Iowa Core: Model Core, Part 2

The introductory material to the Model Core is critical for appraising the remainder of the Iowa Core documents.  The entire Iowa Core enterprise hinges upon whether or not the following premise, found in that material, is true:

All this means dramatic change for our schools and our curriculum – both in content and in delivery styles. (p. 8 )

What is the evidence provided in the Model Core, if any, that supports the assertion that the Iowa legislature should have mandated any dramatic change in the content and delivery styles of the school curriculum?*  What is the evidence provided that the Iowa legislature should have mandated the particular changes described in the Iowa Core documents?  As we examine these questions, please consider Jay P. Greene’s observations on the problems of relying upon expert panels (read the whole post here):

The experts do not necessarily represent all or the best views on the matter and may simply be selected by the researchers for their predisposition to support the researcher’s favored conclusion.  In other words, we don’t learn anything from these analyses.  It is simply a way of disguising and making more impressive the opinion of the researchers for the purpose of political manipulation.

Anyone interested in serious education research should shun professional judgment studies, whether for spending adequacy or for education standards.

While Professor Greene is not describing the drafting of standards, the Iowa Core was drafted by an “expert panel” selected by the Iowa Department of Education, as examined in Part 1.  Is there evidence in the introductory material that these team members represented or reviewed all or the best views in education reform and standards?  The Model Core appears to rely heavily upon the works of Professor Chris Dede (Harvard University) and Dr. Willard Daggett (International Center for Leadership in Education).  (p.12)  However, the amount of reliance on these two sources (or any other sources) is unclear because the drafters failed to use internal citations.  (Also missing is any explanation of how or why these two particular sources were singled out of all possible education experts to shape the Iowa Core.)  Thus, when the drafters make the following assertion that Iowa schools must undergo a dramatic change, there is no reference to any authoritative evidence that any of these reasons for change in fact exist outside the consensus of the team members.

The international economy and the U.S. job market aren’t the only significant areas of change.  Students have changed, too.  Today’s high schooler is a product of the Net Generation, a life of iPods, instant messaging, cell phones, Xbox games, and Google. Multi-tasking is a given. But those changes don’t always extend to learning and teaching styles.  Too many students tune out once inside the classroom.  Dropouts include some of our best and brightest who simply aren’t engaged by the same old teaching styles. Schools that successfully captivate this information-age mindset with higher-level learning find student motivation explodes, and not just among the top performers.

The message then is clear: Students shouldn’t be expected to power down at the schoolhouse door.

All this means dramatic change for our schools and our curriculum – both in content and in delivery styles. (p.8)

There is no evidence provided that multi-tasking should be a given or that the problems in education are due to students tuning out (as opposed to text book selections, full-inclusion classrooms, class-size, or teacher quality, for example).  There is no evidence provided that the best and brightest “simply aren’t engaged by the same old teaching styles,” nor is there any research cited that proves that student motivation will explode if schools “captivate this information-age mindset with higher-level learning,” however that is supposed to be done.  Professor Dede’s new learning styles are described a few pages later and suggest how the team members believe that students should be captivated in schools.

In a videoconference with the Lead Team, Dr. Dede shared his passion for changing teaching styles to reach the tech-savvy student.  He reviewed cutting-edge efforts to apply a video-game-like learning environment to deliver higher-level, complex learning.  Rather than listen to a lecture on the environment, for example, students might use a handheld computer and enter a virtual reality world where real-time problems arise and students must develop solutions on the fly.

These learning styles produce successful, motivated students.  Even lower-performing students get fired up when they realize they can combine a love for technology and video-gaming with higher-level learning. (p. 12)

Think about that.  The team members are endorsing the idea that schools should be transformed into a place where video games replace teacher-led instruction without any citations to research that supports the idea that this is the best or only way to motivate student learning, let alone to actually have students learn anything.  In an interview with Innovate, Professor Dede explains how he sees this working.

Steinkuehler (2004) has done preliminary research on the forms of cognition generated within multiplayer online games. Her findings support the idea that, armed with sophisticated instructional design, we can embed learning activities in graphically rich virtual worlds. For example, we could have young students encounter ethical dilemmas that increase in complexity as they advance through a Narnia MUVE [multiuser virtual environment], which would be based on the stories of C. S. Lewis. Older students could participate in a Star Trek MUVE (Dede and Palombo 2004) that integrates mathematics as they navigate the Starship Enterprise, engineering as they maintain the warp engines, and anthropology as they learn to communicate with alien species.

This sounds thrilling, for the sort of student who might want to spend time playing a Star Trek navigation game anyway.  But what disciplines can really be presented well in this manner?  Do students need to spend time learning to communicate with alien species or could they use more time to read grade-level texts and practice writing skills? Is this the most efficient way to deliver content and opportunities for practice?  Is it possible that instead of trying to motivate students through video games that students would be better served by schools that teach them scholarly habits.  For example, Montessori activities are designed to help children to develop longer periods of concentration, and the teachers encourage the children to learn to carefully attend to details, to complete their work, and to work without disturbing others.  What is the evidence that instead of instilling good habits from the earliest grades we should just try to entertain students?

The other apparent major source used to shape the Iowa Core is Dr. Daggett, who is credited with the rigor and relevance quadrant framework that is used throughout the Iowa Core documents.  (Dangerously Irrelevant has a post on Dr. Daggett here.)

To recap, the premise of rigor and relevance says high schools can no longer get by teaching a set of facts. Instead, they must also teach students how to think and how to apply those facts in problem-solving situations that eventually involve real-world situations. “Stretch learning” is another term for this teaching approach.

The benefit is a high school graduate armed with a deeper understanding of a given subject and, more important, an appreciation for how the facts that may still be learned by rote will be relevant to his or her future. (p. 12)

There is no evidence provided that Iowa high schools have been only teaching facts.  Nor is there evidence provided that real-world problems are superior to other methods for teaching students content or how to think.  The suggestion that teaching students how to think is a new innovation is absurd.  The Socratic method, logic, rhetoric, and geometrical proofs, for example, all pertain to teaching students how to think.  There is no evidence provided for the assertion that “stretch learning” arms students with a deeper understanding of content and an appreciation for facts.  Consider also the implicit claim that the drafters of the Iowa Core can predict with certainty what will or will not be relevant to any particular student’s future.  How can they possibly know?

It is incumbent on the Iowa Core supporters, as proponents of dramatic change, to demonstrate that these particular recommendations are supported by evidence.  Without internal citations, it is difficult to read the Model Core as a serious, objective attempt to review all or even the best of thinking on education reform or the best of education research.

*Keep in mind that Iowa is a state of very little educational choice.  Each school district and accredited non-public school is required to implement the Iowa Core.