Wednesday / April 24

Grow Character: Part 6 of the Non-Freaked Out Approach to Literacy Instruction

Grow Character

Grow Character

The Common Core does a pretty good job of laying out some key cognitive skills students need to be ready for career or college.

But here’s the bold claim I’ll spend this post supporting: if you aim at the Common Core goals alone, emphasizing the four elements we’ve explored so far, you or a large amount of your students will begin to hate your/their life.

I know that’s extreme, but hear me out.

College and career readiness is hard to attain

Let’s not lie: even a boiled down, non-freaked out approach to the Common Core assaults students with challenge–that’s one of the major reasons I like the Common Core. For too long, the demands of post-secondary life have increased while the demands of K-12 schooling have decreased. Mediocrity has become the norm or, in many cases, the ideal, with kids being given cookies or prizes for doing things like… um, learning.

The result? More of our students end up living frustrated, non-flourishing lives.

And there’s not an easy solution here: our society tends to devalue hard work, and yet attaining the goals that the Common Core lays out is pretty darn hard. I’m not going to sit here and pretend my freshmen students will naturally love close reading a piece from The New York Times or comparing the role of masculinity in Things Fall Apart and contemporary society. These are intense cognitive tasks.

And when most of my students come to me, their idea of fun usually isn’t an intense cognitive task. I’m guessing yours may not be much different.

Yet this isn’t about blame, either. We all own a piece of the responsibility pie–us as teachers (the whole “do your work and get a prize” thing), sure, but even moreso us as parents (over-protecting our children, for example), or even us as a culture that spends exponentially more time and ink talking about the latest celebrity photo leak than, like, what to do about ISIS.

But I submit that blaming folks is pretty pointless at this point–so, again, that’s not what this is about.

It’s about reality. And the reality is that, if the goals laid out in the Common Core are to be met while retaining joy in our classrooms, we had better figure out how to teach our students not just how to deal with a difficult complex text cognitively, but also how to develop the chops for dealing with difficulty and complexity, period.

In this post, I’m simply advocating that pursue this end through focusing on what folks are calling “noncognitive skills.”

What in the Johnny Johnson is a noncognitive skill?

Noncognitive skills are those things that have nothing to do with IQ but are, in fact, pretty darn good at predicting whether or not you’ll be successful. By calling them skills, we’re saying that, just like dribbling a soccer ball or writing your name, they can be intentionally taught and intentionally practiced and intentionally mastered. They are the topic of Paul Tough’s breakthrough book How Children Succeed.

In the book, Tough shares the work of schools and social workers and students and researchers and economists and psychologists, presenting a body of studies and stories that strongly suggest the USA’s obsession with standardized tests is founded on the faulty presupposition that success hinges predominantly on intelligence.

In other words, Tough contends that we’ve put our whole bet on intelligence, and that we’d better spread that bet out.

Wait… aren’t these, like, not actually in the Common Core?

Yeah, they’re not.

Whenever I go to speak to a school about the non-freaked out approach, my audience is usually confused at first that one of the five emphases I advocate isn’t found anywhere in the Common Core.

Go ahead and check: search through the Common Core for terms like “grit,” “self-control,” “growth mindset,” “zest,” or “study skills.” You won’t find anything.

Yet despite the fact that nothing in this post will be measured on the Smarter Balanced or PARCC or ACT or SAT, teachers consistently write in their post-training feedback to me that they wish we had spent more time on this shift.

So there is that.

Essentially, these skills are about being awesome at life

There’s a blog I love called Barking Up the Wrong Tree: How to Be Awesome at Life, by Eric Barker. I love that subtitle: how to be awesome at life. Essentially, this is what teaching students about noncognitive abilities is about–it’s about teaching them what it takes to flourish.

You see, I can complain all day long about the shortcomings of our society or our schooling, saying that grades suck (I think they do) or that it’s an unfair system (in many ways it is). But the thing is, when I allow my own personal gripes with the world to shape how I teach my students today, I see that as a social justice issue. My town and state don’t pay taxes to send their kids to school to hear my thoughts on how the world should be and to live in my little utopic classroom — they send their kids to me so that I might prepare them to flourish in the world as it is.

And thus, within the constraints of our current systems and our current educational paradigms, I think one of the best things we can emphasize, while we’re teaching kids to argue, read, write, and speak, is that there are a set of skills beyond IQ that are worth developing in ourselves, too.

In short, whether in science or history or physical education or business class, let’s teach kids what it takes to be great not just at our discipline, but also at life itself.

Any approach to the Common Core, or teaching itself, that doesn’t put serious thought into this is one most teachers will find lacking.
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Written by

Dave Stuart Jr. is a full-time English and history teacher who also advocates a non-freaked out approach to the Common Core, and his first book comes out in September. For more posts by Dave Stuart Jr., please visit Teaching the Core. He’s a fan of Twitter, so feel free to connect with him there.

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