get one idea at a time clear and correct, practice it till its mastered, and connect it to its field. Every year, learn as much as you can about all fifty fields. Save everything learned and turn it into a unified body of explainable, growing knowledge. Continue adding more. When you’re done with this curriculum, find another and learn that one too.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.