Touchpaper Problem #4: Complexity and the Common Core (Pt. 1)

In case you think this is going to be one of those rants (or if you’re looking for that sort of thing) let me start off by saying that I haven’t yet chosen a side in the Common Core Wars. When I left Tennessee last August to begin my UK Fulbright project, my county was just beginning to implement the new standards and I jokingly told my colleagues that I was going to let them fuss and fight over the standards, but to get the mess cleaned up before I got back – didn’t foresee what a joke that was going to turn out to be. So, I’ve been here in England for the past few months touring schools, writing, and thinking about the big picture, but in less than two months I have to go back to work and teach the standards that I have heard so much about, but haven’t really looked at very closely.

While I’ve been in England, I’ve also been part of a blog/twitter community that shares ideas about big questions in education. Some of us met at the Institute of Education in London last month at the Touchpaper Problem Party. I was part of the group that discussed Touchpaper Problem #4 – how to determine the complexity of a concept. You can see some of our early discussion in the post and comments on this blog by Laura McInerney, the writer and organizer of the Touchpaper Problems.  Even before we met, we saw that we might run the danger of talking ourselves into circles over this problem, so we tried  to set ground rules. We agreed that defining our terms would be one of the toughest jobs and that sometimes we would just have to just agree on a definition so that we could move our thinking forward.  Here is one comment that shows how hard it was to even get started on the problem.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.37.22 PM

Then, our team leader, Micheal Slavinsky wrote a blog that defined some terms and established some “given” conditions, which you can read here, but I’ll copy the basic definitions, to foreshadow my upcoming conflict. (I’ve read that this builds tension and makes the reader want to continue reading.)

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.41.35 PM

Then, it was time for our team to meet. There were eight of us at the party table that day, sharing ideas and some tasty chocolate biscuits. Alex Weatherall brought a promising 3-D model of how to map out complexity, and his idea, borrowed from the computing world, about measuring the dependencies of an idea, that served as our basis while we hammered out details. As an example, Alex mapped the complexity of the concept of a force in Newton’s Laws of Motion. After the party, he posted his map and some thoughts on his blog here.

Meanwhile, I went back to Leeds and decided to try our ideas on my own, analyzing Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards.  I thought I could kill two birds, as they say, by taking a close look at one of the new objectives and trying out the model for complexity at the same time. I teach several different classes in my work, but two that I teach pretty often are 11th and 12th grade English. When I started looking through the objectives for the courses, though, I found myself pushed right back to our starting point – defining terms as basic as “concept.”

Lots of the standards address skills, rather than anything I would include in my definition of a concept. Here’s one:

Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

Now, there was a very similar objective to this one in the old Tennessee English standards and, frankly, I’m surprised that this one made the cut for standards that are advertised as “fewer, clearer, higher.” Since I couldn’t seem to find a root concept in this standard to teach, I kept looking.

Next I looked at this one:

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
a. Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
b. Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.
c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
d. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation.

Well, there is certainly a lot to deal with here. Remember that Michael had talked about the difference between complexity (many steps) and difficulty of the concept. Several of the standards are multi-step processes like this one. I was reminded that, when we met, I had talked about the ‘task analysis’, an effective tool often used by special educators to break down complex (multi-step) tasks into discrete, definable chunks and then analyze each step to teach it systematically. We can also look closely at an an individual step to determine the factors that might give a student the most difficulty.

So, I decided to look only at part “a.” and determined that the first bit, “Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study” describes student behaviors rather than concepts, but the second part, “explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from text and other research on the topic or issue” contains a concept that is often difficult for the students I serve. The concept of “evidence” as it is used in this sentence might be a good candidate for an English concept that I could analyze using our map.

It took so long to get to past the definitions of the terms, though, that I will have to do the mapping and analysis in a future blog. Unless someone wants to tackle it for me…


6 thoughts on “Touchpaper Problem #4: Complexity and the Common Core (Pt. 1)

  1. This is amazing! TouchPaper helping Common Core is not something I foresaw, but your blog really help me see a way that thinking about complexity might help break into the standards more. Fascinating stuff – please do write more!


  2. Hi Becca, Great post. I think you’ve hit on something that I was looking at this week when analysing the GCSE Physics specification to start mapping the concepts out. There is the content, but also the requirement that students are able to process the content in certain ways. The command words, as they are often called, such as evaluate, compare, contrast are concepts in themselves. There are many defined structures for these words already e.g. Blooms, SOLO etc. I have wondered, could these commands form their own map…
    What is even more difficult is what you describe, and which we missed out from our discussions during the touchpaper. It strikes me that these Common Core standards have a lot in common with the idea of Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) and Functional Skills that used to form part of our National Curriculum ( and

    I would argue that even “soft” and functional skills based standards such as these rely on some sort of conceptual structure, but deciding whether it is worth mapping, or indeed if it can easily be mapped, may result in the exploration of a rather convoluted rabbit hole. I’ll add it to the to-do list 🙂


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