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December 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 4

The Right Climate for the Core

The climate in classrooms can make or break students' ability to meet Common Core demands.

The Common Core State Standards are silent about the kind of instruction a teacher should employ to prepare students to meet these standards. But they're quite clear that in each of the core subjects, students should be able to exhibit these learning competencies: demonstrate independence; build strong content knowledge; adapt their communication in relation to the audience and the task; comprehend as well as critique; value evidence; and understand other perspectives (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
This list of competencies suggests that those who drafted the standards envision students who are more sophisticated users, builders, and conveyers of knowledge than those our system has produced in the past. And they set these high expectations for all students.
But one key element in how to get there is rarely talked about. Although state education departments, districts, consultants, and curriculum developers are working hard to provide curriculums, lessons, and instructional guidance in line with the standards, we haven't seen anyone address the underlying changes in classroom climate that will be essential to success. Yet classroom climate will make the difference in whether students can learn to do such things as learn independently, build content knowledge, and understand others' perspectives.

The Primacy of Climate

The standards require far more from students than restating the thoughts and analyses of others, including teachers. Students must think for themselves and formulate their own ideas. To become independent thinkers who effectively communicate their ideas, students need to find and develop their own voices. They can only do so in an environment in which it's safe to put forth partially formed ideas as part of the process of shaping and sharing learning (Johnston, 2012).
We've been privileged to work with K–12 teachers who use instructional strategies that teach students to develop these competencies (Angelis, Polsinelli, Rougle, & Shogan, in press). We've seen that students develop these skills and attitudes in classrooms that are student centered, learning focused, and collaborative (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003).
So, before you log on to your state education department's website and download lesson plans to help students meet the standards in their grade area and subject, consider whether your environment is conducive to developing independent thinkers and learners. Ask yourself which of these things are true of your classroom:
  1. You, as teacher, are the center of all that takes place—the conveyor of knowledge, the evaluator of responses.
  2. Your students talk with one another (not just with you) about what they're learning and demonstrate both respect for one another's ideas and an understanding of polite discourse.
  3. Your instruction makes cognitive demands on all students, asking them to define problems and seek answers, including finding and analyzing a range of relevant information.
  4. All students—including the quieter ones, those learning English, and students in special education—fully participate in classroom discussions and activities.
If the honest answer is that a is more true than b, c, or d, it's important to make some fundamental changes.

Small Steps

Fortunately, teachers can begin making these fundamental changes with small steps that don't disrupt classroom routines but begin to open the classroom to student thinking and student voice. Here are a few examples from teachers we've observed.

Wonder Questions

Wonder questions are a great way to signal to students that their thinking matters. Wonder questions are nonthreatening; the only responsibility of the asker is to genuinely wonder about the topic at hand.
Teachers often underestimate students' thinking and the questions that occur to them, so we launch into our own prepared questions. But if we ask at any point in a lesson, What are you wondering? or What are you thinking now?, students will voice the things that struck them or that got them stuck. At first they may hesitate, but soon they'll jump at the chance to begin discussions with their questions rather than the teacher's.
Pat was surprised at the depth of thinking that surfaced when she had her middle school students ask wonder questions. After reading about cells, they came up with genuine questions that led them to delve deeper, such as, "Do any cells remain in your body for your whole life?" "How do we get a genetic code?" and "If we all started with one cell, why are we so different, even from our siblings?"
Derek, who teaches social studies at the middle school level, uses wonder questions to invite all students to participate in the work of the classroom and honor all voices. Shortly after his classes began studying the spread of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and '30s, he asked students to jot down on an exit ticket what they were wondering about.
The day after one such round of question gathering, one of Derek's students, who had a learning disability, was surprised to find his question—I wonder why fascism spread in Italy—on the board for all classes to quick write about before the day's instruction began. The young man couldn't believe his question was being tapped for all Derek's classes to consider. He had not only had the chance to voice his thoughts, but he could now also see those thoughts publically validated.
Activities that require small groups of students to summarize or synthesize a unit of study are more effective than typical end-of-unit reviews in strengthening collaboration and communication skills. These activities are especially good for giving young students practice thinking together and working in teams to produce a meaningful product.
To solidify her 3rd graders' grasp of key concepts in mathematics, Mary Ann set up a carousel activity with four stations: Addition, Commutative Property, Fewer, and Even. She directed students to "explain the term at the top of the chart using words, pictures, number sentences, or mathematical symbols." She set up four groups, gave each group a marker, and assigned each of them one station at which to start. In 3–4 minutes, each group had to come to agreement on one way to represent that concept.
After several minutes, Mary Ann told the groups to rotate and do the same thing at the next station—but to represent the concept in a different way than the group before had done. She shifted each group two more times, each time requiring a new form of representation. The chart at the Even station, for example, contained these notations:
8 × 4 = 32Even × even = evenWhen you start with one, one is odd. The pattern is odd, even, odd, even…
In devising various ways of representing a concept like evenness, students had to think for themselves and express their thinking in their own terms. Mary Ann concluded the lesson with a whole-group discussion. With their vocabulary charts in hand, students together reviewed each group's chart, discussing what each said about the math concept in question. When clarification was needed, they added it. For example, the class extended the definition of even by adding, "2, 4, 6, and 8 are all even numbers" (Murphy, 2010).

Reader's Marks

One way to help students take ownership of their reading and learning is to teach them to interrogate their texts by using reader's marks—symbols they jot in the margins to indicate confusion, appreciation, the desire to remember a sentence, and so on. By "text" we mean any material or experience from which we expect students to learn, including electronic texts, audio or visual files, or graphic representations.
It's best to introduce students to a small set of common marks, such as circling unfamiliar vocabulary, placing a question mark next to something unclear, or marking an interesting point with an asterisk. Give students sticky notes for materials that can't be written on and viewing or listening guides on which to jot marks as they watch or listen to material (Angelis et al., in press). Active reading will eventually become second nature.
Kerri taught her 7th graders to use reader's marks and communicated her expectation that they use them in in-class reading. Her students eventually adopted this strategy as their own, which became clear when a substitute gave Kerri's class a practice test for the state's standardized assessment. The substitute passed out test-prep booklets but gave students no prompting of what strategies to use in completing the practice test. When students handed in their booklets, the margins were filled with reader's marks.

Open Mind Diagrams

Simply displaying in the classroom a large, open outline of a human head (an open mind diagram) can reinforce to students that their thinking matters. In addition to using the diagram to remind students to try brainstorming ideas as they progress through learning activities, teacher might use this diagram to capture what people are thinking by writing inside the head words reflecting the thoughts of literary or historical figures and—most important—students. The openness of the field and the confined space encourage students to use words, symbols, or graphics to represent their ideas. Once they have written down their ideas, students practice explaining them to others.
Leslie, a special education teacher, uses this technique to capture students' thinking during discussions; she then posts these head diagrams full of written thoughts on her classroom walls. Doing so helps the discussion carry over to subsequent classes and helps students revisit their thinking.
One day, a student from another class came in to Leslie's room and asked what a particular open mind diagram was. Leslie's students started explaining what they'd written and the significance of their thinking about European exploration in the New World. Leslie was amazed at how much understanding her students retained and how well they could speak about the topic without any prompting.
Tony asked his middle schoolers to first individually fill an 8.5" × 11" paper with drawings, words, and symbols that related to a particular character from a novel. Students assigned the same character then worked together to compile a more complete assortment of traits—again using words, images, and symbols and putting these into an open mind diagram. This required each learner to articulate his or her thinking to peers and required the group to together discern the most salient information to provide in the group diagram. Each group presented its poster to the class, explaining and defending their choices of colors, drawings, details, and interpretations.

Learning Logs

All these strategies not only support the development of student voice, but also provide opportunities for student self-reflection. And developing the competencies that the Common Core standards expect will require students to become self-aware—to understand how they learn best and reflect on their own progress. Most students will need explicit instruction in this habit.
We saw one science teacher incorporate self-reflection into students' ongoing work by adapting the typical subject notebook into a student learning log. Carla wanted to encourage her middle schoolers to become more active learners. She asked each student in one class to keep a learning log throughout a unit on the systems of the body. Carla chose her most challenging class for this pilot; 75 percent of students were identified for special education services.
During the final minutes of each class, she asked students to record in their logs questions they had about the day's lesson. Carla used prompts like, "What are you wondering about after this lab/video/reading?" Students began to capture their observations about the day's material.
The biggest surprise for Carla was that her students enjoyed using their logs. They began to feel like true scientists, recording their thoughts as they made their way through difficult material, even using the logs to prepare for tests. In talking with students, she learned that they found the logs more valuable than the traditional, structured notebooks they'd been keeping. Their logs kept their questions and wonderings in the forefront, helping each student to focus on what she or he most needed to know.
When she looked back over the year, Carla realized how valuable the learning logs had been in fostering active learning. Not one student had refused to keep one. She decided she'd found a new way of helping students who struggled to learn science:
The students taught themselves that they can do science. … Every single one of my students is successful this year. … I was always pushing for deeper thinking, and the students were up for the challenge.

Climate Builds Capacity

If students are used to thinking about learning as sharing only what others think, it will take time to get them used to the hard work of analyzing material and voicing their own conclusions. However, with consistent expectations and practice—in classrooms where it's safe to ponder curricular content—all students can develop the capacities the Common Core's architects hoped for.

Angelis, J. I., Polsinelli, K., Rougle, E., & Shogan, J. (in press). Minds-on classrooms: Using student talk and writing to build content literacy, grades 4–8. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., Nystrand, P. M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-based approaches to developing understanding: Instruction and achievement in middle and high school English. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 685–730.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening minds: Using language to change lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Murphy, M. (2010). Envisionment building in math: A reflection on the year. The partnership community, 3(1), 3. Retrieved from

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors.

End Notes

1 This document also states that students should be able to use technology strategically.

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