Creativity and The Common Core #1: It’s Not the Whole Curriculum

In the United States, The Common Core State Standards Initiative is one of the most powerful forces we’ve seen in education in a long, long time. So what is it? And how does it influence teachers’ options for developing creativity in classrooms? This is the first of several weekly posts on the Common Core and how creativity can be fostered using the Core—and sometimes in spite of it.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is designed to develop shared curriculum standards across the affiliated states—at this point, 45 of the 50 United States. These standards will eventually be evaluated using common assessments, allowing state-to-state comparisons. The Common Core State Standards are not technically a “national curriculum,” since they were not developed by any federal body, but they are exerting tremendous influence on schools across the country. This is not surprising. Who wants to be the people showing up at the bottom?

So far, Common Core State Standards have been developed in Mathematics and English Language Arts. Across the U.S., teachers are attending workshops and being presented with materials, all promising to align their class activities with the Common Core—and presumably, the assessments ahead. And while there are certainly worthwhile components to the standards, I feel a bit as if I’m hearing the Jaws theme every time someone starts talking about them. While it looks like smooth sailing, something is lurking below. The question is, can we coexist safely?

There are many good things about the Common Core. In particular, the emphases on critical thinking, logic, research, and mathematical thinking can be important supports for creative thinking and innovation. Here’s my fear. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to teach to raise test scores. This is done in the name of accountability—as if our primary responsibility is to help students fill out the bubbles on that one critical day. It worries me that in describing the rationale behind the Language Arts standards, the authors repeatedly cite “taking NAEP’s lead” as a reason for curriculum decisions. Really? I don’t disagree that students should read more informational text as they get older, but not because NAEP (a national standardized test) is formatted that way. They should learn to read informational text because there is a lot of important information in the world to read!

I am fearful of test-driven curriculum. I am very concerned that under pressure to raise the ever-present test scores, schools and teachers will feel compelled to focus their efforts entirely on Common Core standards, with everything else lost in the chomp of giant “accountability” jaws. This would be a tremendous mistake.

But before we panic, remember what the Standards’ authors say, under “What is Not Covered by the Standards.”

While the Standards focus on what is most essential, they do not describe all that can or should be taught. A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers. The aim of the Standards is to articulate the fundamentals, not to set out an exhaustive list or a set of restrictions that limits what can be taught beyond what is specified herein.

Did you get that? These are the Common CORE State Standards. They are not the whole apple. If we limit what we teach to exactly what is in the Core documents, students will miss out on important experiences and ideas—to say nothing of most of science, social studies, and the arts! The “What is Not Covered by the Standards” list addresses this specifically.

While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content…they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum…

So for the next few weeks, we’ll look at what the Common Core does and doesn’t tell us about what to teach, how to teach, and how to use the content we do teach. If used wisely, the Common Core can be a useful tool. If used in conjunction with creativity, it can help students learn, understand, and even create.

How is your school dealing with the Common Core so far?

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