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Guest Blog by Michelle Lewis: "Re-engineering Our Classrooms"


Earlier this month @the_explicator asked #AprilBlogADay about the practices, traditions, instructional strategies that “must die” in order for education to move forward. Even though my post is a few days (actually weeks) late, and truth be told, might be my only #AprilBlogADay post, it was such a compelling topic, I felt inspired to write.

The changes we are asking of educators today parallel the changes we asked of automakers years ago. Charged with the lofty goal of dramatically improving fuel efficiency with less reliance on oil from foreign countries, automakers set to work in engineering the variety of low gas consumption hybrid cars we see on the road today.

The focus on better results is exactly what is behind the Common Core. The new, more rigorous standards call upon educational systems to be more efficient and effective. The purpose and intent behind the creation of the Common Core for math and literacy is rooted in principles of equity and access so that all students can succeed in college, career and life.

But adequately preparing all students requires significant changes in daily learning experiences. We must stop expecting that making small “tweaks” in classrooms where students are passive learners or retrofitting existing materials to “fit” the Common Core will result in large scale changes that close the opportunity gap. The intent of the Common Core will only be realized if we re-engineer our classrooms so that all students, regardless of their background, are deeply engaged in learning experiences that regularly require critical thinking, solving complex problems and working at an appropriately rigorous level.

There are many aspects of a hybrid car that look and feel similar to traditional, gas powered cars. Actually, at first glance they don’t look much different at all. There is still a gas pedal and a steering wheel to a name a few of the familiar component parts. However, improvements in gas mileage are achieved through the redesign of the engine.

Common Core aligned classrooms don’t look completely different either. There are many familiar classroom structures. For instance, in an elementary literacy classroom, we may see familiar structures such as small group (guided reading) and whole group (shared reading) instruction. In the past, we went to great lengths to provide text at students instructional level. It turns out that giving students “just right text” does not actually lead to better outcomes (with the exception of students at very beginning reading levels). However, students do get better at reading complex text with on-going, regular practice engaging with complex text.

But simply changing the text we ask students to read is not enough. The ways students engage with the text must look fundamentally different as well. The tasks we ask students to do must require complex cognitive effort where students synthesize information from multiple sources over time, and generalize their learning to novel situations. And these types of changes require the role of the teacher to look different, too. The teacher thoughtfully engineers opportunities for inquiry and facilitates opportunities for students to engage in productive struggle to make meaning for themselves, and idea that math expert, Kelly Stidham talks more about in her “This Idea Must Die” post here.

Redesigning the engine of a Common Core aligned literacy classroom might look like small groups of students with similar needs working with a teacher who scaffolds support through questioning so students can successfully access grade level, complex text. Or instead of teachers modelling how they approach complex text by reading and thinking aloud first in a traditional shared reading model, shifting the sequence of instruction such that students have the opportunity to independently read portions of the text and make meaning for themselves first before the teacher reads aloud and models.

Implementing the new standards do not require us to throw out all that we know about learning, but it does mean that we need to make fundamental changes to the design of daily instruction. So consider the classrooms you know best and take a look “under the hood.”  Do you notice new textbooks with gold stickers touting alignment with Common Core utilized with traditional practices or has the classroom been re-engineered for deeper learning that prepares students for college, career and life?


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