The Common Core, in a Small Meaningful Way

This is Not a Homework Check
“Going over homework” in Jennifer Mabe’s class is far more than a right/wrong self-check. Mabe asks her students, as any teacher might, to announce their answers to questions from the previous night. She follows, not with correction or confirmation, and not with her own demonstration of the correct process for arriving at the best answer, but with an opportunity for other students to challenge the first response with their own. The most important part happens when Mabe asks students to justify why an incorrect answer is incorrect, and why a correct one is correct. Mabe’s students are able to identify where negatives were neglected, order of operations not followed, and concepts misconstrued.

Small as this homework check detail might seem, its value is substantial for two reasons. First, it promotes two of the eight mathematical practices:
3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
6. Attend to precision.
While teaching them algebra, Mabe is also teaching cross curricular habits of mind (reasoning, precision) that will serve them well as life-long learners. She’s teaching them to think math, and teaching them to think.

Beyond training her students to think math, Mabe requires her students to talk math. To explain why an answer is incorrect, they must, to some extent, use the language of mathematics. Math talk in the mouth of the teacher is fine; it’s like listening to a native speaker. In the mouths of learners, however, talking math develops ownership and mathematical fluency, the same way speaking Spanish helps develop fluency in that language.

Sharks Aren’t Like Dolphins
Clinton Todd wants his students to develop biology fluency as they learn to classify animals. In a recent bell ringer, students decided which animal (turtle, wolf, or shark) the dolphin most resembles, biologically speaking. After a few minutes of independent processing, the first student to respond answered, “shark.” When Todd prodded the student to justify his response, the student offered a detailed comparison of the physical similarities between dolphins and sharks. Todd then opened discussion. What other answers did anyone choose? Why not the shark? Why did you choose the wolf? (The correct answer is the wolf, which, like the dolphin, is a mammal, the biggest hint being the dolphins blow hole and lungs, as opposed to gills. Only one student selected the turtle.)

Todd’s line of questioning, and his response to correct and incorrect responses made this bell ringer effective. The nature of his response remained even and inquisitive, whether the answer was correct or incorrect. What he valued, it appeared, were the reasoning and the thought process the student used to draw a conclusion.

Todd’s activity worked much the way Mabe’s did. His students engaged in science talk, using the language of biology themselves, instead of merely hearing it from the teacher, and they engaged in the thought processes of a biologist, observing, classifying species, and, just as Mabe’s students did, verbally justifying their responses with reasoned explanations.

Common to the Core
These strategies are not new, not by any stretch of the imagination, and they aren’t spectacular. The thing is, they don’t have to be. Nothing about Common Core has to be spectacular, flashy, or funky. What CC does have to do is place the challenge of critical thinking and of developing content-specific literacy on the student. It’s simple enough to see how all this fits into your own discipline, but here are a few questions that might guide you:

  • Are your students solving a problem, instead of mimicking, copying or regurgitating?
  • Have you asked/required/expected/taught your students to justify their solutions/answers?
  • Do you value the students’ reasoning process?
  • How many times during the course of a period does every student use the language of the course?

I would like to make another point about the Common Core standards. They are common. They are the expectations of all students. All students, that is, must be expected to demonstrate these thinking skills in the various courses they take. The two classes described above were not AP or honors courses. Todd’s was a typical standard biology class. Mabe’s was a year-long (euphemistically read, not mathematically inclined) Math I class. Mabe and Todd expected these thinking skills from all students, and by this point in the school year, they can see the results.

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