The War Against Thinking – Standards (from 3-26-14)

School should be a place for thought. That seems obvious. Thinking should be the main thing going on in schools. As Daniel Willingham points out in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, students learn about what they think about, so we should be trying to get them to engage in thinking as often as possible.

Let me say this again: school should be a place for thought.

 It should be a community of thinkers. The adults should model thinking for the students. The students should be practicing thinking, and trying out their thoughts on their teachers and on each other.

How would I define thinking? I would define thinking as working with ideas: assimilating them, playing with them, comparing them, creating something new with them, struggling with them, engaging in them, debating them, synthesizing them, exploring them. The list of verbs could go on. And of course ideas can be mathematical, scientific, literary, creative, strategic, historical, defining, emotional, metaphorical… The list of adjectives could go on.

That’s what school should be for: working with ideas. Thinking.

But you wouldn’t know that, based on a lot of what is being done in and to schools these days. These days, we seem to spend a lot of time asking adults and children to not think, to help them avoid thinking. We want things to be nailed down, settled, fired in a kiln into their final shape so that we can avoid having to really think about them. Many people give lip service to thinking, but don’t really like it when it occurs.

If we think teachers are supposed to be thinking and modeling thinking for their students, look at how little teachers are asked to think…

The system doesn’t want teachers to think about what they are going to teach. For the past couple of decades we have been engaged in what has been called the “standards movement,” which has recently come to its fullest fruition as the Common Core State Standards. Standards are supposed to create clarity: every student should be able to do or know these things. There are many issues surrounding standards, including the fact that fixed standards created by committee will never be able to keep up with the changing nature of reality, but what I’d like to focus on is how much, or how little, standards ask teachers to think.

Look at standards as a whole. If I look at the Florida Sunshine State Standards, which I should use until the end of this 2013-14 school year, or at the Common Core State Standards, which have now been renamed the Florida Standards (even though my standards as a middle school Language Arts teacher haven’t changed at all), they represent the sum total of what a student should know and be able to do by the end of the school year.

If I cover those standards, I have taught my students what they need to know. Put checks in those boxes and I’m done. I don’t have to think; I just need to cover skills. What’s wrong with that? you might ask. Isn’t it good that we have a consistent educational product we’re offering?

From one particular angle, yes: if you are viewing standards as an antidote to the teacher who keeps the kids busy all year with word searches and crossword puzzles and mazes without worrying about what the kids are learning, then yes, standards might give that teacher a better sense of direction. On the other hand, isn’t Mr. Wordsearch, unless he is given some guidance, likely to teach the standards with the same shallow level of instruction he devoted to keeping the kids busy. “Here’s a worksheet with a Venn Diagram! We’ve covered comparison/contrast!”

But let’s look at standards from a different place– from that ancient, almost unimaginable era: The Time Before Standards.

My teaching career began in earnest in 1993, the same year the Sunshine State Standards began their development–they weren’t put into place until 1996. So I began my career without the guidance of a set of standards. As I have written else where, I was dealing with a very challenging group of students who tended to destroy, among other things, textbooks. So I had to invent the wheel. My mantra as a teacher became, I suppose, the mantra of the standards committees themselves: “What to I want them to be able to DO?”

I had to do some hard thinking. I looked through my literature and writing textbooks. I looked through my college books and notebooks, and at books about reading and writing I’d read on my own. (The internet hadn’t really become a force in my life yet.) I looked at my own history as a reader and writer and thought about the experiences that had shaped me. I began to synthesize all of these ideas into an ever-changing, ever evolving list of things I wanted my students to be able to do. Sometimes when they couldn’t do one thing well, such as write a short story, I realized I needed to go back and teach something else, like integrating descriptions into the plot, or actually planning out a coherent back-story and plot-line with a conflict. I wasn’t teaching a dead list of standards, but an evolving one, based on my deep understanding of my subject and on my own students’ needs.

In other words, I was thinking. I was thinking really hard. I was thinking about my subject, and about my students. It was hard work. I don’t think it was perfect, but I think that trial by fire of really thinking about what I taught, without being handed a set of standards on a silver platter, made me into not just a better teacher, but a completely different kind of teacher than the one I might have been had I just taught standards.

Even when they era of standards arrived a couple years later, I was always looking beneath the surface of the standards, thinking about what kinds of thinking and writing and doing things my students would need to do to meet that standard. If the standard said, “Students will write in various modes… including writing comparisons,” the standard itself didn’t tell me the various pitfalls of trying to get students to do it well. I quickly learned that many of my students wrote what I call Ping-Pong Writing: “McDonald’s is like this. Wendy’s is like this. McDonald’s is like this. Wendy’s is like this. McDonald’s is like this. Wendy’s is like this.” Back and forth. I realized that if they were going to write comparisons that were actually enjoyable to read, I’d need to teach them about sentence variety. Now there is probably a standard about teaching sentence variety, but it is only by thinking about what I was teaching that I linked sentence variety to comparison writing, a place where it especially matters and therefore a place ideal for having students think about both issues in tandem. If I were covering standards, sentence variety might have been a workbook page I taught during some other part of the year, disconnected from any real writing.

The other issue with standards, as far as thinking goes, is that teachers and administrators often assume the that the standards cover everything that is necessary for students to learn, and that if it’s not in the standards, it shouldn’t be taught– the perhaps the better word would be “covered.” But standards represent the “best thinking” of a committee somewhere, a limited number of people. They do not represent an absolute ideal of what should be taught. I don’t know of any standards that mention screenplay or script writing as a form students should attempt, or better yet master, yet many of my students are deeply interested in writing plays and screenplays and chose that form of writing if I offer it as an option. I also know from personal experience that writing scripts is not a “fluff” skill, but one I have seen used in the “real” world of work by friends, relatives, and acquaintances alike for civic and work purposes such as training videos, fundraiser or stewardship promotion, public awareness of issues, and tributes. Allowing my students to write and produce scripts fosters engagement, but to do it well, they need to be taught how. But script writing is not featured as standard, so unless I think beyond the standards, I won’t teach it.

The Common Core Standards skimp on poetry by leaving instruction in the reading and writing of poetry to the discretion of the teacher. Of course, that kind of skimping on a type of writing relegates it to something that will seldom be taught. But for a teacher who is really thinking, poetry offers all kinds of intriguing connections to other areas of literacy– even advertising and argument (or persuasion – more on that debate later). My wife presented on the benefits of teaching poetry at an NCTE Ignite session last year. The title of the overall session was “Minding the Gaps” – the gaps being the things that aren’t covered by the Common Core Standards. All of the short presentations in the IGNITE session asked teachers to think – by going beyond the standards.

The vague Common Core poetry standard requires teachers to think hard if they are going to teach poetry at all. The more specific standards are, the less they encourage teacher (or student) thought. And the more that specific standards are tied to high stakes testing, the teacher is asked to think even less. Teaching to the test is probably the kind of teaching that requires the lest amount of thought, yet it is the kind of teaching that has been increasingly promoted and forced on teachers for the past two decades.

Perhaps that is why Harold Howe II, the former US Commissioner of Education, suggested that if we must have national standards they should be “as vague as possible.” Vague standards require teachers to think hard about what they are teaching, about their subject areas, and about their students. Vague standards are harder to test, because tests, by their nature, tend to evaluate very specific skills.

The idea of what should be taught and learned isn’t just an issue for teachers to think about. Ask students to talk about what they should be learning and why, and you’ll really get them thinking as well. Saying, “Here’s what you need to learn. Learn it,” will not.

Standards stifle rather than inspire teachers’ thinking. To think, teachers must go beneath the surface of the standards, or into the gaps in the standards, or beyond the standards completely.

In the end, the most important ideas I have developed about teaching my subject have come, not from the standards, which tend to be very literal and uninspiring, but from my own thinking, talking to other people, reading, and writing. The biggest, most important things I want to teach my students are not found in any standards I have seen. That words are tools to help you build a better life. That the right words at the right time can change your life. That words help shape your thoughts and your thoughts shape how you see the world, and in fact shape your whole life.

But what about having some kind of consistency in our schools? Without standards, will it be “Anything goes?” Well, there weren’t standards when I was in school, and I’ve survived just fine. But if we are concerned about the lack of standards, what if we met with colleagues, not to engage in group-think, but to discuss and debate an ever evolving set of standards that interacts with our students’ needs? What if we actually encouraged teachers to think instead of handing them a to-do list and asking them to cover it unthinkingly?

Standards are the primary way in which we discourage teachers from thinking– but there are plenty more. I’ll get to some more of them next time.