Determining What’s Important
Several years ago, I helped some friends of mine load a trailer they were using when they moved across the country. They were using a relatively small U-Haul trailer that they hooked to the hitch of their minivan. In preparing to move, they packed their belongings and put them into three categories: things that they had to take, things that they would have liked to take, and things that they would be forced to leave behind. I was in charging of loading the trailer and, using my excellent moving skills, was able to load all of their “must haves,” all of their “nice to haves” and half of their “too bad we can’t haves.” (I have helped dozens of friends move over the years and have gotten really good at loading moving trucks, trailers, and vans.)
I think about this experience often as the end of the year swiftly approaches. Teachers start looking at their standards, which serve as a roadmap to instruction, and think about what’s really important and what’s nice but not actually necessary. There are some things that I know I have to teach them because not teaching those skills and concepts will set them up for difficulty in future years. In our district, we refer to these as “safety net skills.” Then there are things that I would like to be able to teach my students because I believe it is useful. In considering these things, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the shifts in instruction when we adopted the Common Core State Standards many years ago.
Friends and family often ask me what I think about the Common Core. My answer is always that I am a strong advocate, even if there are aspects of the standards that I think need to be tweaked. I am also open about saying that while I value assessment, I don’t think the “high stakes” nature of standardised assessment is good practice and I think there are better ways to use standardised assessments to inform stakeholders of student growth.
Even though I have been teaching the Common Core State Standards since I started at Wiley, I am constantly evaluating and re-evaluating my curriculum and the resources I use to teach. And sometimes I come to a new, deeper understanding of the major shifts in focus under these standards. This process helps me continually refine what I consider to be important and what I consider to be simply nice to know.
As we have been working through our math unit on fractions, this has become particularly important to me. The Common Core standard for fourth grade that focuses on equivalent fractions says this: “Explain why a fraction a/b is equivalent to a fraction (n × a)/(n × b) by using visual fraction models, with attention to how the number and size of the parts differ even though the two fractions themselves are the same size. Use this principle to recognize and generate equivalent fractions.”
The gist of this standard is that students should be able to find equivalent fractions by multiplying the numerator and denominator by the same number or by dividing them by the same number. Students will use this knowledge to generalise their understanding of fraction equivalency.
What the standard does not say is that students must be able to simplify fractions and represent them in lowest form. In fact, this skill is not required at any grade level.
So why do we still teach it? Why is it attached to so many assessments? Why is it something that teachers spend days and weeks on, trying to get their students to grasp the concept?
I honestly don’t have a good answer. I know that my math book provides lessons on this skill and therefore many teachers present it because it is in the book. But that’s not a good reason to teach something. I also know that the learning standards do not tell me what to teach or even how to teach it. The standards are simply targets for the end of the year. The analogy I often use is that of driving a car. I have a destination in mind (the standards), but how I choose to get there, what vehicle I decide to drive, how fast I decide to go, and any stops I may make along the way, that is all up to me. So maybe I will teach my students to find a fraction in simplest form because it involves using other skills that I value.
But when it gets down to crunch time, I am going to be evaluating where we are, where we need to go, and what is really important. The standards aren’t going to tell me that information. That is something that comes from professional judgment, knowing my class, and understanding what is really important, what is nice to know, and what isn’t really all that important.