We Really Don’t Know What To Teach

The Common Core will finally tell us all that needs to get taught in school.


Stop laughing.

I mean it.

Perhaps, it is time for us to admit something.

Beyond the old 3Rs of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – which interestingly are where Common Core has focused, we have no idea what every kid really needs to know by the time they graduate high school.

At the high school level, most teachers end up teaching the subject they love the most, and the actual content ends up being some mix of what they are told to teach and what they most love within the subject. And of course, over the last decade, the content of the tested subjects have been defined by whatever is on the test.

And the arguments over what gets taught seem never-ending. When someone suggests something is unnecessary to be taught… or even unnecessary to be tested, there’s almost a guarantee that someone will make the counter-argument for all the reasons why it is necessary.

I think we’re going about that argument the wrong way.

The problem isn’t that what we teach doesn’t have power and relevance in real life. There are strong arguments to be made about why everything taught in a typical American high school curriculum is important for people to know. But there are at least three problems that I can see with that argument.

  1. Evidence suggests that most people don’t remember much of the content they learn in high school as it is. (And high-stakes testing doesn’t seem to be making that any better.)
  2. There’s a ton of content we aren’t teaching in high school that is probably every bit as important.
  3. There is nowhere near enough time to teach all the content we could argue is important in high school… or all of K-12, really.

As an English teacher, this became obvious to me when I realized that all the lists of “Books Everyone Must Read” that I would come across were a) woefully incomplete, b) deeply subjective and c) more than I could ever cram into a four-year high school curriculum anyway. And worse, people keep writing really amazing books every year, but no one was making high school any longer.

I came to realize that my goals for my class were reasonably simple – I wanted students to realize that stories were lenses not only on other worlds, but on our own as well. I wanted students to learn how to take apart language and create meaning from text. I wanted students to develop their voice and their ability to make an argument, both verbally and in print. And I wanted kids to want to keep reading after they left my class.

For a long time, I thought that was the luck of being an English teacher — the skills we wanted to teach were applicable to so much good content (books) that it didn’t matter what content we taught, really, as long as it was a good book — and I was just arrogant enough to think that I knew what that meant. But the more I really think about this idea, the more I realize just how much “good content” is out there. And much like the list of good books, that content keeps on growing.

So where does that leave us?

More than anything else, we need to recognize that too often school fails at the one thing we should endeavor to do more than anything else — instill a love of learning. Given all there is to know in the world, that probably is the most important thing we could do for our students, and yet, it seems to be a thing that school does really poorly for a great many students. That failure is ours, and it is one we must redress, no matter how hard that is.

Given all there is to know, it makes even more important that we do take the time to make relevant and meaningful the skills and content we do teach, because the immediacy of the world we live in can feel (and perhaps is) more important in the moment to our students than much of the content we are trying to teach. Therefore, the onus is on us to always be willing to answer that question of “Why do I have to learn this” with an answer that is more compelling than a grade on a test if we are to hope to earn our students attention.

And then we should remain humbled before the vast enormity of human knowledge. When we, as teachers, are truly awed by all there is to learn, when we are humble about our own learning and knowledge, we might start from a better place with our students. We might be more willing to accept the things they know as vital as well. And we may be more willing to find common ground upon which we can all build knowledge and wisdom.

The idea that we could cram all we hope our students could learn and know into a “common core” set of skills would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that we’re trying to do it.

In the end, the problem with the Common Core isn’t that it is too broad, it is that it is too narrow. It makes no attempt to teach kids the most important thing there is to understand:

There is always more we can learn.


18 thoughts on “We Really Don’t Know What To Teach

  1. We had a discussion at Univ of Helsinki yesterday about the common core relating to your post. How does the CC create and encourage global citizens, connected learning and students becoming immersed in passions they would like to learn further at the next level? Why do we need to teach every child everything? I’m increasingly curious as to why we must we have this “control.” What research has been done to say that control encourages deeper and lifelong learning?

    Looking around the room where I am, everyone has different passions and strengths – and that is why I enjoy knowing them and learning from them.

    • Oh so true, Mr. Mazza! I am a teacher, and I try to pass on something that I picked up somewhere along the way, from a number of wonderful teachers – there is a world out there, and I have the power and ability to learn as much about it as I choose! I want my students to feel empowered to go out there and make educational connections to things that are important to THEM. What I have to teach them in the classroom is equally as important as what they have to teach one another, and sometimes what they teach one another is more important.

      At the end of a long school day, all I can to is give them the world map and teach them how to read it – where they decide to go and how long they stay – that’s a decision that only they can make. I hope they keep in touch with me on their journeys!

  2. In teaching history, I have been a little troubled by teachers who take their own enthusiasm for the subject, and turn it into a mission that they must share all of the insights it has taken ten or more years of focused work and dedication to accumulate. I would rather share the historical problems and dilemmas and let the kids work out their own insights. Seems kind of ridiculous and self-defeating for us as teachers to have imparting our knowledge on students. We need to help them build their own, as they ask questions and begin to answer them. We can probe, challenge and push but we should not preach. I feel fortunate that students can really enter history at any point – and build in whatever direction. We really need to open up the curriculum. Thanks for the post. It got me thinking.

  3. What little I have read about the Common Core in English, I know it would have turned me off from reading. Too many “great reads” and the Immortal Bard for my taste. Not a way for students to learn about learning and to love learning

  4. So true. I learned many years ago that if you think of content as a “representative topic” rather than essential content, you can focus on the concepts that are essential and important to the discipline. Those concepts should carry on even if the facts don’t. That’s why it seems to me that we’re wasting a lot of time when it comes to high stakes testing.

  5. I think if you instill a love of learning and curiosity in addition to great strategies of HOW to learn independently, you provide kids with skill sets that open up the world to them. I learn something new everyday, and there’s no content goal in front of me. THAT is what I want for my students. Great post, Chris.

  6. Great articulation of CC’s shortcomings, Chris. Personally, I have no real problem with the standards as an operational definition for what we want students to know, value, and do, at least as a starting point. My anxiety is that the standards will distract us from what should be our central focus: motivating students to want to learn. A recent Forbes article highlighted an alarming, but increasingly obvious fact: 40% of high school students are chronically disengaged from school. The old proverb – you can’t fatten your sheep by weighing them – reveals CC’s failure. The standards (and those developing textbooks/publications to deliver and assessments to measure them) do not attempt to ask the critical question that should be keeping all of us up at night – why are students tuning out in school? Too many kids don’t love learning. It’s not because they don’t know how to love. It’s because what we define as learning doesn’t inspire affection.

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  9. I think CC gives teachers the opportunity to teach/guide children to find their own learning. Certain skills are a must, but students must learn to read for understanding and dig for extended knowledge. The trends of close reading, extended writing, and establishing a knowledge base are a great place to start this journey.

      • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.1 Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

        This is just one small piece. I’ve seen second grade teachers teach this CC standard. They felt that there was freedom when choosing the content. Each chose non-fiction text. The lesson was engaging because the teachers crafted it to be that way. Students led much of the discussion. They were then able to write about their learning.

        I will clarify my statement by saying that I am finding that CC gives a framework for learning and teaching. My teachers are enjoying not being tied to a reading basal or having to follow a math text page by page. Students are benefiting by going deeper. I welcome the change. I was once guilty of “covering” material. I am now confident that more is not better. Deeper is better. I hope that helps.

  10. All education should (I’d say “must” myself) be student-CONTROLLED. Yes there is CORE KNOWLEDGE (knowledge that enables one to gather additional information, evaluate its current usefulness, organize it into useful overall vision, and apply it) that all students must know for all topics. But even that should not be “fed” to them!!! The teacher’s role is RARELY to teach; it is to facilitate, mentor, and assess learning effectively. Huge in the mentoring it to help students love to learn and know they will need to be lifelong learners. Huge in the facilitating is to help students to learn how to learn effectively.

    We cannot facilitate all information as you point out – there’s too much of it. AND it’s growing all the time! Indeed new topics even are arising regularly. I keep reading about educators concerned that CCSS and NGSS don’t have enough lesson plans, curricula, etc. CELEBRATE this and come up with defining questions for student-controlled PBL – turning students loose to learn the skills and SOME core knowledge (associated with the standards) that IS important and WILL be learned effectively.

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