The UNcommon Core

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ILA LogoI’ve just returned from the annual International Literacy Association conference which was held in St. Louis, Missouri.

I was impressed most particularly with the ubiquity of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as a touchstone for virtually everything that was being showcased in the huge exhibit hall. Every book publisher seemed to have something to say about how their literature, math, science and social studies wares were all wonderful resources for ensuring that children make progress in meeting the common standards for their grade groups.

These standards explicitly describe the educational outcomes that have been adopted by many of the states for every child at each grade level. The application of those 10 broad standards begin simply for kindergartners and evolve through the grades to be quite complex. Everything in the standards is related to the ten core goals and instruction will be shaped by a set of examinations administered to students at various grade levels on the way to high school graduation. If kids pass the exams, they are considered either ready for the CCSS-shaped curriculum in the next grade or all set for graduation. It doesn’t sound too unusual, does it?

But what I do find surprising is that despite such claims, such stated standards do not necessarily bring kids from that teary first day of kindergarten to the successful selection of a college major or launch of a career path.

The Common Core is an effort to take 60-month-old children from their parents’ loving care and, in 13 school years, guide them to success in the big, oft-times cruel world by establishing all of the requisite skills and strategies for success in college and life, no matter what direction kids choose. A casual read of the standards will show that they may very well do just that, but…

…success is guided not merely by having shared skill sets with our fellow graduates. Lifelong and completely diverse cores don’t develop merely from common lessons. They develop from uniquely personal interests and one-of-a-kind breakthrough experiences.  The unique core that each learner develops is as varied as the cultural, familial and individual histories of each graduating class member. My very own core comes from life experiences that left me with what I alone can know and understand. So does yours…and they are wonderfully different.

An UNcommon, TRUE core for every child, is their own intrinsic engine that drives them to learn. If we teachers don’t help our youngsters to develop personal tastes and personal interests and personal goals and a reservoir of personally enriching experiences, then they will be ill equipped to handle the dizzying choices life offers them.

If, within the 13 years of formal schooling most kids endure, we don’t provide them with daily choices of books to read, individual options in challenges to meet and opportunities to seek answers to personal questions, there will be no real core to guide these individual kids, only the core they have in common. There’s not much true success available in such uniformity. This puts enormous pressure on teachers to both prepare kids for the exams and prepare them for life, two very different enterprises.

All of this can work within these broad standards if we are sure to allow children multiple opportunities for personal inquiry, thoughtful reading of individually chosen books, self-guided library and laboratory explorations, time alone to think and consider life and the world that for them is slowly coming into focus, secure time with like-minded and trusted friends, out-on-the-edge time with those from very different backgrounds and with quite unique personal lives and interests, and most importantly, access to resources that illuminate the outer limits of whatever topic/subject/content lights their personal fires.

After all, those types of fires reside in their individual hearts, not just their collective heads. To keep that burning brightly, all of our kids needs their very own UNcommon cores.

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12 Responses to “The UNcommon Core”

  1. Dick Allington July 23, 2015 at 9:54 am #

    You have hit the nail on the head concerning CCSS. Yes, common outcomes, as the CCSS suggests, could be a useful tool but what I worry about is just what you’ve explained above. Each child is unique and each has unique contributions to make to society and I worry that trying generate virtually children as academic wizards will ignore what too many children might offer beyond academic proficiency. The educational historian, Harold Hodginkinson wrote a critique way back when George Bush, the elder, was promoting national educational standards. His question basically was this: In an era when adult employment is more diverse than ever before, who really thinks that the same standards for farm kids in North Dakota, bayou dwelling kids in Louisiana, urban kids in NYC, and suburban CA kids will somehow improve the life chances of all of these diverse kids?

    • Mark Condon July 25, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      Thanks, Dick. I like the Hodgkinson examples. My feeling is that teachers can indeed help kids meet standards and to find their own uniquenesses, but teachers will need more help with making the latter a reality than they typically get.

  2. B. P. Laster July 23, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    I concur with your perspective, Mark, and will promote these thoughts with the teachers I am honored to teach. At the Towson Reading Clinic, we often have to practice “taking off the hat” of the school district employee and putting on “the hat” of private tutor in order for the teachers to let go of the conformity-oriented instructional procedures that are drilled into them by federal, state, and local mandates. To see a child or adolescent clearly and to base instruction on HER/HIS interests, learning styles, and strengths/needs is a challenge for some teachers….but they usually come around.
    Keep up the important work!
    Best regards,

    • Mark Condon July 25, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words, Barb. The fabulous thing about kids is that despite our failed efforts, focusing only on standards, they tend to still turn out pretty darned fabulous.

  3. Bob Price July 23, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    Nicely done the CCSS neither limits the experience of the learner nor does it solve the problems of education. It is simply one more tool on the way to reaching success.

    • Mark Condon July 25, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

      Good point, Bob. My worry of course is that teachers need to help kids develop more tool sets than just this one.

    • Claudia August 31, 2015 at 5:04 am #

      It shouldn’t limit. Sadly the way it’s implemented by districts and teachers is all too often at the expense of a more contstructivist approach that allows for deeper thinking. Hardest thing for kids to do is raise real questions.

      • Mark Condon August 31, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

        Wow Claudia! … and the answers to those questions, if kids ever get a chance to ask them, create in them a laser focus and openness to enjoy and understand how the world responds to them.

  4. Richard Owen July 24, 2015 at 7:39 am #

    Excellent post Mark. I love the exploration of the UNcommon core and the development of individual interests and experiences. This should be read out loud at the beginning of every faculty meeting in every school. It would also help if it were read regularly at the highest levels of the overly bureaucratic educational system in this country. Richard

    • Mark Condon July 25, 2015 at 1:49 pm #

      Gosh, I’m always tickled to death to discover that anybody reads it, Richard. What you suggest would be totally humbling.

  5. Mark Condon August 31, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    Vicki, it was an honor to have one of my ideas be selected for your yearly wrap-up. Thanks for all that you do.


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