March Provisions: Teaching [Toward] Common Core

The topic for this month’s Provisions session was “Teaching [Toward] Common Core.”  Our two presenters were Aviva Bower, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, and Joseph Eppink, Associate Professor of Music.

Dr. Bower began the session by focusing on who created the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and, consequently, the issues that have arisen as a direct result of this group of creators.  Dr. Bower pointed out that the list of those who created the CCSS includes for profit organizations and those who will benefit financially from the tests, textbooks, and the curricular materials and “coaching” associated with the CCSS.  She noted that those who would have had the most to contribute, such as educators and families, were left out of the equation.  Dr. Bower stated that good teachers who “consider students’ emotional needs, cognitive abilities, and social development will always find a way to transform an inappropriate curriculum, but when the curriculum is tied to high-stakes testing, teachers take that scripted curriculum and subject children to what [she is] calling “the literacy of obedience.”

One of the main issues with the CCSS that Dr. Bower delved into is that they are developmentally inappropriate, where students are lacking transactional reading and writing experiences and are not being asked to draw on their own experiences and knowledge.  Dr. Bower asserted that doing what a script tells you is never going to teach children, and the way in which instruction and assessment is being boiled down to “tell me what the text says within the four walls of the page,” and “show me two details,” is sucking writing and reading dry of curiosity and passion.  Dr. Bower focused specifically on CCSS and the elementary grades, and provided examples as to how teachers are being pressured to teach using developmentally inappropriate abstractions (in an effort to reach the standards), which then leaves young students with nothing concrete to hold on to.  Essentially, Dr. Bower argues that both children and teachers suffer when testing begins to dictate pedagogical and curricular decisions.

Dr. Bower believes that one way in which teachers can help turn it around is by making what they are given developmentally appropriate and enjoyable.  You can take a look at Dr. Bower’s PowerPoint presentation here: The Common Core.

Dr. Eppink began his presentation by explaining the daunting task of trying to “do it all.”  He stressed how music education used to be more hands on, but how now, music educators are being handed new material to be covered and new goals to be reached, such as producing reading, writing, and speaking grounded in text, which has never been part of their job before.

For Dr. Eppink, the struggle lies in figuring out a way to get all of the new material covered and hit all of the new required tasks without cutting any of their existing material and activities.  To show how such a thing is possible, Dr. Eppink demonstrated the ways in which music educators could incorporate things like vocabulary into a hands on game for an elementary music class using Gene Baer’s Thump, Thump, Rat-a-Tat-Tat.  The book was used in an activity involving movement and music-makers to give the “kids” (his participants) a concrete example of the vocabulary words “crescendo” and “decrescendo.”  The group separated into two, standing apart while facing each other, and while reading the book, “students” were asked to keep a steady beat using a shaker-instrument while walking towards the other group.  Dr. Eppink asked the students to estimate the half-way point (using the book as their guide), and the activity allowed them to be able to physically hear when the sound of their instruments were approaching their loudest, at their loudest, and growing fainter, a.k.a. a hands on experience with these two aforementioned vocabulary terms.

Ultimately, Dr. Eppink feels that when we work within the chaos, we may not have all the answers, but what we can do is begin to incorporate small parts of the new standards into our existing pedagogical practices.


Critical thinking: Who’s asking the questions?

During the last few months I have been reading a considerable amount of literature on critical thinking. Although I’ve reviewed theoretical perspectives and research on the topic to gain a deeper and broader understanding, I have focused my attention mostly on pedagogical strategies that teachers can initiate in their classrooms to promote the critical thinking skills of their students. In the article Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? Willingham (2007) argues that due to lack of scientific rigor, there is not strong support for many of the critical thinking programs that have been developed to help students to be better critical thinkers. However, from my review of the literature I believe that there is good research based on sound theoretical principles of learning that support effective pedagogical strategies that focus on various ways to use questions to promote deeper critical thinking skills among students. These questioning strategies have been shown to help students become more thoughtful, reflective, motivated, and self-regulated learners. It is this last point that I want to particularly emphasize in this article, i.e., how to get students to be motivated and self-regulated learners by constructing their own questions rather than responding to teacher-generated questions. But first, a little background on the use of questioning to promote the critical thinking skills and learning of student.

Perhaps the most well known questioning strategy is the Socratic Method. I remember reading many years ago Plato’s Meno (380 B.C.E) describing how Socrates used questions to “draw out” knowledge and understanding of the world (specifically the concept of “virtue”) from his students (see More recently, and for many years, Richard Paul of The Critical Thinking Community has been encouraging teachers to use the Socratic Method during class discussions (for example, see However, the major focus of the Socratic Method is that it is the teacher who primarily constructs and asks multiple questions to students to guide their learning during a class to help them become critical thinkers.

While Paul was writing about critical thinking and the Socratic Method, J. T. Dillon (1982, 1984, 1991) at the University of California was doing extensive research and writing on the use of questions by teachers in relationship to effective and ineffective classroom discussions. Dillon’s research (and other research cited by Dillon) suggests that in many cases the use of questions by teachers to promote effective discussion is in fact questionable and often ineffective. Dillon (1984) states: “A single, well-formatted question is sufficient for an hour’s discussion. The rule of thumb during discussion is not to ask questions but to use various alternative techniques … alternatives will foster discussion processes, whereas questions will foil discussion by turning it into a recitation (see Dillon, 1978, 1981, 1984)” (p. 55). Some of the “alternative techniques” that Dillon suggests include the instructor just responding to students with statements instead of more questions and just being silent (often referred to as “wait time” – see:

The idea of not having teachers ask questions to promote critical thinking skills of students, but instead having teachers instruct students how to create, modify, and investigate their own questions, is discussed in detail by Rothstein and Santana (2012) in their book Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. They discuss a questioning strategy they refer to as the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The focus of this strategy is to help students develop their divergent, convergent and metacognitive thinking abilities.

As the name suggests, the method is very structured in its approach in teaching students how to formulate, modify, improve, and use questions to deepen their learning. There are seven basic steps of QFT where both the teacher and students work collaboratively in the process. The teacher is involved in facilitating the process by setting a “focus” for the questions, discussing with students a set of “rules” for the process of creating questions, monitoring students so that they follow the rules, and providing direction for using the questions to learn specific course content. However, it is ONLY the students who actually create questions about the content “focus,” with the teacher specifically avoiding ever posing any questions. Once a topic “focus” is provided by the teacher (usually a short phrase, such as “racial inequality” in a sociology class, or “being a self-reflective learner” in an educational psychology class), students generate as many questions as they can about the topic without editing, discussing, or responding to the questions. During this divergent thinking phase, students only generate questions and record them. In the next phase students categorize and label the questions as either closed-ended or open-ended questions, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each and change closed-ended questions to open-ended questions and open-ended questions to closed-ended ones. This helps students to develop a metacognitive awareness of types and advantages of different types of questions. The next phase has students prioritize their questions and choose the three that they believe are the most important as related to the initial “focus” and state why they think these are the most important questions to ask. Through this process, students engage in convergent thinking to be able to effectively address the “focus” of the topic in terms of learning course content. Finally, the teacher asks students to reflect on the process of generating their questions, what they found of value through the process, and how it might be used and transferred in future studies, further helping students to be metacognitive about their thinking process.

In this manner, students not only become more metacognitive and self-regulated in their learning, they learn academic content more deeply, and have higher levels of engagement and motivation to learn. The major point is that these changes come about not because teachers are asking questions that students have little investment, but because students are the ones asking their questions that they generated through a thoughtful and critical analysis – they have become critical thinkers engaged in critical thinking.

As discussed briefly in a previous blog (posted on February 7, 2014), another model of helping students learn to generate and ask their own questions to obtain a deeper understanding of a subject is one developed by King (1990, 2002) known as Reciprocal Questioning. King’s model teaches students to use a set of question stems that they can use to generate questions from lectures and then use their questions to reciprocally ask one another to develop a deeper and broader understanding of the content of the lecture (or to use during out-of-class study). Some of the question stems that King suggests for students to use are:

“What is the main idea of . . . ?”

“How does . . . affect . . . ?”

“What is the meaning of . . . ?”

“Why is . . . important?”

“What is a new example of …?”

“What do you think would happen if . . . ?

“What conclusions can I draw about . . . ?”

“What is the difference between . . . and . . . ?”

“How are . . . and . . . similar?”

“How would I use . . . to . . . ?”

“What are the strengths and weaknesses of . . . ?”

“What is the best . . . and why?”

These question stems help students develop a set of higher-order questions that allow them to investigate the content of the lesson in greater depth. By reciprocally asking and answering their questions with a small group of their classmates they also obtain a broader understanding of the content through discussion of different perspectives that each individual brings to the discussion.

I have used a modified version of this strategy with my classes where I provide and review the use of the question stems during the first class session and then have students develop a set of 3 or 4 questions that they generate from the class readings for use at the next class meeting (Allen, 2010, 2012). They then bring these sets of questions to class and in small groups (usually 4 students) reciprocally ask and answer each other’s questions before I lecture on the class readings. As students discuss the readings via their self-generated questions, I monitor each group and provide clarification when asked by the students. I have found students to be much more engaged in the discussion of the readings and much more motivated to digest the readings before they come to class. Once students have worked together for a few weeks they start to rely less on the question stems and develop higher-ordered questions on their own, often ones that relate to how they might apply and transfer the knowledge they are learning to situations in their professional and personal lives. In short, they learn to become more critical thinkers about what they read, personalize their learning, as well as become more self-regulated learners as they learn course content.

Reciprocal Questioning and the Question Formulation Technique are but two ways to help students take more control of their learning and develop critical thinking skills. They help us remember that critical thinking is a cognitively engaging “process” that is best facilitated when one generates their own understanding such as learning to know how to ask their own questions.


Allen, J. (2010). The sharing of Individual and Cultural Perspectives through Reciprocal Questioning. Paper presented at the XIV World Congress of Comparative Educational Societies, Istanbul, Turkey.

Allen, J. (2012). Improving students’ learning and motivation through reciprocal questioning. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Vancouver, Canada.

Dillon, J. T. (1978). Using questions to depress student thought. School Review, 87, 50-63.

Dillon, J. T. (1982). The multidisciplinary study of questioning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(2), 147-165.

Dillon, J. T. (1984). Research on questioning and discussion. Educational Leadership, 42, 50-56.

Dillon, J. T. (1991). Questioning the use of questions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 163-164.

King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Educational Research Journal, 27(4), 664-687.

King, A. (2002). Structuring peer interaction to promote high-level cognitive processing. Theory into Practice, 41(1), 33-39.

Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2012). Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press  (see

Willingham. D. T. (2007). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? American Educator, Summer, 8-19.

Provisions: Teaching [toward] Common Core – Next Tuesday!

Don’t forget to come and check out our next Provisions session on Tuesday, March 25th, on Teaching [toward] Common Core.  Our three presenters will be Aviva Bower, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, Joseph Eppink, Associate Professor of Music, and Deborah Kelsh, Professor of Teacher Education.  In preparation for the session, here is a short summary of two articles, suggested by Dr. Kelsh, that highlight the current conversation of dissatisfaction with the Common Core.

In “The Problems with the Common Core,” Stan Karp claims that many supporters of the Common Core don’t sufficiently take into account how larger forces define the context in which the standards are being introduced and implemented, as well as the new teacher evaluations, higher stakes testing, and mass school closings, which seem to have come as a “package deal” with the Common Core standards.

Karp points out that too many standards projects have been efforts to move decisions about teaching and learning away from educators and schools, have often codified sanitized versions of history, politics, and culture that reinforce official myths while leaving out the voices and concerns of our students and communities, and have repeatedly been undermined by bad process, suspect political agendas, and commercial interests.

Karp claims that by very publicly measuring test results, “NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to “fix” schools while blaming those who work in them,” where these scores put the spotlight on gaps among student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.  Karp claims that though a decade of NCLB tests showed that millions of students were not meeting existing standards, the sponsors of the Common Core decided that the solution was tougher ones.  Of the 135 people on the review panels for the Common Core, Karp notes that not a single one of them was a K–3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional, parents were entirely missing, and K–12 educators were mostly brought in after the fact to tweak and endorse the standards.

Karp approaches the legitimacy of the standards on a number of levels, i.e. questioning whether or not the Common Core is an educational plan or a marketing campaign, and ultimately argues that there is no credible defense to be made of the high-stakes uses planned for these new tests: “Instead, the Common Core project threatens to reproduce the narrative of public school failure that just led to a decade of bad policy in the name of reform.”  He believes that as schools struggle with these new mandates, we should defend our students, our schools, and ourselves by pushing back against implementation timelines, resisting the stakes and priority attached to the tests, and exposing the truth about the commercial and political interests shaping this false cure-all for the problems our schools face.

In “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core,” Daniel E. Ferguson states that proponents of the Common Core have likened the struggle to implement it to the Civil Rights Movement, yet we must consider how these standards and the related testing are threatening students’ rights to education, not upholding them.  Ferguson argues that the Common Core’s strict interpretation of “close reading of a text” dismisses the notion that students’ own thoughts and experiences, and how they connect to a text, are integral to reading. Rather, student voices are silenced in their own classrooms, and literacy is reduced to the ability to navigate standardized tests.

In terms of the Common Core, close reading involves what can only be found within the “4 corners” of the text.  Ferguson argues, however, that there should instead be a focus on critical reading, which involves a close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text.  He fights the idea that reading instruction has overemphasized personal connections to texts at the expense of understanding the author’s meaning, which is assuming the two are diametrically opposed.  He argues that reading devoid of one’s own thoughts and realities—or the broader social context—is impossible, and that understanding what you read and your own world are inextricably linked.  He claims that “a curriculum that de-emphasizes students’ worlds is one that obstructs their making sense of the word,” and is thus an act of oppression.

Ferguson argues that forcing discussion of a text to remain “text dependent” may make it easier to test, but that it also forces out its entire social and historical context.  In contrast, critical literacy argues that students’ sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text, because “to do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy.” In other words, he argues that literacy is a civil and human right, and that promoting a Common Core system of close reading “promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms.”