Common Core and the bee’s knees

Travelling to London, UK, has its ups and downs. On my last visit I got to a Pre-Raphaelite paintings exhibition—an up. Yet as I headed along the Thames to the gallery I also walked down memory lane—returning to times when as a teacher I had driven students up to the City. Great school, wonderful kids, hard working and full of bubbling interaction and humour.

But it was the early 1990s, and terrorists were firing mortars at 10 Downing Street and Heathrow airport; and planting massive bombs at the London Stock Exchange, and smaller ones in garbage bins and at the Royal Festival Hall, Hammersmith Underground, Harrods, and Whitehall, the centre of government.

Each time I took a bus full of students to a theatre, a debate competition or sporting event, I felt queasy. I accepted the responsibility, prayed hard, mapped out my way and paid very close attention to anything that seemed out of the ordinary.

My fear: we would be caught in some train station blast and that these amazing teenagers who had been entrusted to me by school and parents alike would not make it home. Sounds silly? It might have been, but my own high school had had bomb threats, and the IRA had murdered a former head boy of my boarding house.

Thankfully none of the students I was responsible for were injured on my watch. And looking back on a wider field of memories from the same period I remember many more of the ups than downs with London.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the students, apart from their accents, was their directness. The boys would tell you what they thought of your teaching, just falling short of giving you an ongoing commentary. Not rude, not disrespectful, just giving you appropriate feedback. I discovered later it was a mark of trust.

I thought I was a pretty good teacher. Nat, with his wonderful way of saying things, had said so. But he and several others told me Mr J.— was the ‘dog’s bollocks’—the bee’s knees, the be-all and end-all of teaching I assumed.

What was it about Mr J.—? Well, over a couple of years I got to know him. I chatted with him at lunches and visited him occasionally at home. Invariably, a bunch of students were locked in conversation with him.

His subject was physics, but his general knowledge of philosophy, history, literature and art was impressive. I believe he could have taught any of these subjects with success. I learnt from his students he would invariably teach physics in a historical context. When looking at late 19th century advances in science he would touch on the writings of Frederick Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad and the music of Richard Wagner (strange, but the boys loved it). Simply put, Mr J.— was engaging. He treasured learning and his passion for it was contagious. Somehow he made physics the most popular subject in school. But it wasn’t just his vivid interest in physics that made him so successful as a teacher; it was his joy in people and in the exploration of new knowledge. He taught through friendly dialogue.

Yes, he knew physics. Yes, he was patient, employing a wide range of strategies to explain concepts. Yes, he managed classes sublimely (which in itself established expectations for classes he would take on the following year—his reputation preceded him). But in and around these and a range of other skills, such as spaced and massed practice (testing with different time intervals designed to optimise memorisation), I saw the critical features of his teaching lay in a genuine knowledge of, and real interest in, his students. Of the 110 or so teachers on staff, he knew better than anyone what it meant to listen to someone. He listened well.

You saw this in his marking. He set an enormous amount of homework, and come hell or high water would return it to students the day after it had been handed in. It was brilliantly marked, and invariably he would spend time with each student reviewing his comments, attempting to make sure they understood their errors and how to amend them. Students knew he liked them; he showed it in the way he listened to them and worked for them. And that mattered to them. With his marking he was of course constantly gauging his own effectiveness as a teacher, too.

One other trait set Mr J.— apart. He knew exactly what he was doing in physics. He knew where he needed to be and when he needed to be there. He also knew how to get there. It was as if he had a map. He knew a plethora of physics curricula inside out. In terms of Standards (as opposed to Outcome-Based Education), he was a consummate professional. Not only did he know what concepts, skills, values and facts students needed to have after studying physics, but also he knew what they would need each step of the way. He had the equivalent of a physics atlas,—not just a description of a destination. And he was a change agent, translating students from one educational space to another.

I have indicated in previous blogs I have reservations about outcome-based education, standards and Core Curriculum/Common Core/National Curriculum (different names for much the same thing): I’m not sure if it is right, wise or desirable for a government or Department of Education to be prescriptive on a national level for a country’s students. Something important could be left out; and at times something offensive or deleterious to parents, principals and students put in. But this said, Mr J.— reminds me of the value of so-called ‘Standards’ or a Common Core approach.

Where does their value lie?

Firstly, standards clearly outline the concepts, skills, facts, abilities and values, etc. students should have when they finish school. (The same for outcome-based curricula—and in my books a plus.)

Secondly, standards delineate the concepts, skills, facts, abilities and values, etc. our kids should possess with each year or level of their education. The best sets of standards ‘staircase’ learning and pay careful attention to coherence. (Outcome-based curricula do not do this.)

Thirdly, historically, standards tend to be developed for solidly established subject areas such as history, maths, science and English. Partly as a consequence of this, they seem to favour a style of teaching that involves more direct instruction than an outcome-based curriculum. Reports suggest this is especially the case in, for instance, the Republic of Korea and Shanghai, China; nations that perform exceptionally in international tests, and miles better than Australia and the US.

Fourthly, while standards employ formative assessment, they still use summative assessment as a prerequisite for gauging whether a student has gained a particular competency.

In a nutshell, formative assessment regularly ‘assesses’ how much progress a student has made. The power of formative assessment is while it gives an accurate reading of our kids’ performance, it also clearly illustrates gaps in their learning. These gaps either highlight their failure to grasp good teaching, or just as likely, the failure of their teacher to teach well (formative evaluation). Moreover, formative assessment allows for further teaching into those gaps and repeated assessment until a specific leaning outcome has been mastered.

Summative assessment is more of an assessment of learning rather than for learning. It appraises student learning at the close of an instructional unit by comparing it against a benchmark (standard). Assessments are often ‘high stakes’, meaning they count for a lot; they might be a mid-term test or an end of year examination or a project worth 50-100% of our kid’s overall grade.

I value both forms of assessment and believe we should be careful before accepting the popular push against summative assessment (and high stakes examinations). I think it has its place.

Several questions, however, remain with regards to standards. Foremost of these is whether they are flexible enough.

While Mr J.— in many ways did everything educators associate with standards, students in his classes also got something that was far richer educationally.

An earlier practice in many jurisdictions was to allow different states (within a nation), cities and universities to design and offer their own curricula.

Some schools would choose a raft of such curricula from different entities and target them to specific students or classes. In one school I saw an English department used both the London Examinations and Cambridge Board (different curricula and examinations); the science department used the Nuffield Group; and the history department the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board.

I liked the nuances of such arrangements. Flexibility with curricula. It meant teachers asked the question “Which curriculum will serve this child best?” It meant a lot of work for them, too, but they didn’t shirk from it. The underlying assumption was those nearest knew best.

In practice, Mr J.— worked to a specific set of curricula standards and set of examinations, but he picked the eyes out of others. Could he have done so—if England had permitted it—he would no doubt have selected other curricula and examinations, as he felt necessary. And our kids would have thanked him for it.

Take away points: Not every teacher is a great teacher. Not every teacher can spot a useful and/or enriching curriculum. Many of us wouldn’t know what to look for in such a curriculum or the criteria to use for making such judgements. Common Core and standards based curricula present us with a solution; they present teachers with the “What?” of teaching. But they still leave them to figure out the “How?” The difficulties come about when supporting materials (textbooks, syllabuses, local/district curricula) are non-existent or don’t interface cleanly with national educational standards, leaving teachers and parents at a loss. Common Core is probably here to stay; it is well conceived and well intentioned but carries the risks inherent in a single educational narrative.

Research: John Hattie on teachers:

Timperley, H ., Wilson, A.,Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education:

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77 (1), 81-112:

Examples of National Curriculum and Core Curriculum (Common Core). Which site has a better user interface?
The UK:
New Zealand (standards):

I am not sure about ‘an uplifting story’, but John Everett Millais—yes:



  1. Throughout my academic days I had some amazing teachers, some awful ones and everything in between. The most inspiring were those who were passionate about their subjects and the students. Often the dedicated teachers/lecturers would go above and beyond the call of duty/curriculum to ensure their students had as rounded education as possible. Not every student was receptive to these teacher, but that were the ones who missed out on the opportunities to get more out of the learning process. The best teachers didn’t make me feel like I was having to learn anything, they made the process so entertaining and engaging that it was a pleasure to be taught by them. I have a lot to thank my better teachers for, regardless of quantifiable success they kept things interesting and fascinating. Teachers like that are worth their weight in gold as far as I’m concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I try to repay my debt to the world by trying to pass on any knowledge or experience to others. I’m careful not to pretend I know anything I don’t but have transferable skills and experience which genuine people are welcome to…as long as I can find the time :0)


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