Touchpaper Problem #4: Complexity and the Common Core (Pt. 2 of 2)

I’m working outside the zone of reality these days. I’ve been away from the classroom just long enough to imagine myself returning in April to teach concepts to my students. Yes, concepts – not test questions. In my last post, I looked at the Common Core standards and picked one to analyze, to try to determine the complexity of one of its concepts. I found a lot of standards that didn’t measure up to my own standards of what makes meaningful curricula. But I was curious about the following:

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.

It describes a skill I want all young people to have – the ability to read something and talk about their impressions of it intelligently with others. God knows we want more media commentators and politicians to learn this kind of ability.

But when I step back into the zone of today’s educational realities, I know that Pearson will develop a standardized test question that claims to provide authentic assessment of this standard. Authentic assessment of the ability to participate in a social conversation, decontextualized from any social interaction. In turn, my teaching of this standard will be shaped by the test question. Instead of teaching the concept, self-preservation will force me to teach students to gain maximum points on the test question. And not just my own preservation to keep my job, but my students’ preservation to pass a test that they need to gain a diploma – their ticket to any future in America.

But let me stay in my zone a little while longer. This post is a continuation of my attempt to apply a model to determine the complexity of a concept, that was discussed during the Touchpaper Problem Party at the Institute for Education on January 28th. In my previous post, I gave a little history of our team workings and wrote about the difficulties of even trying to define the terms needed to tackle the complexity of determining complexity in a concept (meta, huh?). As several members of our team have noted, this problem may be unsolvable, and we may be chasing our words and ideas in circles. But I was the member of the team who showed up as the self-described pragmatist. I didn’t want an endless, circular discussion, but instead wanted a way to gauge the difficulty of concepts, and find a systematic way to determine what makes a concept difficult for my students so that I can help those with the greatest need achieve at high levels. I have now narrowed down the concept to a “reference” in the context of referencing evidence. Which means making an allusion to a text.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 6.30.17 PM

which depends on the following, which will be highly specific to the context of the text provided. I don’t really think these belong on our original idea of the map, but I think there may be a lot of Humanities concepts like this that are highly specific to context. Learners have to be able to generalize the concept of making a “reference” to wide range of sources.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 6.30.52 PM

Many of the students I teach are going to have delays (sometimes significant ones) in reading comprehension. If the student reads more than two grade levels below the reading level of the text, I can provide an accommodation to provide the text in an alternate form, such as audio or video. This will help with the decoding dependency, but it still isn’t going to help if the student doesn’t know the vocabulary used in the text, or if the student doesn’t have prior knowledge of the topics from the reading. These are often where my students get stuck. In our meeting, we also discussed that there are other factors, which may be different from our dependencies, but which influence the complexity of the concept from the learner’s perspective. For example:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 6.31.46 PM

So, as a teacher, I have to start with formative assessment, and I don’t mean any of those hokey “fists of five” gimmicks. I mean, I need to use my knowledge of my students and a quick assessment of how much they got out of last night’s reading, figure out where the gaps are, and then try to fill them. We discussed incorporating a taxonomy like the SOLO here. I’m sure I will need to do some pre-lessons to cover vocabulary and gaps in prior knowledge before we can engage in any discussion that has a chance of including everyone. What else?

They need to find an idea from last night’s reading and paraphrase it. This requires them to be able to pick out specific ideas that might be important to our discussion, and put them in their own words. All those linguistic issues arise again.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.19.20 PM

Students also need to know the definition of the word “reference (n.)” and “referencing (v.)” There are possible misunderstandings, which Alex Weatherall had called counter-intuitions at the Touchpaper Party, because here I am using the word “reference” differently from the way I use it when I ask students to cite a reference in a research paper. There, I am focused on teaching students to follow a highly specific style of annotation. Here, I ask them to talk about last night’s reading in a way that relates it to today’s conversation. So that confusion could cause a type of complexity that needs to be addressed.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.25.06 PM

Ok, I’m sure I left a lot out. But possibly the learner now has an idea, ready to relate in conversation with a group of peers. Now he or she must talk in the group about that idea at the right time and in the right way. The student will need many more concepts and skills to effectively demonstrate the ability to “stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas” But I had isolated that single concept nugget of “referring to evidence from texts” and will leave further exploration of our concept map to other members of our Touchpaper team.

Tag – someone else is “it.”


5 thoughts on “Touchpaper Problem #4: Complexity and the Common Core (Pt. 2 of 2)

    • Ahhh, yes…time. That is the other factor I keep forgetting while I armchair plan for my return to the classroom. There is never even close to enough between all the test prep and useless requirements.


      • Analysing the complexity of the problem does allow a well thought through understanding of the important factors to be arrived at, and, hence, gives a fighting chance to hone in on those factors which are likely to be the most important in improving outcomes……maybe.


  1. Yes, that is definitely where I think the value in this process lies. Once a teacher has reached the level of “expert” with a concept, we unfortunately seem to forget the factors that made the concept difficult to learn in the first place. I was hoping to break those factors down, but still feel I may have missed some critical pieces. The challenge is to find a model that will allow us to look at so many dependencies and counter-influences, relatively quickly.


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