Now that we’ve discussed the origins of Common Core and the difference between standards and curricula, we want to look at another important aspect of Common Core, “instructional shifts.” These tell teachers how pedagogy needs to be directed so that classroom instruction is aligned with our newer, higher standards.
There are three shifts for English Language Arts (ELA) instruction and three shifts for Math instruction.
In ELA, we have new expectations for the type of material that students should be learning to read and comprehend. In the past, students in elementary school primarily read literary works, and the reading of informational texts was left more to students in the secondary grades. However, Common Core acknowledges that, in today’s day and age, students need to be comfortable reading a variety of different types of materials. This shift establishes that students should be exposed to a blend of information and literary texts, beginning in kindergarten. This does not mean, as is often mis-stated, that high school English teachers can no longer teach the great works of fiction! On the contrary, English teachers should continue to teach the analysis of literary classics, but teachers of other subjects should now include a balance of fiction and non-fiction in their instruction.
In other words, a U.S. History teacher should impart information about historical events through a combination of biographies, primary sources, and textbook materials. Students will learn how to analyze and synthesize information from all of these sources so that they can truly understand American History and retain the information they are learning.
Students should also be led to build their knowledge and academic vocabulary through rich conversations about the texts they are reading. They should be expected to cite evidence from their readings when they present an argument or opinion. They will be exposed to questioning techniques that require them to think critically and go beyond the approach that just asks them to give the “one right answer”. These shifts seek to create thinkers and lifelong learners through more demanding, complex ELA instruction.
In Math, there are also significant pedagogical changes. In the past, math curriculum was criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Students were instructed on many concepts every year, with the same topics often spiraling from one year into the next. Since we were re-teaching skills year-to-year, there was not always a clear expectation of when “mastery” of a skill should be occurring. Now, under the Common Core, concepts and skills are being prioritized by grade level. This means that teachers are expected to teach fewer skills, but to teach them in greater depth so that students have mastered these skills at specific grade levels and can use them as a foundation for the following year’s growth.
In addition, we want students to understand the reasoning behind mathematical procedures. In the past, students may have been asked to practice a mathematical procedure without comprehending why it worked or even when it should practically be applied. (If you have to practice a formula fifty times, you might get the answers right every time, but do you really know what it means? If you didn’t understand where the formula came from, would you really know when to apply it in a real-life situation?) Under Common Core, concepts should be taught so that students have a deeper conceptual understanding of what they are learning, why it works, and when it should be used. We still expect students to memorize and use math facts with ease, but the goal is not just an increase in computational fluency; we want them to be able to retain and recall their math facts to solve problems. These mathematical shifts increase the emphasis on real world problem solving. The Common Core Standards require students to use the math that they are learning to make sense of the world around them.