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Teacher Voice

Teaching the ‘How’ Along With the ‘What’

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, there is more focus on the how and why of the content students are learning and what types of thinking students need to be able to do. It is not enough for students to memorize equations and dates—now, teachers advocate that there is more to learning than people have traditionally expected from schools. We know students can reach their potential through hard work, discipline, and goal setting, and this realization has led to an important shift in the way we view education. For most students, though, high school begins with a ringing bell and students shuffling to class chatting animatedly, as it has for decades. In classrooms, content is delivered in familiar ways, such as the characteristic gusto of a history lecture or the frantic completion of practice problems in math. Moving through the day means jumping from subject to subject, all the while abiding by clear social expectations for “how to act in school.”

A Focus on Critical Thinking

But the Common Core’s emphasis on critical thinking means schools can no longer operate with the lockstep precision they have in the past. Schools need to teach not only academic skills, but also the dispositions that support complex thinking. Researchers Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have touted the importance of growth mindset and grit that students need to be successful. They generally land on a common point: Beliefs and habits in regards to learning are equally or more important than the delivered content. Currently, some districts are experimenting with teaching students lessons regarding their attitudes towards learning. While these lessons are not necessarily driven by the Common Core, they encourage students to develop a disposition of perseverance, curiosity and empathy that allows them to pursue their learning more deeply. This feels uncomfortable for teachers and students. We are in high school, say students, we don’t need to be taught how to act. Teachers feel rebuffed for their focus on academics. So where does that leave us?

Let’s Talk About It

Teachers at the high-school level, recognizing that students need explicit conversations about disposition and thinking processes, try to work these into lessons already packed with academic material. I would advocate that, instead of waiting for these conversations to happen serendipitously, it would make sense during this transition to Common Core for high schools to teach these lessons intentionally. Students should hear consistent messages regarding the power of character traits such as perseverance, curiosity and optimism. All students should hear the message that they can be successful, that asking questions is powerful, and that it is the thinking that is important, not getting the right answer. While the current focus seems to be the content of Common Core, it makes more sense to concentrate on the ways content is being taught. Districts have an opportunity to couple lessons on quadratics or literature with lessons on how to read tough text or persevere through a new math concept. What would happen if we allowed students to reflect on what practices successful learners use every day? Let’s stop talking about testing and start talking about thinking.  
Jessica Cotter is currently an instructional and transformational coach for Holt Public Schools, with a focus on grades nine to 12.
Jessica Cotter
Jessica Cotter is currently an instructional and transformational coach for Holt Public Schools, with a focus on grades nine to 12. Prior to working as a coach, Jessica spent eight years teaching social studies and served as the department chair. Jessica has spent several years working with social studies curriculum, both for Holt Public Schools, as well as the Michigan Department of Education, ...

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