July 30, 2014

What Does it Really Mean to Align Instruction to the Common Core? Flatlists vs. Three-Dimensional Arrays

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In video presentation entitled “Bringing the Common Core to Life (Part 7),” an audience member asks this question of David Coleman, the lead author of the Common Core State Standards:

If you’re arguing that instruction should address text holistically, then why does the language of the standards focus on discrete skills such as using context clues, making inferences, making connections, etc.? The standards seem to lend themselves to the mini-lesson approach of teaching a specific skill or strategy and applying to a text rather than reading a text in fact holistically as you just did with King’s letter. (NYSED, full transcript, p. 27)


This participant understands that there is some conflict between the letter of the standards specifically and the spirit of the standards articulated through the words of those who developed them. David Coleman replies:


…I agree the flat list can be deceptive. Something we’re working on again with our colleagues here as well as colleagues across the nation is a visualization of the reading standards…. (NYSED, full transcript, p. 27)


How we visualize the standards makes all the difference. It is very tempting to look at them in isolation and disregard the spirit behind them, which is communicated in conversations and documents on the periphery of the official lists of standards. We have always aligned curricula to standards by setting them alongside each other and saying, “Check. We teach that in chapter 4.”


Rubiks Cube -- Common CoreInstead, we need to think of the Common Core State Standards as the different colored squares of a Rubik’s Cube with which we are constantly working. Solving a Rubik’s cube requires the puzzler to consider the whole puzzle, to plan the long term, and to constantly work with a vision of the end goal. If you focus on one color/side of a Rubik’s Cube, you can solve it in isolation, but beyond that, you have to constantly think about the ways the color sets are connected. Similarly, if you want to teach beyond a very rudimentary implementation of the Common Core and surface understandings from students, then you have to step into more complex approaches to reading, interpreting, and teaching the standards. The standards may be a list on paper, but in our minds they need to operate as a three-dimensional array, with different pieces of the puzzle activated in every lesson. The alignment question then evolves from “Which standards does this lesson cover?” to “Which standards are integrated and activated in concert within this lesson, and how deeply?” It’s the Rubik’s Cube equivalent of saying, “How many squares on how many sides of the Rubik’s Cube get closer to the right place with this series of adjustments?”


One of the strengths of the Common Core is that the developers wrote them with the intent that they work as a whole. Rather than focusing on “flat lists” and ticking off standards taught, the Common Core State Standards were designed to let excellent texts dictate integrated applications of the standards. This change in spirit allows educators to focus on reading processes much more than discrete skills, offering us generous opportunities to fall in love with books again, and to share this affection with students as they authentically engage with text.


New York State Education Department (2011, April 28). Bringing the Common Core to Life. Retrieved from: http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/resources/bringing-the-common-core-to-life.html


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