How should standards, curriculum, instruction and assessment be connected? In many top-performing countries, this is a settled issue. But that is not true in the United States, where this question is now hotly debated. I asked Jim Pellegrino, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for his views on what it will take to develop state instructional systems that will provide students with the skills and knowledge they will need in today’s global economy.
Marc Tucker: You recently led a large research project for the National Academy of Sciences tasked with defining what many are calling 21st Century learning skills. What, in your view, is really important about the skills that students will need?
Jim Pellegrino: We don’t know what the intellectual demands of future jobs will be. We can’t say what knowledge and skills students will have to have beyond those they may need for routine tasks. What we do know is that they will have to be adaptable and have the ability to learn quickly and continuously. We will continue to need experts and expertise, but we will also need something different—you could call it adaptive expertise, non-routine expertise or the ability to generate new solutions to novel situations, situations in which what you already know may not be directly applicable.
MT: Does this mean that there is no point anymore in giving students disciplinary knowledge, that the only thing that matters now is skills that lie outside the disciplines?
JP: It does not mean that at all. It is certainly true that all students will need skills like problem-solving, collaboration and critical thinking—skills that will help you figure out what you need to know and do in environments where the demands of work are constantly changing. But they will also need a lot of knowledge that comes only from the disciplines. The challenge arises where these “21st century skills” and the standard disciplines intersect. Highly specific skills do not transfer very well. If you have learned how to be a good problem solver in physics, you are not necessarily a good problem solver in politics. The analytical tools that provide deep insight in one discipline may be of limited value in another. The ability to synthesize material in one arena may not translate very well to another. I’ll give you an example. I read an article recently that discussed the way the people who believe in intelligent design in evolution argue their case. They were not trained in science, but in law. If you are on trial for murder and I am your lawyer, I don’t have to prove someone else did it. All I have to do is create sufficient doubt in the mind of the jury that you did it. Intelligent design is couched in the legal argument of reasonable doubt and, in addition argues that Darwinian evolution is only a theory. Hence, the doubt. Scientists acknowledge that not all the evidence is in—it never will be—but all the evidence they have is consistent with the theory and there is no scientifically better alternative. The rules of reasoning in the law and in science are different. But it turns out that people who are deeply grounded in the conceptual structures underpinning several different disciplines, have analytical tools from several different disciplines available and are good at synthesizing what they have learned from a variety of quite different arenas are much more likely to be able to transfer their knowledge and skills easily, to learn easily and to be creative than those who don’t have these resources. People who have been taught how mechanical systems work in engineering will have knowledge that is essential for engineers, whether they are going to build bridges or water systems. People who understand how biological systems work will be better off whether they are going to be doctors or biochemists. But people who understand both kinds of systems will have a deeper understanding of the general principles of systems that may enable them to grasp the essentials of very different kinds of systems more quickly.
MT: I would argue that the kinds of skills you are describing were very much what the future leaders of the British Empire were being taught in the classrooms and on the playing fields of Harrow and Eton. They, too, were being prepared to address problems and challenges that none of their teachers could foresee.
JP: I think that is true. The difference is that we must now teach to all what was formerly taught only to a small elite. If you are training someone to be a retail clerk, and you believe that that person will never need to know much more math than a retail clerk knows, then you can teach fractions using standard algorithms for doing common fraction problems. But, if you think that the person you are teaching might need to know more advanced mathematics later, then you should teach fractions in a different way. You should teach them by giving them a deep grounding in the principles of ratio and proportion, because ratio and proportion hold the keys to more advanced mathematics. For a very long time, the simpler route was fine for most students, but that is no longer the case. Many, many jobs involving the kind of routine thinking that retail clerks do are being automated out of existence or exported to other countries.
MT: In the United States, there is strong resistance to the idea that the federal government or even the states should specify what the curriculum should be, or, for that matter, what instructional techniques should be used. Those who have been leading the charge for national standards have taken the view that, while the United States might have national (state developed) standards and assessments tied to those standards that are developed by consortia of the states, teachers, school and local school districts will be free to develop their own curriculum and use their own preferred styles of instruction. But what I thought I heard you saying is that how one teaches fractions actually defines what the curriculum is and it is the curriculum that really defines what the standards mean. The standards might say that the student will learn to do fractions, but there is a world of difference between simply teaching the algorithms needed by students to do standard fraction problems and teaching ratio and proportion at a fairly deep level. Isn’t that why the top-performing countries have based their assessments on an explicit curriculum and provided strong guidance on instruction?
JP: When the initial standards development work was done for mathematics and science in the United States in the late 80s and early 90s, the groups doing the work did not want to be seen as prescribing a curriculum. The National Science Foundation funded independent development groups to use the national standards to create new curricula in the 1990s. But each group interpreted the standards in different ways, which was not surprising, because the standards were written in language that allowed interpretation as to what they meant. The standards said that kids are supposed to understand and know linear relations for algebra. But that could mean they have a deep understanding of functions or it could mean solving linear equations by executing procedures. We have learned from research on student learning in math —and this is also true for English and science—that what kids struggle with is developing forms of understanding that will facilitate progress as they move from lower to higher levels in a discipline. In math, you can teach arithmetic by simply teaching the most efficient arithmetical algorithms or you can teach it in a way that greatly facilitates the learning of algebra – so you understand the idea of equivalence and the use of expressions, not just what you need to do to execute procedures. You can, in fact, teach arithmetic in such a way that students can easily see later that algebra is a system representing relationships among quantities and focuses on variables instead of constants. Research shows what kids understand and what they don’t understand depends very much on how we teach the material.
MT: So what the standards actually mean in practice depends on how they are interpreted in the curriculum that is taught and also depends on the nature of the instruction they get. This idea that the standards can be fixed but teachers can have wide latitude in the way they construct the curriculum and the way they choose to do instruction is, I take it, a bit misleading.
JP: I’m afraid so. Our teachers have often taught arithmetic by building their curriculum around the algorithms first developed by the 17th century counting houses to do commerce. That was fine for many years because algebra was for a very long time needed only by a few. But now, if they use their traditional curriculum and instructional methods to implement the new standards, the new standards will not really be mastered at all.
MT: Many people seem to think that curriculum is one thing and instruction is another, that curriculum is what is in the text and the instruction is what the teacher does—what is in the text can be taught in a wide variety of ways, all of them effective. But this discussion suggests that the relationship between curriculum and instruction might be tighter than that, if instruction is going to be consistent with the standards.
JP: It is true that what is in the curriculum implies certain modes of instruction. Curriculum is often not instruction neutral, or at least ought not to be.
MT: Earlier in this conversation, we established that one does not really understand what the standards mean unless you have a conception of the curriculum that can implement them. Then we established that the instructional methods used need to be tied to the curriculum. So talk, if you will, about how standards, curriculum and instruction are connected to assessment.
JP: To properly implement a good set of standards, you have to have a conception of the curriculum, the ways instruction is going to unfold, how kids will engage with materials and activities, and how the assessments are based on the curriculum. That is because the assessments used, the tasks that kids are asked to perform in an examination, in a good system, become the operational definition of what kids need to know and be able to do. There is a sense, obviously, in which the assessments are derived from the standards. But it is just as true that the tests, on which both student and teacher are focused, define what the standards really mean in practice. If the system is to make any sense at all, the tasks that students are asked to do in their courses—the curriculum—should bear a very close relationship to the tasks they are asked to do in their summative assessments.
MT: It sounds as though standards are incomplete unless they are tied closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment, as is generally the case in the top-performing countries. But we began the conversation by noting the great resistance in the United States to state or national government prescribing curriculum or instructional methods. So what do you think is likely to happen here? Will we get the results people are hoping for if we don’t tie standards closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment?
JT: Well, one can think about the conception of instruction systems that prevails in other countries as a bit like an orchestra playing Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Here is the score. There is plenty of room for interpretation, but you will still be playing the same notes as all the other orchestras. Focusing on standards and assessment alone is a little bit more like jazz—a whole lot more room for interpretation and variation with respect to what it really means to know and understand, for example, math or science. Look, for example, at the math wars. Even after the standards were set, the respective sides were still fighting between, if you will, Saxon math and so-called “rainforest” (NSF) math. I hope we can get beyond that, that we can achieve a balance between procedural and conceptual understanding. Both are needed. I hope we can focus on building curriculum that will facilitate the development of deeper understanding and the capacity to apply what is learned in one domain to the problems we encounter in another. I hope we can help young people adapt to new situations and challenges, learning what they need to learn more quickly. I especially hope that we will find a way to help all kids develop the kind of advanced thinking and coping skills that we have always provided to the elites.