What does it mean to be common?

In my first 15 years of teaching I am not sure that I ever used the word common in a conversation about pedagogy or teaching methodology.  In recent years it has become a constantly recurring word in discussions about teaching.   Whether we are talking about the Common Core or Common Formative Assessments the word comes up regularly.  I struggle with it.

At its best the word common is part of a conversation about a collective language we can all use when discussing learning and learning outcomes.  There is no doubt that students deserve to have a common set of standards to reach.  Yet, very often it seems that in an attempt to come to a shared understanding as a teaching community we begin to move towards teaching that might be, well, common.

It seems to me that the challenge our schools face is to find ways to have conversations about the things our students should be learning in common while preserving teaching that might be, in a word, uncommon.  I think this is more difficult than it may seem.  There is a power and a comfort in delivering instruction and assessments that are uniform.  Yet, most of the teaching that has impacted me the most was anything but uniform.  I think that is important that, as we discuss the things that we believe it is important for our students to know and be able to do, that we recognize that there are going to be multiple ways to deliver those things.

I had the pleasure of hosting 12 high school marching bands at my school yesterday.  While it was great to see so many students achieving at very high levels it was most interesting to see 12 different teaching approaches in action.  The start of a marching band season is like staring at a blank canvas.  You start with nothing but a roster of names. That roster of names gradually becomes a big production through lots of hard work.  The thing about watching marching bands develop is that there is clearly no one way to get it done.  Every band and every director has their own unique way of learning and performing and yet each band turns that roster of names into a marching band that ends up on display in front of thousands of people.  The result of all of that teaching and learning is very public.  The lesson learned by me is that it’s OK that the experience is different for each student in each of those bands.  We certainly have a lot in common, but it is the differences that make it interesting.

It is exciting to have conversations about how to make our schools better for all of our students.   Each and every young person deserves to have an experience that includes rigorous and clear standards.  They also deserve to be exposed to learning, ideas, experiences and teaching that is uncommon.  I think that has to be an important part of our conversation about what will make our schools great.


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