| Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn
EL Study Guide
Schools today are about so much more than reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Although most educators agree that these basics are important, many would add respect and responsibility to the list. Others would want to ensure that social studies, science, foreign languages, and the arts are not forgotten. Even educators who want to focus on the three Rs disagree on how much students need to learn in these areas. The authors in the March 2011 issue of Educational Leadership wrestle with all of these questions, and they come to a variety of conclusions.
Getting at the Core Issue
The adoption of the Common Core State Standards by most U.S. states has made the question of what students need to learn especially timely. As states move to align their curriculums and assessments to the standards, they will need to consider how to ensure that their curriculums serve students well.
- In "What Students Really Need to Learn" (pp. 10–14) Lynne Munson says that "the standards will mean little if implemented ineffectively." If you are in a state that has adopted the Common Core Standards, how is your school or district preparing for the change? What challenges do you expect to face, and what can you do to ensure that the transition goes smoothly?
- In looking at nations whose students perform well on international assessments, Munson notes that the one consistent quality they share is a commitment to "a comprehensive education across the liberal arts and sciences," a quality that Munson fears is on the decline in the United States, which she says seems to be moving closer to a "skill-based, content-free approach to education." Do you agree with Munson's assessment? How do you ensure that students gain the content knowledge and the skills they need?
The Real Purpose of Education
In "The Humanities: Why Such a Hard Sell?", David J. Ferrero notes that schools in democratic societies have historically recognized three aims of schooling: personal, economic, and civic. Although current education policy focuses on economic aims, Ferrero believes that there is room within the Common Core State Standards for the personal and civic aims.
- What do you believe the purpose of schooling should be? How can teachers juggle the various dimensions in which we would like students to grow?
- Ferrero suggests that a strong education in the humanities—history, literature, art, and ideas—is especially important for helping students find personal fulfillment and become good citizens. What do you see as the value of the humanities?
- In "A Diploma Worth Having" (pp. 28–33), Grant Wiggins expresses a different, but perhaps complementary, view on the purpose of school, stating that the fundamental question schools, particularly high schools, need to ask is whether they are preparing all students for their adult lives. How would a focus on this question change schooling as we know it?
The First R
You're unlikely to find anyone who would disagree with the notion that teaching students to read is a vital function of education. But opinions abound on how best to teach students to read or help them become better readers. Three articles in the March EL tackle this question: "What At-Risk Readers Need" by Richard L. Allington (pp. 40–45), "Worthy Texts: Who Decides?" (pp. 46–50), and "Let Strategies Serve Literature" (pp. 52–56).
- In "What At-Risk Readers Need", Allington takes schools to task for not doing enough to help students who are at risk of becoming struggling readers. How does your school help at-risk readers? Which approaches seem most and least helpful? What do you think of Allington's suggestion of an RTI-based approach? How might such a program work in your school?
- Barry Gilmore believes that teachers need to give students more choice in their reading. In "Worthy Texts: Who Decides?" he laments the fact that required reading lists have remained largely unchanged for generations. What have your experiences been with providing students choice in reading material? How do you balance the desire for students to be engaged in their reading and the desire for them to be well-versed in the literary canon?
- In her article, "Let Strategies Serve Literature," Diana Senechal focuses less on which works teachers choose and more on how teachers approach those works. She criticizes the practice of focusing on content-neutral strategies that teachers might apply to any work of literature. She encourages teachers to make literature, not strategies, the center of their instruction. Do you agree with her assessment of strategies-based instruction? How might teachers avoid some of the pitfalls that Senechal identifies?
- At the close of her article, Senechal raises several questions related to reading instruction:
What if a certain work isn't right for all students? What if it doesn't speak to their experience or background? What if students are at widely different reading levels? Why should there be an established curriculum at all?
How would you address these questions?
The First Thing Students Need to Know
Instead of debating which content and skills are most important, Connie M. Moss, Susan M. Brookhart, and Beverly A. Long stress the importance of making sure students know the goal of each day's lesson—what the authors call a "shared learning target." In "Knowing Your Learning Target" (pp. 66–69), they state that "no matter what we decide students need to learn, not much will happen until students understand what they are supposed to learn during a lesson and set their sights on learning it."
- Do your students know the learning goal of the lessons you're teaching? How do you communicate these goals to students?
- If you aren't deliberately sharing learning targets with your students, try it for a week and see what effect it has on motivation. For guidance on crafting learning targets, see the examples the authors provide in this online figure.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD