Student Responses to Common Core Instruction and Assessment | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

This series of blogs is to support you and your students during the transition period that will come with the CCSS. As the new testing and teaching styles promote more student independence, student-constructed learning and project-based learning, students will benefit from a powerful boost to their growing neural networks of executive functions.

However, for students and educators accustomed to more structured plans and teacher- or curriculum-directed learning, the decision-making and uncertainty can increase the amygdala’s stress level and inhibit flow to the prefrontal cortex where those networks of executive function are developing. This blog series will offer suggestions to ease the stress of transition, helping students persevere to reach the intrinsic pleasure that awaits them through meaningful choice and challenges in the classroom.

Preparing for a New Wave of Learning, Assessment and Stress

I am an advocate of the goals embodied in the CCSS -- building strong neural networks of executive functions. These networks of neuron-to-neuron connections have been an essential element of the neurological examination of patients for over 75 years. The functions of these unique neural networks were initially revealed through neurological case histories of patients with prefrontal cortex degeneration, lesions or trauma. They consequently lost their "highest" thinking skills of goal-directed behavior, judgment, emotional self-awareness, deduction, reasoning, abstraction or subsequent skillsets.

These networks directly impact intentional cognitive and emotional processing and behavioral output. Furthermore, these skillsets have become increasingly critical as we move from a factory-model labor force to a global, informational and technological labor force. Replication of knowledge and single correct responses are inadequate preparation for students entering vocations or going on to higher academic studies.

The CCSS goals support cognitive actions that are the executive functions for a global economy. We cannot let this educational goal be subverted through the challenges posed by the tests themselves or how they are used. One of our goals is understanding how we might best support students during the transition from passive memorization to actively constructing understanding and applying knowledge.

The uncertainty educators face about how best to prepare students for the changing goals and tests will be equally challenging for the students themselves. With the shift toward interpretation, communication, reasoning, and transfer of learning to novel applications, the repetition of facts is no longer the criteria for being "smart."

The contrast will be especially profound for students who were previously successful working with predictable tasks of memorization and binary "right and wrong" assessment, and could also be more problematic to the majority of students who already lost out when the arts and humanities were dropped from their curriculum.

The Impact of Stress on the Brain

From neuroimaging and correlated neurocognitive research, we've seen the impact of stress on neural processing of information and behavior output. The amygdala, deep in the network of the brain's emotionally responsive limbic system, is a prominent structure in this process. The amygdala is a switching station through which sensory input must pass to reach the prefrontal cortex (PFC) where long-term memory is constructed. When stress is high, increased metabolic activity in the amygdala limits flow to and from the PFC.

To process knowledge with the guidance of executive functions, input must reach the PFC, and output must be able to flow from the PFC to the lower brain. Stress cuts off students' access to these networks of higher-order thinking, logic, creative problem solving and analytical judgment. With any loss of higher brain control, the lower, reactive brain's involuntary outputs are in charge. The resulting behaviors are limited to the equivalent of fight/flight/freeze reactions. The student also cannot use the resources of executive functions to understand, evaluate or apply new learning. (See Understanding How the Brain Thinks.)

The New Group of High-Risk Students

We've seen students' responses to sustained frustration or increased boredom as school has become less engaging and relevant. The students who were able to persevere and succeed by following rules and procedures and by retrieving the right answer are now at risk of stress responses due to shifts in assessments.

As educators anticipated the requisite 21st century skillsets that are now the goals of the CCSS, their assessments included more interpretation of information and new ways for students to apply what they learned. These teachers have described a disturbing response by some students to open-ended test questions when they realize that rote fact memorization is no longer adequate preparation. Previous high achievers are showing fight/flight/freeze stress responses when tested with single-response questions.

For these students, who had obediently and powerfully memorized all the information they were given, the loss of predictable test questions linked to their matched answers is unfair. Despite their success at memorization, they haven't developed the conceptual understanding or cognitive flexibility needed to respond to these unpredictable questions. Their teachers describe profound emotional reactions including anger, hostility, retribution (such as false accusations of teacher misconduct) and more subtle but equally disturbing behavioral changes of withdrawn participation and effort, depression, and more sick-day absences.

There is no research available about the absolute cause or extent of this phenomenon. Perhaps the responses are so profound and unexpected that these stories are getting disproportionate attention. Nevertheless, it serves all students if we consider how to introduce the changes in information acquisition and application to make the transition less stressful.

Strategically Using How the Brain Reacts

Knowing what to expect and anticipating your students' unexpected responses will help you prepare for the unpredictable. Building executive functions and developing concept knowledge means less directed, one-solution instruction and certainty. This shifts greater responsibility to students in the learning process, calling on their executive functions for evaluation, estimation, prediction and interpretation.

After years of passivity and limited responsibility for communicating opinions and defending solutions, students will need to start formulating ideas, expressing them clearly, and defending opinions or solutions with logical and often subjective reasoning. Making mistakes and benefiting from corrective feedback will be part of any successful learning routine rather than an indication of failure. It will take effort to help students adapt to this mindset.

Memories constructed through rote repetition can strengthen due to the subsequent neuroplastic response from very specific stimuli. However, when memories are built in response to unique drills and linked to specific prompts, they are only retrieved in response to those stimuli. These isolated memory circuits that haven't been activated for other applications are not available to solve unfamiliar problems or interpret new information.

This will be new and frightening territory for many students. Even those who seem comfortable when you first introduce these new challenges early in the year can hit a wall as content and assessment take a turn toward uncertainty, requiring more intense application of their executive function.

Early Warning Signs

When students have built an identity around excelling at memorization and earning praise for grades, they may hesitate to reveal difficulties and ask for help to meet a new measure of success. They have been so comfortable parroting back information that a new demand for complexity can cause a freeze response, halting both confidence and thinking.

For these students, watch for unusual behaviors such as not doing homework, acting out in class, angry outbursts about test questions not pulled directly from class notes or text, reduced class participation, or increased absenteeism. An ideal preemptive reaction on the part of educators would be to design new instructional or assessment characteristics that parallel the macro and cognitive objectives of the CCSS.

Additionally, take time to explain that they will be building a new set of skills, and that you will be coaching them for success and not judging them for making mistakes. Share your own experiences of failure and change, as well as strategies for success.

It will be most convincing and reassuring for students when they realize that these front and center executive functions will become stronger and more effective through their engagement with and resulting development from the new approaches to learning.

In the next blog I will describe common student experiences that involve successful application of executive functions. These can help your students gain insight and perspective, thereby resisting stress and keeping neural passages flowing to and from their critical executive functions.

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zep's picture
Education Specialist

We have a choice as educators, we can be fellow human beings and call our students' attention to the fact that we will never judge our students on the basis of a standardized test. We can further empathize by giving them an A for the day simply for complying with ANOTHER test, actually we should probably give them a B for not being as smart or as self-advocating as their colleagues who refused to come to school on a day which was not educating them but rather measuring them by someone's idea of where they should be i.e. measured against CCSS.

chemtchr's picture

Dr. Willis has established no connection whatsoever between "brain-based learning" and the Common core.

She describes children's "profound emotional reactions including anger, hostility, retribution (such as false accusations of teacher misconduct) and more subtle but equally disturbing behavioral changes of withdrawn participation and effort, depression, and more sick-day absences."

But then, she refuses to process the havoc she and her Common Core colleagues have wrought on real children's actual mental functioning. She suggests a remedy for teachers "would be to design new instructional or assessment characteristics that parallel the macro and cognitive objectives of the CCSS."

The evidence Willis dismisses is heartbreaking and infuriating. Instead of creative engagement, she reports that "previous high achievers are showing fight/flight/freeze stress responses when tested with single-response questions." Willis is immediately certain this high stress and actual loss of mental function in the real, previously successful children must be due to defects in their previous education, like rote memorization and parroting. In ignorance of actual child development, she caricatures all non-CC pedagogy as nothing but teacher-centered lecturing.

She responds by expounding on bizarre new "brain-based" theories . She garbles a few phrases from constructivist learning theory to add false legitimacy to her truly indefensible fabrications. She asserts, with no evidence, "The CCSS goals support cognitive actions that are the executive functions for a global economy."

There is no evidence WHATSOEVER that the Common Core's intrusive attack on childhood itself will promote "building strong neural networks of executive functions." The neural networks of human development are far beyond any crude "executive functioning" model.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

I rarely give references to the neuroscience research I review pertinent to the blogs I write due to the limitations in length and character of our blogs that are focused on providing information and stimulating dialogue. The information supporting my correlations - and neuroscience research can only provide correlations, never proof for or against any classroom strategy or phenomenon, can be found through my website. Under publications you find over 60 articles I've written for academic journals with references. The same is true for my books, which are highly referenced.

Thank you for taking the time to write and provide me this opportunity to clarify the non-referenced nature of most of my blogs.

chemtchr's picture

Thank you for responding, Dr Willis. I hope you can address some of my very grave concerns about your report here. You are presenting evidence here that children's mental function may actually be damaged by their experiences with this mandated experiment, and you dismiss those concerns much too lightly.

Please, can you reference some peer-reviewed publications that show a correlation between Common Core instruction and assessment, and building neural pathways that increase executive function?

Also, I've been a constructivist educator for several decades and your formulation about that is very incorrect. Children don't construct meaning under duress, in response to essay prompts. I wonder if you might have been misled about the actual substance of the CCSS documents and assessments?

Student's previous academic success doesn't necessarily indicate rote memorization and parroting, either. The spirit of John Dewey is still very much alive among American educators.

madany's picture

I have grave concerns that a neurologist and educator would advocate for a set of standards that would cause a fight/flight/freeze response from students. I am not certain where the idea that children need to be TAUGHT to think critically has come from. Children spend the first five years of their lives immersed in critical thinking. They learn language, how to stand-up, walk, crawl and run. They learn to identify thousands of objects around them and what those objects are used for and how they relate to them and the world around them. Any parent of a three year old will tell you that their child's favorite word is "Why?". They test negative space (think outlet covers) and test their own theories of gravity. They build with blocks and sand and boxes and tupperware. The entire arc of their first five years is a grand experiment in understanding our world and they do all of this without the help of the CCS. It is not until we enroll them in school that the adults in their lives seem to believe that they are no longer have the necessary skills to learn.
I want my children to have a joyous experience with learning, to have many aha moments of their own design. I want to hear them laugh, to create, to grow and to learn what they find interesting about the world around them.
There is much talk about raising the stakes and that parents deserve a choice in their child's education. I choose to have my child's prefrontal cortex stimulated by joyous, developmentally appropriate material, not to have them learn coping skill so they can overcome their desire to flee their education.

MRM's picture

@Jocelyn Slack
Learning should be JOYFUL for 2nd graders, NOT "stressful." Stress is something that ADULTS, with their 'fully-developed executive functions,' need to be able to deal with. It is particularly counterproductive at a young age and not something we should be expecting small children to experience in the classroom.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

I have to say that my read of Dr. Willis's blog post was very different. What I read was information to help teachers reduce their students' stress stemming from the transition to Common Core by explaining where the stress comes from and how to help.

For many teachers, parents, and students, Common Core is their new reality, and they need resources to navigate the transition. That's the whole point of the Common Core in Action series; not to endorse CCSS but to point to specific lesson ideas and to help teachers innovate within the standards.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your concern. I have never indicated my support of nor neuroscience evidence regarding the brain benefits of standardized testing of any kind - CCSS included. What I do support is the stated goal of the CCSS program of building students' conceptual, critical, and creative thinking. Indeed I share your concern about the duress of the standardized testing that will be part of the CCSS program. The goal of my articles is to help mitigate the negative impact of this test stress - NOT to support the testing.
Keep igniting!

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author


My analysis of neuroscience research that is the source of my writing is not based on paraphrasing individual articles so I cannot provide just one reference regarding the benefits of activating executive functions. These are some of the many that yield some of that large area of neuroscience and cognitive science research and theory

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. B.J. Casey, et al. August 2011. Nov 7 Sci Am Mind

Durstewitz, et. al., 2010). Durstewitz, D., Vittoz, N., Floresco, S., and
Seamans, J. (2010) Abrupt transitions between prefrontal neural ensemble states
accompany behavioral transitions during rule learning. Neuron, 66, 438-48.

Shaw et. al., (2006) Shaw, P., Greenstein, D., Lerch, J., Clasen, L., Lenroot, R., Gotay, N., Evans, A., Rappoport, J., and Giedd, J. (2006) Intellectual ability and cortical development in
children and adolescents. Nature 440, 676-679

Bialystok, E. (2009). Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 12 (1):3-11. Cambridge University Press. Kaushanskaya, M., & Marian, V. (2007). Age-of-acquisition effects in the development of a bilingual advantage for word learning. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development. Cascadilla Press; Somerville, MA.

Cowan, N. and Morey, C. (2006). Visual working memory depends on attentional filtering, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(4): 1399-141.

Eastwood, J., Frischen, A., Fenske, M., and Smilek, D. (2012). The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention Perspectives on Psychological Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5): 482-495.

Nett, U., Hall, N., and Frenzel, A. (2012). Metacognitive Strategies and Test Performance: An Experience Sampling Analysis of Students' Learning Behavior, Education Research International, Volume 2012. Article ID 958319.

Parasuraman, R., Jiang, Y., (2011). Individual differences in cognition, affect, and performance: Behavioral, neuroimaging, and molecular genetic approaches, NeuroImage.

Blair C, and Razza RP. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development. 78(2):647-63.

Diamond, A., et al. (2007) Preschool Program Improves Cognitive Control. Science Nov 30: 1378-1388

Willis, J.A. (2007). Neuroscience of Joyful Learning Educational Leadership, Journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (2007). Vol 64.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

MRM, absolutely! I would only add 3rd-12th graders :)

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