Friday, January 29, 2016

Maker Education and the Common Core: Closer Than You Might Think

With Common Core State Standards being the driving force in education in The United States over the past several years, much attention has been paid to the subject of teaching and assessing our students based upon CCSS.

Due directly to both Federal and state mandates, our nation's education system has been bombarded with resources, curriculums, and programs designed to better teach Common Core and prepare our students for a new battery of standardized testing "options" designed to measure growth towards nationwide proficiency.

The added stress (to an already taxing field of work) has resulted in teachers and students alike growing tired and more disillusioned to the concepts of school, education, and learning - especially considering the following:
  • In 2015, an estimated $950 billion of Federal, state, and local money was spent on education in the United States (according to That number is expected to exceed $1 trillion by 2017.
  • On average, US students are required to take 112 standardized assessments throughout their K-12 years, ranging from nearly 5 hours of testing per year for Kindergarteners to over 25 hours for our nation's 8th graders (see article about Council of Great City Schools study here).
  • Despite large sums of money being appropriated to schools - and an emphasis on assessments to measure growth and school/teacher effectiveness - longitudinal test scores have remained largely flat (see Politifact Virginia article here).
In other words...water is wet.

At the same time, educators have seen major moves towards gamification in the classroom, project or passion-based learning, STEM and STEAM Maker education, computer coding and many, many other non-traditional approaches to teaching and learning.

The desire to engage students in educational material, creativity, and collaboration (among other learning facets) seems, in some circles anyway, to overshadow the mandates of state and federal monitoring of student achievement.

The cry?

"While students are having fun making rockets and visiting zoos and playing Minecraft," critics claim, "they are not learning anything. And the test scores prove it. Our time, and the students' time, is better spent on covering meaningful content and prepping them for measurable assessments. We have the Common Core and we need to focus on student achievement and progress towards meeting those standards. Etc. Etc."

Stop me if you've heard that argument before.

For a dissenting (in a good way) voice I give you Sylvia Martinez and her stance on CCSS and the "Deeper" Learning:
"I get asked a lot about how making and tinkering can be integrated into classes in light of the Common Core. I think there are good answers to this, but it involves seeing the Common Core as something more than it is being portrayed in the media and in schools. 
"Simply, there are three parts to the Common Core – the overarching goals, the standards, and the assessments. I’m not going to go into great detail about each of these, but here is what I see happening in a lot of schools in each of these areas. 
"Assessment – Tremendous effort is being put into getting students ready to take the assessments and preparing the technology infrastructure to administer the tests. 
"Standards – New standards are driving changes to curriculum, but mostly in a rearrangement or rebranding of existing curriculum and classes. 
"Overarching goals – Very little is being done to address the goals of changing how and what we teach students by making it more relevant, more experiential, and requiring deeper dives instead of “covering” too many topics. 
"This is the problem I’m seeing – that assessment is the tail wagging the dog and taking the focus (not to mention money and time) away from changing classrooms for the better. So when we talk about how “making” can align with Common Core, it requires schools and districts to refocus on those overarching goals, and away from how many computers you need to run the tests.  Unfortunately this is a conversation that is not taking place in many educational organizations."
In short, Martinez is claiming that school systems are so entrenched in testing their kids that they forget to educate them. But again, stop me if you've heard this one.

If we are to teach/students to learn the necessary standards to the necessary depths, I contend that more must be done than simply offering up a common assessment every now and then or administering a bevy of benchmark exams at semester's end.

What follows is a short but poignant snippet of a recent Twitter chat, from our friends in Montana and #MTedchat

The question was this:
To help further Martinez's stance on teaching beyond the exact wording of the standards, this was my response:
 Here are a few responses Tweeted out during the discussion:

In order to reach that ceiling, there is much construction we must do on the open floor space below.
While few educators disagree with the notion of Project-Based Learning, STEM, Maker Ed and the like, their implementation has been much more difficult to bring to pass - mainly because of the over-emphasis on rote testing at local, state and Federal levels. The message has been, "If your pet projects do not address the standards, you will have to give them up."

As a result, many teachers have burned bridges on building bridges, and fill their time instead on bubble sheets and #2 pencils.

However, here is some good news. As it turns out, there is a fairly logical way to bridge the gap between accountability towards Common Core (plus other standards) and "non-traditional" educational ventures.

The connection is best illustrated by using an example of a stalwart activity that has been popular amongst teachers and summer camp counselors across the world - The Tennis Ball Tower Challenge.

Often used as a teambuilder or icebreaker, the Tower Challenge may give surface appeal as a fun yet shallow activity. However, with some careful implementation, it can indeed unfold into a full blown, Common Core, #DeeperLearning, Maker Education crowd pleaser.
Follow the link to the right for access
to a Maker/CCSS example project.

Take a look at this link for a spreadsheet that shows the correlation between steps of the Engineering Design Process (used for the tower building protocol) and Common Core ELA Standards. (Similar outcomes are possible, of course, with Math and Science Standards as well.)

The ultimate outcome of any lesson, activity, or project that teachers have students complete must be related to student achievement and academic and/or personal growth. Maker Education teaches and hones success skills.

Beyond simply having fun with school projects, our students deserve so much more. Maker Education - connected purposefully to Common Core Standards - is just what the doctor ordered.

Happy making, everyone!

Follow me on Twitter for more EdTech, MakerEd, and EdReform dialogue.

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