by Andrew Foster
“A mile wide and an inch deep.” Ever heard this phrase referring to your state content standards? For many states, the first big shift in classroom instruction must be FOCUS. The current state standards are too numerous, too general, and often repetitive from grade to grade. Teachers and students are often engaged in a course of study that might accurately be called, “Survey of Grade Level Math Concepts”. We often use the phrasing, “I have too much to cover”, or “I haven’t covered everything yet”, because our study of each concept is brief, minimalist, and foundational. We are forced to “cover” instead of teaching and learning. In the current 7th grade mathematics standards, California includes 41 performance indicators, New York curriculum consists of 64 content standards, and New Mexico has 86! In the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics in 7th grade, there are 24 numbered standards and four areas of critical focus.
In discussion of the classroom shift called FOCUS, the word time comes up again and again. Focus means that teachers will devote greater amounts of time to teach the most important content to greater depth and with emphasis on the kind of complete understanding that will allow students to transfer their knowledge to other topics. Time will be carved out for richer tasks that require higher levels of student engagement. Occasionally, the classroom may follow a line of thinking and exploration that leads to other content knowledge. Because there are fewer standards and even fewer areas of critical focus, the teacher will gain confidence to adapt the instruction, student practice opportunities, and use of mathematical tools and resources toward the specific needs and potential of the students, even if it takes longer. We want our students to be logical thinkers, researchers, and communicators of mathematics. All of that takes time.
So we want to end up more like “An inch wide, a mile deep.” We will have to change both WHAT we teach and HOW we teach it to achieve proper levels of focus. I have already heard some of the comments:
“The Common Core doesn’t cover the Pythagorean Theorem until 8th grade, but I’m still going to teach it in 7th grade, because I have this project that my kids LOVE!”
One question: Why? That’s how easy it can be to lose focus. By including extra content you are shortchanging other critical concepts that could greatly enhance later Math success. Use the power of the eraser and the CCSS to change your view of what must be taught, then teach that content with laser focus and meaningful depth. Give your grade level content the focus and attention it deserves, and – more importantly – give your students the rich educational experiences they deserve.
This 15-part video series includes great pieces on the 6 shifts.