Reflections on the Spiral vs. Linear Approach with Common Core


It is very difficult to try to fit the square peg into the circular hole. Likewise, it is difficult to fit a framework for pedagogy that is inherently driven by rigor and depth into a linear pattern of execution which is characterized by completion of standards and expectations and a checklist of “covered material.” This is one of my fundamental concerns about our transition to the Common Core standards. We must come to grips with the paramount paradigm shift that must take place in order to truly prepare students for new expectations in what will continue to be a high-stakes testing environment, which aims to hold both teachers and students accountable in its idealistic approach.

Imagine for a moment the length of a Slinky if it were to be entirely straightened without any kinks. This is representative of many teachers’ instruction based on our previous and, in many cases, current model. I include myself among the “many” in this statement. When the Slinky is returned to its original length and structure, it better represents the model for instruction that we aim to achieve with the Common Core. While the straight model allowed us to cover a breadth of material that was admirable, the depth was often very difficult to achieve. The idea of re-visiting fewer standards is theoretically quite relieving, but if we simply re-visit the standards on the same level, we are not spiraling in a way that deepens understanding. How do we break free from our straight path to a corkscrew pattern that truly gives students more leverage to engage their understanding on deeper levels?

I propose the following (although somewhat prematurely) as steps to be taken in making this shift:

1) Define levels of depth for each standard. Provide mathematical practices and clear representations of levels of understanding. The more tangible these are, the more clearly they can be represented to the students and teachers, alike.

2) Design a scope and sequence which allows for multiple checkboxes, with each addressing a deeper level of understanding with respect to each standard. Ideally, this would occur for every student, as well.

3) Provide public recognition for achievement on multiple levels. This is likely to be most observable in the form of PBL and multi-faceted products.

4) Backward-build tasks based upon student response exemplars. Struggle to determine what questions and prompts elicit complex responses. This may be very difficult at first, but it will force the empathy with the student. This also helps to disrupt the linear pattern of problem-solving to look at desired results before designing the prompt which brings it forth.

5) Create academic tools that can be used on multiple levels and can engage multiple intelligences so that familiar material can be viewed in a new light each time it is encountered.

The Common Core standards are still quite unfamiliar, and the integration of these standards can not simply be a content shift. In fact, much of the content is not significantly different in its core from what many states may have vaguely prescribed before this adoption of more consistent standards. It is the approach that must change, which will force teachers to delve into more comprehensive questioning and facilitation of learning after foundational knowledge is present with all learners.

The corkscrew method of teaching is not a carousel on which the same standards are re-visited with the same approach, tools, and scenery. It is more like an archaeological dig, in which each removed layer reveals a more comprehensive understanding. The linear model, though very familiar both in our culture and our frame of understanding, I am afraid, is no longer going to suffice as the model for evoking the types of responses desired in our impending PARCC assessments and our efforts to be increasingly competitive in a global sense.

Do not misunderstand me. I think that a clear, linear, logical approach is essential for foundational skill-building, especially in lower elementary education, and I am concerned about the emphasis on Common Core obfuscating the importance of such cognitive development, and I hope that we will not depart entirely from tried and true practices that are supported by brain development research.

In full consideration of the new ride, however, I think it is important to remember that every ride needs time for rest and reflection, so I sincerely hope that we will take time for these without feeling that we will ever be able to witness every spectacle along the way. The spiral ride will hopefully build efficacy through gained familiarity and empowerment rather than a sense of one-time accomplishment that leaves us wondering at the end, what exactly did we learn?