There are aspects of the “art of teaching” I have long taken for granted, but are apparently no longer taught in preservice education programs. Classroom centers is one such critical topic. Since I cannot find the seminal book(s) or papers on the importance or creation of centers, I created the following document for the school I work for.


Thoughts on Classroom Centers (v 1.0)
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
April 2015

THE CENTER APPROACH

Centers are clearly delineated areas in the classroom where students may work independently or in small groups on purposeful activities without direct or persistent teacher involvement. Centers may be designed by the teacher or co-constructed with students. Deliberate materials are presented in a center to scaffold a child’s learning, or nurture creativity. Such materials may be utilized in both a predictable and serendipitous fashion. Centers afford students with the necessary time to take pride in one’s work, overcome a significant challenge, develop a new talent, or deepen a relationship (with a person or knowledge domain).

“Learning as a process of individual and group construction –

Each child, like each human being, is an active constructor of knowledge, competencies, and autonomies, by means of original learning processes that take shape with methods and times that are unique and subjective in the relationship with peers, adults, and the environment.

The learning process is fostered by strategies of research, comparison of ideas, and co-participation. It makes use of creativity, uncertainty, intuition, [and] curiosity. It is generated in play and in the aesthetic, emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions, which it interweaves and nurtures. It is based on the centrality of motivation and the pleasures of learning.” (Reggio Children, 2010)

GOALS

  • Minimize direct instruction (lecture)
  • Recognize that students learn differently and at different rates
  • Reduce coercion
  • Honor student choice
  • Increase student agency
  • Make classrooms more democratic
  • Enhance student creativity
  • Build student competence and independence
  • Employ more flexible uses of instructional time
  • Inspire cross-curricular explorations
  • Develop the classroom as the “3rd teacher”
  • Encourage more student-centered classrooms
  • Respect the centrality of the learner in learning
  • Create more productive contexts for learning
  • Supports the Hundred Languages of Children
  • Match a child’s remarkable capacity for intensity
  • Provide opportunities for teachers to sit alongside students
  • Make learning visible
  • Shift the teacher’s role from lecturer to research responsible for making private thinking public – invisible thinking visible
  • Team teaching in the best collegial sense

BENEFITS

  • Increased self-reliance, self-regulation and personal responsibility
  • Shift in agency from teacher to student
  • Development of project-management skill
  • Supports project-based learning
  • Opportunities for “flow” experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991)
  • Intensify learning experiences
  • Encourage focus
  • Expand opportunities for:
    • Creative play
    • Informal collaboration
    • Experimentation
    • Appropriation of powerful ideas
  • Acknowledges the curious, creative, social and active nature of children
  • Matches the individual attention spans of students
  • Reduces boredom
  • Increases student engagement
  • Teachers get to know each student (better)
  • Recognition that quality work takes time
  • Acknowledges the centrality of the learner in knowledge construction
  • Thoughtful documentation of student learning by teachers
  • Minimize misbehavior

CENTER EXAMPLES

Experimentation/laboratory center
A place for experimentation 

Project center
An area where a long-term project may be undertaken and securely stored

Game center
A place where students play games that helps develop specific concepts, logic, or problem-solving skills

Studio center
An art center where children sculpt, paint, animate, draw, etc… with sufficient light and appropriate materials.

Creative play center

  • Dress-up area
  • Puppet theatre
  • Blocks/LEGO/Construction with found materials

Classroom library
A comfortable well-lit area, stocked with a variety of high-interest reading material

Pet center
The class pet to observe, care for, and in some cases, play with

Plant center
Classroom garden to care for

Listening center
A setting where students can listen to recordings or watch a video with headphones

CAUTION

  • Learning centers should neither be chores or Stations of the Cross. Flexibility, student choice, and actions that do not disturb classmates are hallmarks of the centers approach.
  • Centers should not be managed with a stopwatch. “Fairness” is not a priority, except if there are scarce materials.
  • Learning center use should not be used as a reward or punishment.

TIPS FOR PREPARING A CENTER

  • Create clear and concise prompts, questions to ponder or project ideas. Place these prompts on index cards, a single sheet of paper, or in a binder.
  • Less is more! Do not clutter up a center or overwhelm a learner with too many options.
  • Keep prompts simple and not overly prescriptive. Allow for serendipity.
  • Rotate out “stale” materials – things that students no longer show interest in
  • Assign classroom roles for tidying-up centers
  • Place louder centers away from quieter areas in the classroom.
  • Provide safety materials and instruction when appropriate at centers

 

REFERENCES

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Reprint ed.). NY: Harper Perennial.

Reggio Children. (2010). Indications – Preschools and infant toddler centres of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (L. Morrow, Trans.). In Infant toddler centers and preschools of Instituzione of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (Ed.): Reggio Children.

This time of year, schools scramble to select a book for their entire faculty to read over the summer. Although it would be nice if everyone read the same book as a basis for common dialogue and for teachers to read more than one book about learning each year, I just assembled a list for the (DK-8) school where I serve as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation. Based on our overarching goals of action, reflective practice, progressive education, learning-by-making, energetic classroom centers, creativity, and collegiality, I recommended the following books for this summer. If a school community was to read one book (besides Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom) , I would recommend David Perkins’ book, Making Learning Whole.

If you wish to give your faculty (K-12 in any configuration), a list of selections to choose from, I recommend the following in no particular order.
  1. Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform EducationA clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion. 
  2. Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second EditionA beautiful and practical book aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level. 
  3. Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s BusinessAimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 
  4. Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of MusicOne of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade. This lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 
  5. Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the ComputerA seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century. 
  6. Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools  A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days. 

You could also indulge yourself in the richest professional learning event of your life by participating in Constructing Modern Knowledge 2016. Limited space is still available.

The Best Invention and Tinkering Books, plus other cool stuff – including toys and kits

The following is an attempt to share some of my objections to Common Core in a coherent fashion. These are my views on a controversial topic. An old friend I hold in high esteem asked me to share my thoughts with him. If you disagree, that’s fine. Frankly, I spent a lot of time I don’t have creating this document and don’t really feel like arguing about the Common Core. The Common Core is dying even if you just discovered it.

This is not a research paper, hence the lack of references. You can Google for yourself. Undoubtedly, this post contains typos as well. I’ll fix them as I find them.

This critique shares little with the attacks from the Tea Party or those dismissed by the Federal Education Secretary or Bill Gates as whiney parents.

I have seven major objections to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

  1. The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem.
  2. The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations.
  3. The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate.
  4. The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design.
  5. Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences.
  6. The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education.
  7. The requirement that CCSS testing be conducted electronically adds unnecessary complexity, expense, and derails any chance of computers being used in a creative fashion to amplify student potential.

The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem

The professed rationale for the Common Core is based on several patently ridiculous assumptions. These include:

  • There is a sudden epidemic of bad teaching in American schools.
  • There has never been a way for parents to know how their children are doing in school.
  • Curriculum varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the United States.

I am no apologist for the current state of public (or private) education in America. There is a shortage of imagination, love, and commitment to knowing every child in order to amplify her potential. However, there is abundant scholarship by Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, Gerald Bracey, Deborah Meier, and others demonstrating that more American kids are staying in school longer than at any time in history. If we control for poverty, America competes quite favorably against any other nation in the world, if you care about such comparisons.

Parents have ample ways of knowing how their children are doing; from speaking with them, meeting with teachers, looking at their work, and the excessive number of standardized tests already administered to American school children. Some places in America spend as long as several months per school year on testing, not including practice tests or the test-prep curriculum.

At best, the Common Core State Standards ensure that if a kid moves from Maine to Mobile, they won’t miss the monkey lesson. Such uniformity of instruction based on arbitrary curricular topics is impossible to enforce and on the wrong side of history. As my colleague and mentor Seymour Papert said, “At best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the world and yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is important enough to teach.” Schools should prepare kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated with the confidence and competence necessary to overcome any obstacle, even if only to discover that there is more to learn.

The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations

Other once great nations have embraced nutty ideas like national curricula, but such policies were voted upon by legislators willing to raise their hand and be held accountable for their vote. The CCSS is a de-facto national curriculum created by corporate forces and anonymous unaccountable bureaucrats. State education departments and local districts surviving savage cuts in state education funding can hardly afford to reject the Common Core when its implementation brings with it billions of dollars in Federal funding from the Obama administration. Americans would never tolerate a national curriculum. That’s why the Common Core was required as a backdoor vehicle for enforcing instructional uniformity.

CCSS advocates assert that the standards were written by Governors and teachers. This claim is laughable.

The two major forces behind the Common Core, aside from the Federal Department of Education, are Bill Gates and multinational testing/publishing conglomerate, Pearson. The Gates Foundation has spent up to $2.3 billion on astroturf groups lobbying on behalf of The Common Core. (more info here)

While Gates is driven by ideology or a misguided sense of philanthropy, Pearson stands to profit handsomely. They are the largest education publisher in the USA. They also lead in producing and scoring standardized tests. The controversial PARCC test that recently made headlines when they spied on kids’ social media accounts and got government goons to enforce their testing regime. Add test-prep curriculum, worksheets, professional development, and their recent forays into teacher and administrator credentialing, and you quickly see how Pearson controls the entire education ecosystem – profiting at every step of the process they created. Not much imagination is required to see Pearson running publicly funded charter schools created in the rubble created by the Common Core. Heads they win. Tails kids and teachers lose. (Read the Politico Pearson exposé, “No Profit Left Behind”)

The Common Core State Standards only apply to public schools. Neither Bill Gates or President Obama would tolerate sending their children to schools slavishly adhering to this curricular diet intended for other people’s children. Surely the Gates and Obama children will be career and college ready in their lovely schools with art, music, blocks, field trips, well-stocked libraries, and teachers trusted to design curriculum.

The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate

The Common Core State Standards are focused on college and career readiness all the way down to kindergarten!

Please explain Cavalieri’s Principle. I have yet to meet an adult who knows what this is, but it appears in the Common Core High School Geometry Standards.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSG.GMD.A.2

Give an informal argument using Cavalieri’s principle for the formulas for the volume of a sphere and other solid figures.

Read the voluminous CCSS Math or CCSS English Language Arts standards for yourself.

Thankfully, the CCSS only currently exist for Math and English Language Arts. This means that other subjects in the arts, sciences, and social sciences will not be standardized. However, it also means they are less likely to be taught in CCSS-obsessed schools.

The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design

Promoters of the Common Core shrug off criticisms by blaming teachers for poorly implementing the standards. This line of attack is worse than cynical victim blaming. Allow me to explain why.

Let’s stipulate that the Common Core State Standards are a terrific idea. Our nation needs clear enforceable uniform education standards at each grade level.

If that were the case, the CCSS would be rolled-out over twelve years, not all at once. If a curricular topic typically taught in the 9th grade is moved to 7th grade by the Common Core, then many children will not have been taught those concepts, but will still be tested on them. When they inevitably fail to perform well, their teachers will be blamed and in states like New York where teacher pay and job security is tied to test scores, their teachers will be punished for doing what they have been told to do.

Scotland is rolling out a new national curriculum, but they are doing so over twelve years.

Why do you think that the Common Core was in such a hurry to implement a new K-12 curriculum at once?

Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences

Curriculum should be determined as close to the child as possible in collaboration with colleagues and reflecting the community. It is the height of arrogance to prepare instruction for children you have never met.

Uniform standards standardize (lower) expectations in the name of uniformity. The quality of education suffers when teachers have their curricular discretion challenged and replaced with a list of topics to “cover” at best, or a scripted curriculum (common in urban settings), at worst. The sheer number of Common Core standards makes depth, mastery, passion, curiosity, or other habits of mind less likely to achieve. When does a student get great at something when their education experience is strapped to an ever-accelerating treadmill?

When teachers are not required to make curricular decisions and design curriculum based on the curiosity, thinking, understanding, passion, or experience of their students, the resulting loss in teacher agency makes educators less thoughtful and reflective in their practice, not more. The art of teaching has been sacrificed at the expense of reducing pedagogical practice to animal control and content delivery.

My standards for what children should be able to know and do extend far beyond that which is taught or tested by the CCSS.

The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education

The singular genius of George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation (kicked-up a notch by Obama’s Race-to-the-Top) was the recognition that many parents hate school, but love their kids’ teachers. If your goal is to privatize education, you need to concoct a way to convince parents to withdraw support for their kid’s teacher. A great way to achieve that objective is by misusing standardized tests and then announcing that your kid’s teacher is failing your kid. This public shaming creates a manufactured crisis used to justify radical interventions before calmer heads can prevail.

These standardized tests are misunderstood by the public and policy-makers while being used in ways that are psychometrically invalid. For example, it is no accident that many parents confuse these tests with college admissions requirements. Using tests designed to rank students mean that half of all test-takers be below the norm and were never intended to measure teacher efficacy.

The test scores come back up to six months after they are administered, long after a child advances to the next grade. Teachers receive scores for last year’s students, with no information on the questions answered incorrectly. These facts make it impossible to use the testing as a way of improving instruction, the stated aim of the farcical process.

I am not willing to give up on public schools because that’s where the children are. Public education is the bedrock of our democracy.

The negative trajectory of technology use required by the CCSS

You will find no greater advocate for the use of computational technology in education than me. However, the requirement that the CCSS assessment exams driving the entire Common Core effort be conducted electronically has a deeply disturbing effect on educational computing.

Instead of using computers to create, program, edit, compose, publish, or collaborate, the Common Core electronic assessment requirement is causing schools, districts, and states to invest exorbitant sums on large numbers of often under-powered “devices” for test-taking and test-prep purposes. Existing computers will be tied up in these assessment activities as well. The security requirements of the CCSS exams are causing schools to lock-down computers in ways deleterious to learning and student empowerment. The fact that lots of “devices” need to be purchased for testing too often results in a diminution in computational power available to children in school. Constructive activities such as nusic composition, filmmaking, computer programming, physical computing, robotics, etc.. are rendered more difficult or impossible when technology purchases are shaped by testing requirements.

There are technical complexities and numerous pain points associated with this online testing as well. Many schools lack adequate network infrastructure to support hundreds or thousands of children being online at once. The testing software is buggy and prone to failure, especially since testing occurs nationwide at approximately the same time (and for longer than a Bar Exam). The testing software itself is awful and plagued by horrendous user-interface issues. Kids are being penalized for not being able to navigate buggy and confusing software, even if they understand the concept being tested. Poor(er) children with less access to computing activities are even more disadvantaged by the awful test navigation. In other words, much of what is being measured by the online Common Core tests will be a student’s ability to work the testing software, not valuable educational content. If you don’t believe me, try one of the online test samples for the PARCC assessment.

One last thing

It is particularly ironic how much of the public criticism of the Common Core is related to media accounts and water cooler conversations of the “crazy math” being taught to kids. There are actually very few new or more complex concepts in the Common Core than previous math curricula. In fact, the Common Core hardly challenges any of the assumptions of the existing mathematics curriculum. The Common Core English Language Arts standards are far more radical. Yet, our innumerate culture is up in arms about the “new new math” being imposed by the Common Core.

What is different about the Common Core approach to mathematics, particularly arithmetic, is the arrogant imposition of specific algorithms. In other words, parents are freaking out because their kids are being required to solve problems in a specific fashion that is different from how they solve similar problems.

This is more serious than a matter of teaching old dogs new tricks. The problem is teaching tricks at all. There are countless studies by Constance Kamii and others demonstrating that any time you teach a child the algorithm, you commit violence against their mathematical understanding. Mathematics is a way of making sense of the world and Piaget teaches us that it is not the job of the teacher to correct the child from the outside, but rather to create the conditions in which they correct themselves from the inside. Mathematical problem solving does not occur in one way no matter how forcefully you impose your will on children. If you require a strategy competing with their own intuitions, you add confusion that results in less confidence and understanding.

Aside from teaching one algorithm (trick), another way to harm a child’s mathematical thinking development is to teach many algorithms for solving the same problem. Publishers make this mistake frequently. In an attempt to acknowledge the plurality of ways in which various children solve problems, those strategies are identified and then taught to every child. Doing so adds unnecessary noise, undermines personal confidence, and ultimately tests memorization of tricks (algorithms) at the expense of understanding.

This scenario goes something like this. Kids estimate in lots of different ways. Let’s teach them nine or ten different ways to estimate, and test them along the way. By the end of the process, many kids will be so confused that they will no longer be able to perform the estimation skill they had prior to the direct instruction in estimation. Solving a problem in your head is disqualified.


These articles do a pretty good job of supporting my arguments above:

© 2015 Gary S. Stager
All Rights Reserved