Common sense over Common Core

Béla Bartók, the celebrated twentieth century Hungarian composer, wrote playful and interesting piano music for children in addition to his larger works for advanced musicians. Some of these pieces were based on Eastern European folk melodies, and some were wholly original. There were several that I absolutely loved as a child, and I love teaching them to my piano students.

Mikrokosmos is a collection of études that progress from very simple to highly complex, which Bartók wrote to systematically address certain musical and technical challenges. While I love the concept, most of these (especially the ones for beginners) leave me cold musically. It strikes me as an attempt to reverse-engineer the process of becoming a musician - an idealized repertoire for an idealized student who will think like a professional musician from the first downbeat.

As I review the Georgia Performance Standards and the Common Core standards, I find myself thinking of Mikrokosmos. The standards are similarly comprehensive, cerebral, and virtually impenetrable unless you possess specialized skills. There is no recognizable equivalent to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" - the common-sense learning you remember from childhood.

These standards are difficult to implement as written. They call for a level of metacognition that requires students to become mathematicians, research scientists, literary critics, and historians before they have had a chance to be students of math, science, literature, and history. That is, students don't just learn the facts and skills. Students learn about the facts and skills. 

I have spent the past several months reading book after book about education, and I must conclude that this approach, however well-intentioned, is wrongheaded.

"But who can tell me WHY two plus two equals four? Anyone?"I did read plenty of books and articles advocating this type of framework, and I was not convinced. The reason is very simple. You see, over the same period I also read a whole bunch of nonfiction books that simply gave me some information on an interesting topic (including the excellent Mapheads by Ken Jennings, the giddily enjoyable A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, and the landmark Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond).

I learned a ton about what it means to be a writer, scientist, and historian from my reading, but not because those ideas were explicitly taught. No, I absorbed the meta-knowledge intuitively while I was focused on soaking up a bunch of good, old-fashioned facts, concepts, and stories.

Bryson never interrupted his narrative to make sure that I was "understanding...both the Characteristics of Science and its Content" on the grounds that "the Georgia Performance Standards for Science require that instruction be organized so that these are treated together." I swear to you that I did not need a lab period in order to ensure that I absorbed the content (which Bryson presents much more entertainingly than the average textbook or, for that matter, teacher). 

Dr. Robert Craigen, a math professor at the University of Manitoba, made an insightful comment on an article at The Atlantic on the ridiculousness of some of this high-concept stuff: "[W]hen a child first learns to count, how is it done, by developing their abstract number concept and THEN instructing them in the algorithm (point to the objects in a collection and recite the incantation: 1, 2, 3...) Does the abstract concept necessarily precede the algorithmic skill? CAN it even do so? Or does the skill, and repetition of this skill...lead them to understanding?"

I spent most of September relearning my high school math, using Khan Academy. It was fascinating to be able to tackle a problem set "cold" and intuit a solution based on the logic of how numbers behave. Good grades and excellent teachers notwithstanding, this is something I could not do the first time around.

Where did this newfound insight come from? Years of experience in professional (non-mathematical) problem solving. At thirty-five, I know that getting up and walking around the block will give me the solution (too bad that's not an option on the SATs, right?). My mind, having tolerated years of math practice back in the nineties, now knows how to manipulate and play with those numbers in a whole new way.

Can I teach my sixth grade students how to do this? Sort of, but only as a guide who's a bit farther down the path, sharing some tidbits of how the process feels. Having them write essays explaining how they went about adding a couple of fractions together will not do it.

When I'm teaching well, I feel human in the best sense of the word. Seeking connection, slightly vulnerable, sharing my delight in the world and its richness. I try to model for my students the way in which I, myself, make sense of information and build skill. Why would I complicate that?

I appreciate the need for standards, and for specificity. But I think things can be much simpler and more common sense in every subject area.

With music, it took the better part of a decade to cut through the static I encountered in college to realize that it's all about a song, beautifully played. Or as Ellington put it: "If it sounds good, it is good."

We all can discriminate between music and noise. In other subject areas it might be harder to hear the difference, but it's there.

Mikrokosmos is a helpful tool because it's one of many. Over time I may come to better appreciate Bartók's intellectual approach, but in the meantime I prefer to start my beginners on folk songs. 

On the other hand, my worry about overwritten, committee-driven standards like the GPS and the CCSS is that they are becoming the only game in town. I see a need for alternatives, and I will be doing my best to make a contribution in the years to come.