Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Why the Common Core is a Better Way of Teaching and Learning

July 15, 2014

For much of its history, American education has operated on a banking model of schooling. Essentially, teachers “deposited” into students content that would, the hope was, accrue over the years, like money gaining interest. Memorization, the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy, was emphasized over everything else.

The Common Core turns this model on its head. Instead of students passively receiving knowledge—“banking” content in which they have no real intellectual investment—students create knowledge by engaging with big ideas in math, literature, history, and science. Teachers foster this engagement by asking students higher-order questions aimed at the upper end of the taxonomy.

Instead of asking students, for instance, to memorize the meaning of a poem, they help students acquire the tools they need to interpret it for themselves. Instead of giving students a formula to solve a complex math problem, they urge students to work together to explore a variety of approaches. With the Common Core, teachers are always driving students toward genuine understanding—and away from a dependence on rote learning.

Of course, different teachers have different ways of explaining what the Common Core means to them and their students.

Joanne Wright, a literacy coach at middle schools in Pinellas County, Florida, likes to speak of the Common Core as a “productive struggle.” Because students are not told what to think but have to develop their own understanding of a text that they must defend in discussion and writing, they really can struggle—but it’s the kind of productive struggle everyone faces when challenged by meaningful tasks. And Wright characterizes the struggle as “liberating and exciting” for students, as it is they—and not their teachers—who are making meaning.

Another teacher who has embraced the Common Core, science teacher Tricia Shelton at Boone County High School in Florence, Kentucky, uses an instructional tool called the 5Es to involve her students in scientific pursuits. What’s immediately apparent about the 5Es—engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate—is that they demand active participation from the get-go. “We’re developing thinkers and independent learners,” Shelton says of her work with the Common Core standards. “That’s what really prepares them for life in college and in careers.”

Andrew Vega, an 8th grade English teacher at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Boston, says the Common Core helped him and his peers turn their failing school around “by unleashing our creativity.” Previously, for instance, teachers would emphasize plot and characterization when teaching Catcher in the Rye. Now, because the Common Core focuses on “big ideas” that promote a thematic approach, Vega has students read Catcher with an eye to understanding why it’s so difficult for teenagers to relate to adults—an issue that teenagers find both problematic and fascinating.

For all three educators, it’s clear that the Common Core represents a revolution in teaching and learning. From now on in their classrooms, knowing something will no longer mean just recalling facts or formulas, but rather understanding it and being able to pass on that understanding to others.

To learn more about the experiences of Joanne, Tricia, and Andrew, check out this month's issue of Momentum.

 
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