Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Whither Content? Wither, Content!

Here's a fun quote from the now-inactive website Core4All, from about 2012:

How do we implement the Common Core into our current units of study?
We don’t.  In order for our educational system to improve, it is vital that we change the traditional model of teaching, moving from a content- driven curriculum to a skills-based curriculum.

We don't talk about this as much as perhaps we should-- but the Common Core, despite the lovely appendices added to address the very problem I'm about to raise, really don't give a rat's rear about content.

Perhaps in math we can make the case that content and skills are closely wedded enough to be inextricably bound-- a sort of co-location of pedagogical threads.

But in English Teacher Land, we love our content. We while away hours, days, or entire careers holding forth on The Canon and what works of literature should be included. We tweak works in and out of the scope and sequence with a fairly remarkable uniformity and consistency (if you are an American who has finished 9th grade, you are probably familiar in some way with Romeo and Juliet).

We love our literature and we each have a pile of works that in our hearts we believe every student who passes through our classroom ought to be familiar with.

Common Core does not care. There are reformsters who swear up and down that CCSS requires "rich content" works of literature, but there simply isn't a word of the standards that actually supports that (they have perhaps close read the standards until their eyes crossed). Common Core does not care what the students read as long as those students can perform the appropriate reading tricks hinted at in the standards and required by the Big Standardized Tests.

This again brings us back to one of the foundational flaws of CCSS-- the notion that all academic tasks are performed in a vacuum and that relationships are unimportant. Readers need not develop a relationship with text or get to know it in any meaningful way-- just look at it quickly, and perform these simple tasks. What the text is, what the text says-- that should not matter. Hamlet, Pat the Bunny, or Gravity's Rainbow-- it's all reading stuff. If the Common Core included standards on kissing, they would insist that a kiss is just the proper application of the lips to another surface, and it doesn't matter if the surface is your wife, your sister, a stranger, or a toaster.

This fits with another foundational aspect of the Core, which is that we will only show interest in things that can be measured (and relationships cannot be measured). But if English teachers sense a little hollowness at the Core's core, it may be in part this total lack of interest in the actual content, meaning and experience of literature.

Many teachers (and even non-teachers like David "Gives No Shits" Coleman) have convinced themselves that a love of content is somehow implied or suggested or at least tolerated by the Core, but that's just one more way the actual standards have been rewritten on the ground. The test manufacturers and their publishing wings know the truth-- that the Core doesn't care what you read and certainly doesn't care what you know about literature and the great breadth of human wisdom and experience embedded therein.

You know it's true. We could all scrap every bit of traditional literature studies done in our classes, replace them with short random selections from newspapers and magazines paired with some core-modeled questions, and our test score would soar while our students said, "Who's this Shakespeare guy? Was he a writer or something?"

The Core would be perfectly happy to see literature crawl off in a field and die somewhere. CCSS has no use for it, and it has no use for those of us who care about the world of words.


  1. Well, I for one, still have use for literature. And I am teaching my pre-service English teachers to care. I will NOT go quietly into that good night. And I don't want to live in a world where no one catches that reference.

  2. Random thoughts:

    Obviously you need some kind of content to apply skills to, and the richer the better. And English language arts should be based on literature. You should get enough technical reading practice in other subject areas.

    Literature is the epitome of the Humanities, and appreciation of it can't be measured because that's where the personal relationship with the text comes in, what it speaks to that person in terms of feeling and thought. You can learn philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology by reading literature, while poetry and poetic prose involve aesthetics.

    Testing content in a standardized form doesn't make sense because different teachers should be able to decide what works they want to teach, and I never thought recalling plot details about a work should be that important. Understanding, interpreting, and analyzing literature takes skills, time, and background knowledge, and can't be tested in a standardized format.

    Why does a curriculum have to be based either/or, content or skills. And what about concept-driven?

    Understanding the structure and technique an author uses such as character development and use of simile and metaphor is interesting and gives another level of understanding, but is not necessary for a basic appreciation.

    The other type of text that should be used in English language arts is prose that uses rich vocabulary and varied structure and is an example of a certain type of writing that you want to teach students to be able to do: expository, persuasive, etc., depending on purpose; or simply because it's an essay that's good writing in general. You can't test writing on a standardized test either.

  3. Math, rather than based on content and skills, seems to be more topics and skills, but skills seem to be most important. Of course there are always concepts. And application, knowing when to use which skills, seems key.

    My relationship with math is troubled. I never understood the point of most math. I thought solving equations in algebra was cool, and I've used some basic ratios and equations to solve real-life problems. But I never understood how to factor polynomials or why I would want to. I don't understand what using quadratic equations to find the square root is good for, but I was fascinated by the fact that somebody came up with a formula to do so and wanted to know how they came up with it. But that didn't seem like it was supposed to be important. Even though it involves math. Or does nobody understand how they did it? But if they don't, how would they know it works?

    Geometry seems like a hodge-podge of topics. They start out with theorums, which I always had to work backwards, and which seem to have no connection to the rest of geometry. Years later I was fascinated to find out that so many philosophers were mathematicians and used theorums to try to prove philosophical points. I never understood what sine and cosine are for, and only understand tangents as a philosophical concept. The only thing I understood about geometry was similar triangles. But I found an old carpentry book that belonged to my great-grandfather, and it was all about the geometry of angles.

    I don't know why most people need algebra II, pre-calc, or calculus. I asked the teacher what the point of a certain algorithm was, and she said, "You plug in numbers and it makes a parabola!" And I'm, like, "So what?" "Well, engineers need it." But she didn't explain what they needed it for, and I wasn't going to be an engineer. It seems like the only reason most people need it is that colleges require all students to have a knowledge of algebra II and pre-calc, even if they don't need it for what they're studying, and aside from engineers, certain programs, like the MBA, want calculus just to make you show you're elite and that smart. I think statistics - which they didn't even teach when I was in high school - is more necessary nowadays for a lot of the careers in the social sciences. Though of course, if I understood the type of math the reformers use for their algorithms, I'd have direct knowledge to better make the case against VAMs. Since most people don't understand them, they're shrouded in mystery.

    I understand that some people are fascinated by math and numbers and seem to have an innate understanding of it. I always felt like I would never understand it unless I learned the whole history of the development of math, going through the same steps that were taken in the development of it by great thinkers. And one reason to study in general, besides becoming "college and career ready," is to have a foundation in the shared heritage of civilization.

  4. Thank you for pointing out a huge flaw with the Common Core ELA standards. Our academic coach asked recently that we focus on the common core grammar standards, and I pointed out there weren't hardly any. I could go on, but you obviously know what is missing.

    And David "Gives No Shits" Coleman--love it.

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