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Common Core State Standards
Part 2: Beginning the Search for an Appropriate Education
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The first article in this series describes a dilemma that our curious brain currently confronts. See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-100.html
We’ve created wonderful technologies that have now taken us far beyond
our biological limitations. For example, U.S. pioneers moved at a
basically human scale during their five-month wagon trip to the west
coast—but a cross-country flight now takes only five hours. A complex
football play that lasts a few incomprehensible seconds when viewed in
real time becomes much clearer when viewed via several slowed-down
multiple-angle instant televised replays. Technology has thus allowed
us to experience and better understand our world in ways beyond our
Early 20th century schools were confident that what they taught would
probably survive and serve through a student’s life. Folks accepted
their stable curricular facts and cultural applications at face
value—and they served reasonably well. However, much of science and
technology will continue its exponential advancement beyond current
levels throughout the lifetimes of current K-12 students.
The time of slow technological change is long past. As the totality of
accumulated human knowledge continues its very rapid growth, 21st
century schools are faced by major curricular and instructional
challenges. Some of these challenges are directly based on science and
technology, and others on the complexity of the cultural applications
of science and technology.
Schools have historically sought to communicate cultural stability.
Their new challenge will be to function effectively in an unstable
cultural environment. Two basic proposed educational approaches follow.
From Product to Process
Product and process are central themes in education. This article expands these themes to the understanding of product
and understanding of process
. The understanding is needed both for transfer of learning and for building a foundation upon which to build more learning.
When science and technology remained reasonably stable, instruction and
assessment could focus on knowing the product (the correct answer)
rather than on understanding the cognitive processes that led to the
answer. Often there was little emphasis on understanding the process
that is the basis of the product.
The value of the product is often minimal in the total experience of an
activity. For example, the final score is typically a small part of a
game. Shortly after a game is over, the athletes start to think about
the next game. Artists tend to sell the creations that occupied so much
of their time and creative energy. They want to get to the next
challenge. A crossword puzzle that may have taken well over an hour to
complete is immediately forgotten. The unscripted preparations for a
wedding are more often recalled over the years than the scripted
wedding itself. It is the process, not the product!
The situation becomes more complex when a process can be better carried
out by various computerized technologies. Should students learn
processes that can be rapidly, accurately, and cheaply carried out by
computers? What about the creative process? We value the natural
creativity of humans. How do we help people learn to integrate computer
capabilities into their own creative thinking processes? Can a computer
be creative? What types of creativity can a computer do that a human
cannot do, and vice versa?
Current times suggest that politicians and schools should back off
their current obsession with product-oriented standards and assessment,
and instead jump joyfully into the uncharted waters of exploration.
It’s nothing new. At least some European educators must have advised
their students 500 years ago to get a ship and go west to discover
what’s over the horizon. Quoting Horace Greely:
“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is
bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West,
young man, go West and grow up with the country.” (Horace Greeley;
American author; 1811–1872).
We’re now in a similar period of great exploration—but now we are
exploring an immense outer space and a microscopic inner space.
Creative people and explorers don’t want to be told the answer. They
want to discover it. What facts should a person memorize versus what
facts should they learn to retrieve from reliable sources when they
have need for the information? What should one discover for oneself,
and how does this discovery process contribute to being able to
discover things yet undreamed of?
Where should we start in discussing such educational challenges?
Collaborative classroom management has been around for a while, and
it’s an excellent initial area for teacher/student exploration of the
processes involved in basic democratic values and skills. But why stop
there? Many of the scientists and entrepreneurs who sparked our current
creative explosion in science and technology were elementary students
during the 1970’s when such marvelous, imaginative, process-oriented
programs as The Elementary Science Study
and The Science Curriculum Improvement Study
were in their heyday (see References). These programs created a
wonderful open-ended process environment in which teachers and students
It accomplishes little to muse about how we subsequently got so
untracked from this kind of K-12 process exploration. What’s important
now is that 21st century educators should take the position that an educational product
that doesn’t emerge out of an exploratory process
isn’t worth assessing. It’s appalling how much energy many schools
currently spend on memorized preparations to meet politicized product
standards. It’s such a contradiction: a wealthy society that’s very
thankful for the creativity that sparked its wealth and scientific
discoveries is now seemingly uninterested in developing even more
creative folks. See Moursund (2010, 2011) for an extended discussion of
recent research studies on the development of creativity.
From Clear to Complex Cultural Applications
It’s one thing for a creative process to result in a new product. It’s
another thing to determine the cultural value and appropriate use of
the product. And it’s frequently difficult to achieve consensus on such
issues. Nanotechnology, computer technology advances, cognitive
neuroscience, and genetic engineering are but four examples of recent
important developments that carry troublesome cultural baggage.
The U.S. is a country that espouses freedom of religion. How should our
educational system handle controversies/conflicts between science and
religion? This question is asked in many countries throughout the
world. Quoting the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creation_and_evolution_in_public_education
Globally, evolution is taught in science courses with limited
controversy, with the exception of a few areas of the United States and
several Islamic fundamentalist countries. In the United States, the
Supreme Court has ruled the teaching of creationism as science in
public schools to be unconstitutional, irrespective of how it may be
purveyed in theological or religious instruction. In the United States,
intelligent design has been represented as an alternative explanation
to evolution in recent decades, but its "demonstrably religious,
cultural, and legal missions" have been ruled unconstitutional by a
Of course, the controversies extend far beyond theories of evolution. The Values Clarification Movement
and Man: A Course of Study
(see References) are two of several programs from several decades ago
that sought to help elementary students responsibly explore difficult
moral/ethical decisions. These and similar programs were vehemently
criticized by folks who felt that schools should not help students
explore the dynamics of solving complex cultural issues, but should
rather teach students what to believe (generally the various belief
systems of the critics).
This intense criticism stifled these and related programs designed to
explore the complex issues that still confront us. These issues require
both an understanding of science, technology, and culture—and the
skills to responsibly reach consensus on developments and issues our
society has never faced. This ability doesn’t magically emerge at age
18 in new voters. It has to be nurtured from the start.
The 21st century educators must thus respond also to this challenge,
and discover ways to incorporate democratic decision-making skills into
the entire K-12 curriculum. No simple solution exists to create
human-scale solutions to scientific/technological developments that
range way beyond our human scale, but educators might begin by
examining innovative programs from several decades ago (such as those
discussed above and cited below) that sought to do what must be done
now. Perhaps such programs arrived on the scene too early, but they or
something like them are sorely needed today.
David Moursund will write the third and fourth articles in the series.
These will focus on computer technology as a change agent and an issue
in Common Core State Standards. David Ghoogasin will write the fifth
and sixth articles in this series. He will describe and discuss the
CCSS in terms of the issues raised in the first four articles. Renate
and Geoffrey Caine will then describe a respected program that seems to
meet the goals that the CCSS are currently seeking.
Elementary Science Study. See http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4966&page=124.
Man: A Course of Study. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man:_A_Course_of_Study.
Moursund, D. (2010). An Intact Human Brain Is Naturally Curious and Creative. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/an-intact-human-brain-is-naturally-curious-and-
Moursund, D. (2011). Declining Level of Student Creativity. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/declining-level-of-student-creativity.html.
Science Curriculum Improvement Study. See http://american-education.org/1974-science-curriculum-improvement-study-
Values Clarification Movement. See http://www.eric.ed.gov:80/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter.
His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture
(2010, Corwin Press), The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy
(2007, Corwin Press), and Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education
(2012, co-authored with David Moursund, IAE Press). He wrote a monthly
column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire
2000-2009 run. See Columnists. Robert Sylwester: http://brainconnection.positscience.com/library/?main=talkhome
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