The Surprising, Little-Known Origins of Common Core

common core classroom imageIn general, there are two points of view regarding Common Core.

On the one hand, you have concerned parents and teachers who believe Common Core is a barefaced power grab by the federal government with catastrophic results that will only get worse.

Then there’s the other camp, which says Common Core is a watered-down, built to fail, piss-poor imitation of what education might look like if more professors and teachers could think clearly and knew how to impart this skill to their students.

Whichever group you side with, it’s worth knowing where the language arts half of Common Core came from. Especially if you’ve decided to take the education of your children into your own hands.

The Bleaching of the English Language

Somewhere in the early 1900s, colleges and universities decided to teach “composition skills” to every student.

The motivation behind this move was the increasing diversity among young scholars on college campuses. In the past, virtually all university students had been upper class white males, and they had a particular way of communicating with each other.

This worked fine when all of the students and professors were white males. But in the modern university, people were speaking and writing in all kinds of unconventional ways. Administrators decided there was a need to teach this diverse crowd a standard mode of communication.

In other words, everyone would have to take courses on how to write in the manner of white males.

Common Core's ugly grandparent

Cultural and political issues aside, it might seem useful to establish a standard mode of communication. But in practice, these new courses nearly killed communication, along with clear thinking.

Thanks to the new “composition courses,” professors stripped away most of the reading and writing from their academic courses. The faculty assumed their students would get enough of these in their composition class. In virtually every discipline, learning was reduced to dry lectures and watered-down textbooks.

Meanwhile, composition teachers bled away all depth and color from their classes. Since these were “generic” classes, they couldn’t favor any particular discipline or curriculum. The science student would never get to read Richard Dawkins. The history student would never meet Edward Gibbons.

In the past, if you were a geologist, you would write read and write about geology. It was normal to write about your expertise and your passion. The result was a wealth of literature in virtually every field. Even in math!

But in this brave new academic world, students were tortured with modern horrors such as sentence diagrams and the five-paragraph essay. Writing was reduced to a mechanical process. Analytical thinking, creativity, and innovation were abolished.

This dry, skills-focused approach to writing began to change in the 1970s.

Professors and psychologists suggested that writing could be a way for students to understand and integrate information. Colleges began programs known as “writing across the curriculum,” or WAC for short.
Now, every college course would be a writing course.

The Secret Hidden in Plain Sight

As you can probably guess, most professors either paid lip service to WAC or ignored it completely. But in a handful of cases, when the teachers were in earnest and had good students to work with, something extraordinary happened.

The teaching of writing led to rapid growth in student learning. Kids were becoming more creative in school, and more successful after they graduated. The biggest leaps happened in classes like math, chemistry, and physics, where you would expect the most resistance.

A journalist named William Zinsser took an interest in these results. He reached out to professors and asked about their teaching. They sent him writing samples and sometimes invited him to lectures and other events.

One day, Zinsser watched a math professor draw a triangle on the board. The professor then gave the students ten minutes to write about how they might try to find the measure of each angle, without knowing the length of each side of the triangle.

This forced the students to start thinking about Euclidean geometry, proofs, and the foundational logic that holds up the entire field of trigonometry. When the time was up, students shared their ideas for a few minutes.

After all that, they were much better prepared to understand the lecture. They were "primed" to think about geometry and proofs. They asked spirited, thoughtful questions. That’s when Zinsser had an “ahah” moment:

Writing almost immediately leads to clearer thinking.

Clear thinking is a lost skill that will lead to success in any field, under any circumstance. Virtually no school anywhere teaches it, but the most successful people in the world either do it naturally or have figured it out.

It’s not that hard to figure out. The secret has been hidden in plain sight for decades, if not centuries.

The Overarching Skill

Indeed.com recently listed 20 jobs that pay $100,000 or more. Of these 20 jobs, the top 6 were in health care, and virtually all the rest of them were in technology or medicine.

There’s a lot of money in technical specialization, but Indeed.com noted that some of these jobs hadn’t existed just a few years earlier. The implication is that some of them would be obsolete in a few years. Maybe it’s too late already.

You or someone you love could spend 5-7 years training for a job that they’ll only be able to do for 3 years until some new technology makes it irrelevant.

This is a brutal reality, but the flip side is an important question:

Is there an overarching skill, one that won’t change, no matter what new technological developments come up in the future?

The power of the pen

Clear thinking is that skill. And Zinsser’s work suggests that writing is the best pathway for most of us to learn how to think more clearly.

Throughout history, thousands of successful people in business, politics, science and the arts have used writing in some form to clarify their thoughts, train their minds, and communicate their ideas. This goes back to generals in ancient Rome, and continues with modern Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Leonardo da Vinci’s diaries are a world treasure. Albert Einstein refined his theory of relativity by writing a book that explained the theory to the average lay person. Success coach Brian Tracy touts the benefits of “thinking on paper.”  Tim Ferriss, a world traveler, polymath, and kick-boxing champion, keeps a daily journal.

One of the best ways to learn about anything is to write about it. One of the best ways to communicate anything is to try writing about it.

Writing forces you to look at all the information you have, organize it, and figure out how to present it in either the clearest or most persuasive way.

Good writing takes a lot of information, finds essential patterns, and explains these patterns in a way that the reader can understand.

Across the board, writing clearly helps you think clearly.

Best of all, clear writing and clear thinking are skills that can never be outsourced or replaced by a computer.

Beyond Common Core

Common Core might be one of those things that became a total mess because they almost got it right.

If you can, take a minute to set aside the question of whether the federal government should dictate how states run their education programs. What you’ll have left is an attempt (however misguided and ineffective) to teach writing and math skills.

The standardized, mechanical way that Common Core approaches writing has caused a world of pain. It’s the college composition class all over again.

But one of the premises is that good writing will lead to good thinking and better, faster learning. With the right teacher, this might turn out to be true.

An Easy Formula for Better Writing, Clearer Thinking, and Faster Learning

As part of the Ron Paul Curriculum, students write essays every week for every class. They post their work on blogs, where it can be seen (and critiqued) by the world.

This habit alone will give these students a huge advantage in their future.

I don’t think the Common Core can match this. Most public school teachers lack the time, the resources and the freedom to teach writing the way it should be taught.

But maybe you can do it. If you’re a home-schooling parent, a tutor, or anyone in charge of helping a child to learn, here’s a simple formula:

  1. Get the child to write, early and often, about anything he or she finds interesting and anything she’s trying to learn.
  2. Read your student’s writing. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Read it for clarity, and make a note of anything you don’t understand.
  3. Talk to the student about the parts that didn’t make sense. Ask for clarification, additional information, or anything else you need.
  4. Have the student rewrite, until they’ve produced something that makes complete sense to you.

If you go through this process often enough, the student will become a master at good, clear, detailed writing. And he or she will automatically think more clearly too. This is going to give him or her an edge, whatever the future holds.

This is probably what the more sincere backers of Common Core think they're going to achieve.

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