Changing Instruction for the Common Core Curriculum

Scripted Introduction to Behaviors that Improve Instruction

An instructional model that assures deeper understanding of subject matter, facilitates higher-order thinking, helps to close the poverty-related gaps between students of different socio-economic levels, and prepares students to be college and career ready has been around for a long time, and it is now the essence of the Common Core State Standards.

The Big Switch: How Will We Ever Get Teachers to Comply with the Common Core State Standards? There is little question in my mind that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are right for the times in which we live and for the generation of students that is coming through our schools today. It would even seem that a consensus is developing along those lines since forty-six states have adopted them at the time of this writing. It is time to throw out the more-than-one-hundred-year-old “culturally normative” model of teaching (by transmitting information to students), and to begin to use what has, for over a hundred years now, been recognized as a most effective tool for learning — literacy-based instruction (Huey, 1908). The former — the culturally normative model of instruction — was certainly appropriate for a population that pretty much finished formal schooling by the third grade, and hoped to live a life of agricultural or factory work. The latter — content-literacy-based instruction — though it was described in the literature more a hundred years ago, has barely taken a foothold in our school systems, despite the constant flow of research that has demonstrated its effectiveness at helping students to deeply learn subject matter while, at the same time, learning how to learn. That is up until now. The CCSS is largely based on the content-literacy-based instructional model.

The problem is that the culturally normative model persists simply because it is what was done to us, and we all recognize it. It seems normal to be in a classroom wherein the teacher talks at students for a time, and then provides them with some form of written assignment that involves looking up answers for a textbook-published worksheet. The central problem with the normative model is that the principal focus is on lower-level thinking. The model is designed to provide knowledge and perhaps comprehension, even though we know (and have known since the 1950s) that the use of higher-order thinking leads to deeper understandings and greater retention of information and ideas (Bloom, 1956). Nevertheless, if you walk down the corridors of K-12 schools around the country (as I do quite frequently) you will see the culturally normative model to be thriving as though none of the research accumulated over the past century ever existed!

The culturally normative model is a system that has worked reasonably well for about 25 to 30 percent of students throughout its time, and, when it fails, there is always something or someone to blame other than the instructional model itself. An underlying premise of the recently developed CCSS is that we know what works, and it is not the normative model. If you want to close the gaps that exist between students of poverty and students from more advantaged homes, you would embrace the CCSS. The problem is in getting teachers to change. There is nothing easy about changing any long-enduring system of behavior, and the culturally normative model is especially difficult to challenge in the minds of teachers who have practiced it for years, and even for those young, new teachers who haven’t spent very much time actually practicing it in their own classrooms, but have experienced the system since they were kindergartners. So the failing pedagogy persists despite its shortcomings.

The essence of the CCSS is that literacy is at the core of preparing all students to be college-ready and/or career-ready by the time they are finished with high school. What the CCSS does is to take advantage of the fact that, applied correctly, content-literacy-based instruction — reading and writing for learning — has a long tradition among the small percentage of teachers who have used it in their subject area classes of solving many problems at once. Content-literacy-based instruction closes the gaps that result from pre-existing language deficits, it helps students to become accomplished readers and thinkers, it is highly engaging and motivating, and thus reduces discipline problems in the classroom, and it helps students to become autonomous and self-directed learners. It does all this while improving students’ understandings of the subject matter they are learning.

Scripted Lesson Activities? Some say that scripted lessons are no solution to teacher preparation, but I disagree. Generic but scripted activity procedures can facilitate the massive change needed to break out of the mold of the culturally normative model of teaching. (You will see later that a scripted instructional sequence is how I first acquired the abilities involved in facilitating student-centered learning.) Allen Mendler (2012) suggests, “changes in behavior often precede changes in beliefs, attitudes, habits, and expectations” (p. 13). If teachers are to make the somewhat radical change from practicing the normative model of teaching to becoming coaches, or facilitators of students’ active learning, then they can benefit from guidance in the form of written instructions. Getting past the deeply ingrained attitudes and habits of the normative model can help a teacher improve through practice. If a teacher is willing to learn — to try out new curricula — then why not facilitate the process with as much help as possible? Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi, in Practice Perfect (2012), point out the need for precisely accurate descriptions that are necessary for people who are making significant changes in their behaviors. Rule 19 of their 42 rules for improving practice suggests,

“(n)ovices can and should apply a model by directly imitating it… most people feel they are supposed to put their own spin on it… they try to think through whether the model matches their style or their personality, and they get stuck there, not ever applying. Some learners misapply the model in an attempt to give it their own spin, and then, mistakenly assume it was the technique that didn’t work for them rather than their implementation of the technique… (l)earners need to hear that direct replication of the model is a completely legitimate way to approach a technique.…(E)ven the seemingly soft skills of presentation and human interaction that are in play in so many professions can be learned more readily if you treat them as technical skills. You might assume that it squashes practitioners’ freedom and creativity to tell them that what you expect is for them to copy the model you present. In fact it can free them to do simply as they see, to think less and act more, to feel the success of a simple moment, and it can insure a proficient performance — the predecessor to creativity.”

Certainly a too tightly scripted curriculum designed to foresee everything that might occur in the course of a classroom lesson would be destined to fail since most effective instruction involves constantly seeking evidence of progress and/or understanding (or the lack thereof) and reacting to the resulting evidence with instructional changes to enhance the learning. In other words, no class goes exactly as planned, and any teacher needs to be able to make ongoing changes as the lesson proceeds. On the other hand, the culturally normative model is so imbedded in the classroom and so resistant to change, that, if a flexible set of steps — a generic, yet widely applicable series of steps to be applied in a multitude of content areas, at a variety of age levels — could help teachers who are willing to learn to get beyond the apparent stigmatism that limits them to traditional approaches, then perhaps it is worth a try.

I have been doing workshops in content-literacy-based instruction for over twenty years now. In the workshops, I have always modeled the procedural steps of a content-literacy-based instructional activity, such as the use of an anticipation guide (an activity that, despite its name, is much more than a pre-learning activity if carried out properly). In so doing, I take teachers through a process that essentially places them in the role of students. In other words, the workshop is just like a content-literacy-based classroom, with my acting as the instructor, and the participating teachers as the students. I have always used adult, pedagogy-related readings to model the “two-for-the-price-of-one” nature of content-literacy-based instruction. The participating teachers acquire new ideas from the text that they read, from me, and from each other as fellow learners, just as the process occurs in a real classroom. At the same time, the teachers practice literacy skills. Often, in the past, when the workshops ended, teachers would be very enthusiastic about wanting to try out the processes they had learned. However, once they returned to their own classrooms, they would leave out essential elements that I had employed when modeling in the workshop. At times, that led to the content-literacy-based activity not working as well as it had in the workshop, and, upon experiencing less than what they expected, the teachers would revert to their default mode — the culturally normative model. So it is critical that teachers understand the rationale behind the pedagogy as well as how to perform the pedagogy, but they can also benefit from the carefully designed processes that show step-by-step procedures in order to be able to get it right from the start. The need for both explanation and guidance explains the format of the workshops and the two parts of the book. We learn by reading, and we learn by doing. And it never hurts to have a recipe.

My Own Experience with Scripted Lessons My own teaching career, launched in 1974, has been the inspiration for my book,MAX Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills (2004, second edition in press). You could say that I first learned how to teach in a student-centered reading and writing classroom, using a book of carefully thought-out lesson plans not unlike those in Part II of this book. But that would not be entirely true.  I did not learn how to teach; rather, I learned how to facilitate active learning by students. That’s an altogether different thing. But I didn’t learn that immediately.

My discovery of student-centered instructional techniques did not take place until my third year of teaching. I tried other classroom activities before that time, focusing on the normative model that had been practiced on me for most of my education. For example, when I first got out of the college of education, I wanted to imitate the best of my college professors who had been able hold my attention for hours as they lectured about their research interests and other topics. My first classroom experience involved teaching the history of the United States. It was a great time to be teaching that subject. The Alex Haley miniseries “Roots” was on television, and there were dramatic turns occurring in U.S. politics. I was enthusiastic, and my enthusiasm carried over to my students. But it was not enough to keep students interested for long. They lacked the discipline of a college student accustomed to lectures. In addition, I had all the problems that any young teacher might have with classroom management and discipline. Results were mixed at best.

By my third year, I was ready to try something new. At that time, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston had developed an “inquiry curriculum” in the social studies. Each lesson was designed by curriculum specialists at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute to use constructivist principles, leading students to discover for themselves new understandings.  Such discoveries would take place through the use of primary source materials to write about, discuss, and set purposes for reading, reading in the classroom, and then writing about and cooperatively discussing student ideas to assist in creating meaning regarding history. Each lesson was written in a step-by-step format that any teacher could follow. If the teacher did so, students were led through a sequence of getting ready to read through thinking, writing and discussion, silent reading from various forms of text, and more discussion and writing that allowed them to systematically construct meaning from written and other sources.

What was great about this method is that it allowed students to become historians—to work as historians do. They would form opinions and make predictions about what other historians would conclude—even before they would read the history textbook. The result was that once they got into the textbook, they had sufficient knowledge and purposes for reading that allowed them to become active in processing text that otherwise might have been much less interesting. A typical lesson from the Holt curriculum might read as follows (I abbreviate it for terseness.):

  1. Pass out to each student the list of laws written in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. Ask students to read the laws silently to themselves, thinking about how the laws reflected the society that existed there.
  2. Tell students to write on their own paper what they thought Jamestown Colony might be like.
  3. Share students’ predictions on the chalkboard, making a list of predictions for the whole class.
  4. Ask students to scan the list of predictions they have made to see if they could be organized into a few categories.
  5. Lead the class through a discussion, narrowing the list to three or so categories.
  6. Tell students that now that they have collectively made predictions of what the Jamestown Colony was like at the time, they have become historians. Then introduce them to the next step, looking at the textbook to see what other historians have said about the same topic.

And so it went. Students were engaged, the teacher was empowered to let students learn, and students routinely used literacy skills to perform higher order thinking about topics important to understanding who we are as Americans. What I learned from the pre-planned lessons created by Holt Reinhart Winston and the Carnegie-Mellon Institute was that students actually learn better when they are coached through a process in which they are active in trying to make sense of something. It is the opposite of the lecture wherein students struggle to perceive what the teacher has on his or her mind. It is also the opposite of what occurs when students are provided worksheets designed to help them learn the details of subject matter. What really occurs with most worksheets is that students simply decode the “correct” answer to fill in the spaces on the worksheets. Rarely do they get to mull over important ideas relating to what they are learning.  I had now seen firsthand what works and what doesn’t work if learning (in the best sense of the word) is to take place.

But then I changed jobs. I moved away from that teaching position to another state, which presented the challenge of a different curriculum. I no longer had the pre-planned lessons I had found so effective in leading my students through the discovery process. My new job was to teach U. S. and Virginia Government. Although I had a reasonably good textbook, the instructor’s manual did not provide for the same level of student engagement. Again, the teacher was “on stage” for most of the class. Students learned, but they learned what was on the teacher’s mind rather than being led through a thought-provoking discovery of how our governmental systems work. If the teacher had a limited understanding of the topic of the day, then the students were doomed to the same.

Fifteen years into my teaching career, I was first exposed to the idea of using reading and writing to help students become engaged in their own learning. I had the opportunity to attend a summer staff development experience that taught me several classroom activities (many of which are included in this book) to use within a three-step lesson framework that helps students become actively engaged in learning virtually any subject matter. The three steps of the lesson framework that I learned that summer were “anticipation, realization, and contemplation” (Vaughan & Estes, 1986). Through the facilitation of a knowledgeable teacher, classroom students could become engaged in virtually any subject matter in such a way as to be ready for confronting new ideas in text, be equipped with strategies for gathering new information while reading, and be able to construct their own understandings so that they could think critically about the ideas afterward. No longer did I need a “canned curriculum” such as that from which I first learned that student-centered learning works best. Now, in any subject area, I could help students use text to become engaged in learning subject matter that probably wouldn’t have interested them otherwise. I was immediately struck by the potential of these new classroom activities. And I saw what happened as soon as I put them into action. When I employed reading and writing in such a way that students became engaged in their own processing of new information, they became motivated to learn. On a daily basis, they all learned much more than I could have told them through lecture and note taking. Why? Because each student was involved in first processing the new information in his/her own unique way, followed by discussion with others, and then coming to an understanding based on collective analysis and interpretation. What had occurred in my third year of teaching — student-centered active engagement in learning from print and from each other — was now happening in my government class, even though I was designing and facilitating the lessons myself rather than following a prefabricated published guide! It is more fun to teach in this way, and it is more fun to learn this way. I quickly made that discovery. I found that students in my classes were actively engaged and therefore not causing problems related to discipline. But an even more significant result was occurring: while my students were better learning my subject matter, they were also becoming better readers and thinkers, attaining knowledge and skills that would enhance their lives forever. They were learning to learn — and they were learning how to learn effectively. Two for the price of one!

It Has Worked for Me, and for Many Others I am an example of someone who changed dramatically from the culturally normative model of teaching to a content-literacy-based instructional model. I probably would not have made the transition without the help of scripted lessons, yet it was those lessons that provided the basis for my development. I had broken past the obsolete mold to become receptive to the changes needed to have a student-centered classroom because of that scripting. Once I had achieved the pedagogical experiences thus provided, all it took was understanding of the content-literacy-based instructional model to become a designer of my own student-centered lessons based on getting students reading and writing every day in the classroom. If it is true that changes in behavior often precede changes in beliefs, attitudes, and habits, and if direct replication of a model is a completely legitimate way to approach a new technique, then perhaps we should recognize that scripting may help many teachers make the big move that is coming. I know from the thousands of teachers with whom I have worked over the past many years since publication of the first edition of my book, that they have found the detailed learning activity descriptions in part II to be extremely helpful in their own progression into the world of student-centered learning and away from the culturally normative model. Because the activity descriptions in part II of the book are generic enough to be applied with most any text, and because the activities can be mixed and matched to create a wide variety of lesson plans, the results are a far cry from the very scripted lesson plans that launched my career in student-centered learning, and maybe that is why teachers and students learn to love the results.

Mark A Forget, May 16

Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: Longman.

Forget, M. (2004). MAX teaching with reading & writing: Classroom activities for helping students learn new subject matter while acquiring literacy skills. Victoria, BC: Trafford.

Huey, E. (1908). The psychology and pedagogy of reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lemov, D., Woolway, E., and Yezzi, K. (2012). Practice perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass.

Mendler, A. (2012). When teaching gets tough: Smart ways to reclaim your game. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

2 thoughts on “Changing Instruction for the Common Core Curriculum

  1. Very well said and absolutely true. I too made the same switch as a teacher thanks to Dr. Forget and MAX Teaching content-literacy strategies. This mode for successful change in pedagogy works and needs to be used to implement the CCSS.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s