Thom Markham

Ten Reasons Why Common Core Standards Require a Whole Teacher

When teachers and parents hear the term Common Core State Standards, many have a tendency to think of the new standards as a simple upgrade. In fact, the standards represent an entirely new operating system.

This is good news for the whole child movement. The Common Core standards focus on an inquiry approach to education. Inquiry can't be done through direct instruction alone; it requires student cooperation, engagement, and persistence—all attributes drawn from a pool of social and emotional resources. Without addressing this aspect of human performance, the standards will fail.

Many educators are nervous about the magnitude of the training task ahead. Even so, I don't think enough leaders recognize that becoming an effective teacher of the standards involves more than cognitive acquaintance with the new standards. Just as students will be asked to marshal more of their internal resources, a good standards teacher will also need to be a whole teacher, able to interact easily with students, communicate well, inspire when necessary, and lead as well as teach. This is a skill set that relies on a teacher's own emotional competencies, including the flexibility to move with students through the uncertainty of an inquiry process.

What will be different? I can think of 10 skills that most teachers will need to develop or improve for the standards:

  1. Foster a culture of care. In inquiry-based education, attitude equals altitude. Without the consent and engagement of students, the process goes nowhere. Engagement begins when students feel safe, nurtured, respected, and listened to. Posting a list of norms on the classroom wall that instructs students to "keep their hands to themselves" or "raise your hand before speaking" won't be sufficient. Teachers will need to build trust before they teach. Elementary teachers should do fine; many high school teachers will have to reinvent themselves.


  2. Move from classroom management to people management. In a traditional classroom based on instruction, teachers keep their eyes on the room and employ a standard set of tools to enforce discipline. The standards emphasize construction—working together to figure out problems. In a student-centered system, self-discipline matters more than referral slips. That requires frank conversations with students, more praise than criticism, and the ability to see past faults in favor of supporting sustained effort.


  3. Redefine rigor. What if a student works diligently to solve a Common Core math problem, but obtains the wrong answer? How does a teacher recognize and reward effort and persistence? In an inquiry-based system, the process of learning is just as important as the final result. This mandates a shift in the commonly accepted definition of rigor; it's no longer just a high grade on a test or the completion of a difficult assignment. It's about the personal rigor that the student demonstrates as they work at learning. Recognizing this in someone else usually requires that you also have gone through the process of challenge and failure, an essential in inquiry education.


  4. Use project design methods. In some form, project-based learning (PBL) will be the "how" of the standards. But many teachers will default to projects rather than PBL. Inquiry only yields excellence when well-defined guidelines and methods enable teachers to oversee and benchmark the process. Moving from projects to PBL asks teachers to step up and master new techniques that may be foreign to them. That's called "openness," and it's one of the Big Five personality traits.


  5. Design projects that matter. The standards are designed to develop problem-solving capability in students. But developing and offering good solutions to problems starts with a reason to solve the problem in the first place. In other words, challenge and authenticity become crucial to the success of the standards. If teachers retreat to teaching information alone, without touching into the heart of the standards and giving them a contextual boost, there will be no gains in test scores, and no greater student satisfaction than at present.


  6. Grade 21st century skills. Inquiry and 21st century skills are one interrelated conversation. Without collaboration and communication, or even a dose of creativity, it's hard to solve problems. Along with mastering the standards, the core 21st century skills will need to be taught, assessed, and recorded as a score in the grade book. This shift goes against the grain of teachers who know how to grade tests but not skills and who see academic achievement as the sole purpose of school. Making the shift begins with a broad appreciation for a changing world, and the willingness to help education adapt.


  7. Coach for performance. The standards require teachers to possess the same skills as a coach: Praise, feedback, direction, the ability to break down skills in specific steps, and close observation of the players. I find that as teachers move from the front of the room into the newly designated role of facilitator, most welcome the change. But as good coaches know, experience counts. It will take time for teachers to develop the tools of rapport and communication that attend great coaching. In particular, many teachers will need to become better listeners.


  8. Teach teamwork. The standards don't dictate collaboration and teamwork among students, but it's an unspoken element—and it's the most difficult aspect of an inquiry-based process. Like anyone else turned loose to talk around a table, students can drift, get quickly off task, and generally avoid the problem to be solved. The old notion of group work is inadequate for remediating this; it will be necessary for teachers to explicitly teach the tenets of teamwork: Commitment, accountability, and shared responsibility, as well as communication tools for listening and speaking. It will help immensely if teachers also collaborate with one another and practice the skills they would like to see in students.


  9. Guide inquiry. By definition, inquiry has an open-ended quality: A teacher may not be quite sure where and how the answer will be found, whether one answer is better than another, or whether the process is taking too much or too little time. Success usually is the result of a series of teacher judgments in the moment, the teacher's ability to endure a bit of chaos, and an intuitive sense of how to steer the ship when seas are rough. In the literature, these strengths are called flexibility and resiliency. The standards make them mandatory.


  10. Encourage innovation. Finally, the standards are the best answer we have at the moment to spurring critical thinking and creativity in students. The standards will accomplish those lofty goals—if teachers honor the spirit and intention of the standards by rewarding innovation, helping students find unusual solutions, and periodically admitting that not everything in the standards is the final answer on life. An attitude of excitement and investigation will go a long way in a Common Core classroom.

Thom Markham is a psychologist and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert Tools for Inquiry and Innovation for K–12 Educators, and the forthcoming book, Redefining Smart: The Return of the Heart. Download tools for project-based learning on his website,, or contact him by e-mail at

Comments (1)


December 25, 2012


Dear Doctor Markham:

Thank you very much for your insightful and inspirational article filled with understanding for both the teachers and students to teach and learn with liberty in an appropriate but not restricted CCS constraints…
“...not everything in the standards is the final answer on life. An attitude of excitement and investigation will go a long way in a Common Core classroom.”

Still have much to learn about “...steer the ship when seas are rough”
to be the “WHOLE teacher” to my dear students.

Would like very much to hear your reply and further guidance.
Thank you very much.

Waukegan, IL
at 1:01 A.M.

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