How much is enough?




How much is enough?


Although I tend to agree with lots of the Common Core standards’ intentions, my expectations for education are constantly going through a metamorphosis. I’m the kind of person to whom knowledge & understanding are golden. I always thought those two approaches to learning went hand in hand. Without knowledge, there can be no understanding. If you don’t really understand, you lose that knowledge part too. Or do you?


It all began back in 2009 when I heard about this crazy new approach coming down the pike called Common Core. After some digging, I found the website and read into it like any seasoned educator does knowing that a new educational concept will be affecting instruction in the classroom. I have to admit- I was engaged. After all, it seemed to align with my approach to education:


Knowledge + Understanding = Learning 


I’ve been that teacher frustrated by “teaching” the phases of the moon to 8 year olds, teaching 10 year olds how to create line plots, and don’t even get me started on ancient cultures and 9 year olds. Adding more and more content isn’t the answer to learning.

Genuine thinking takes time.


On one hand, Common Core seemed to finally clarify the “why” for instruction. It wasn’t about memorization and it gave me reasons for why topics are important and provided me with a focus for instruction. I need to know “why” I’m teaching a topic or skill and how it serves my students. Common Core laid it all out with reasoning that clicked with me. I was so excited to put my learning into action.

And so I began using this more holistic approach years ago.

Which is easier; understanding that the moon affects the tides and because of its movement in the sky it appears to us with different parts illuminated at times OR retaining the knowledge of the names and order of the different phases of the moon? Which takes longer?


Which is more valuable; knowledge or understanding?


You may say that memorizing the phases and matching them up is all that an 8 year old would need. Why ask him to understand how the moon affects our tides, the moon’s specific revolution & rotation, and how the illumination appears in the night sky in different parts of the world at different times of the year?
Wow….doesn’t a little bit of knowledge sound easier?


Maybe not.


What is the purpose?


It’s a question that I’ve asked throughout my life.

Sure, I can get lost in Facebook for an hour forgetting that I want to see how Kristen’s dog is doing and during my search to find a new inspirational meme, but I had the intention at the beginning and I’ll probably get right back on if I wander off without satisfying that intention.


In the classroom, I have always struggled with intentions. Learning isn’t a checklist.


WHY am I teaching 8 year old moon phases? Why would 8 year olds need to know the moon’s phases anyway? Is it to so they can understand that we have a moon? To realize that due to the sun’s position and the earth’s location…..wait, now we’re getting into the understanding part of the equation, but that’s not what standardized testing demands.

You have no idea how many teachers teach moon phases from the perspective of “memorize the name, process, and match them to moon images”. It’s quick, it’s easy (?), and it’s on the standardized testing at the end of the year. Accept it and move on. That has never been a good enough reason for me + moon phases bore me. I taught them for almost 5 years. Why?

You may say that I misunderstood the intention of the standard. Maybe I misread the state standard that said, “Sequence the major phases of the moon during a lunar cycle”? I think not.


Here’s my beef.



Why teach anything at school ?               


Why have standards? Why not give students freedom to research and learn about topics of their choice and access to resources? Why not teach moon phases to kids who want to know and forget about the phases to others who aren’t interested?


It’s on the test.


And now, that test is tied to “teacher accountability”. If a science teacher’s students don’t know a waxing gibbous from a waning gibbous by age 9, that teacher could be out of a job. What does that prove?


Going back to 2009, I decided that reasoning about the moon’s interaction with earth was more important than memorizing the names and distinguishing waxing from waning. I hit the ground running with Common Core’s list of standards and matched them to my current state standards.

I researched it constantly (still do) and was curious to see how my students’ learning would change so I turned my focus from a basis of memorization of tons of factual information into more of a holistic, learning about the movement of planets and the moon, and the sun’s impact, and reflection and refraction.

As you can probably imagine, the learning was beautiful, energetic, inquisitive, open-ended, and engaging; yet they bombed those questions on the standardized test. My students were sad and I was heartbroken. I knew I had inspired them to lay on their backs in the grass at night, do research about lunar landings, investigate tides, and enjoy learning, but all that darn test saw was a failure.


When a question limits you to recall, it fails.


So, I had established my basis for teaching. I was inspired and though my test scores were horrible, I convinced my principal that I would find a way to inspire genuine understanding and beat that darn test.

My scores shot from a paltry 1 to a perfect 5 the following year and I was still teaching for understanding! When students asked me “Why?” I explained learning from more of a holistic viewpoint rather than solely an analytical one (though the test was still in memorization mode). I urged my students to explain, and they did. More and more begrudgingly. After all, which is “easier”, memorizing or understanding? I took that as a good sign and worked harder to support them all of the time adding that they could memorize or really learn, but I valued understanding most in my classroom.


Knowledge goes hand-in-hand with understanding.


My math approach worked about the same. Show me how you know the answers, prove it to us! We had powerful debates over solutions to word problems and the best approach. These were 4th graders and those were the best 2 years of my education career.

My students did more thinking than they ever had and they had a blast doing it, but we always ran out of time and didn’t get to cover all of the expected standards. It wasn’t a big deal to me. I knew I was serving my students’ needs and I felt wonderful.

And then it happened.


I transferred to a new school where learning was back to a cookie cutter approach and the straw that broke my back and pierced my educator’s soul was when the grade level (all 6 classrooms) decided to make a kite to show expanded form of numbers. I was floored. What?


“We’re going to have the students cut out a kite and show the expanded form of a number.”

I thought it was a joke.

It was.
They just didn’t realize it.

After all, I had glimpsed the future and it was full of such promise! There was excitement and brain-stretching and relevance coming to learning.

I knew I had to do something different. After a mini assessment,  I copied specifically chosen pages from a kids’ Guiness Book of World Records book, chose differentiated statistics according to the abilities of the students, and gave the students a taste of wonder reading about the longest fingernails, exotic places, and unbelievable stunts. Each child read about their personalized record and yes, performed the expanded form calculations individually and in small groups. It was fun! We posted the papers in the hall alongside the kites.

That’s when the stuff hit the fan. The year went from bad to worse.

I regurgitated so many nonsensical worksheets that year (to save my job) while I watched the lights go out. Those teachers weren’t interested in the “why?”, in the story behind the numbers, in doing something relevant that would show the astonishment of the numbers and how we could compare the values to other statistics. They were still doing knowledge vs. understanding; not the integration of knowledge & understanding. Worse yet, they through roadblocks at me every chance they got.

They are still teaching to the test.

A mind that is stretched by a  new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.     -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.



“Mere acquisition of knowledge and skills does not make people into competent thinkers or problem solvers. To know something is not just to passively receive information, but to interpret it and incorporate it; meaningful learning is reflective, constructive and self-regulated (Wittrock, 1991, Bransford and Vye, 1989, Marzano et al., 1988, davis et al., 1990). (Herman, 1992, p. 15).

Taken from The School Redesign Network at Stanford University 



I have hopes for the future of education, but it’s not here yet.

So many teachers are in a holding pattern as education is transforming.


One thought on “How much is enough?

  1. This is such a moving post. I can’t really imagine what it must be like to stand there in front of a class that you want to engage and light up and be forced to kill and stifle those lights instead under the weight of mundanity – I imagine that it “broke my back and pierced my educator’s soul” would be a very good description, but not truly adequate enough to describe the anguish.


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