Cognitive Skills and the Common Core Standards — By Betsy Hill

Teachers, principals and district administrators around the country are fully in the throes of working on the transition to the new Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards, the product of an initiative of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, have now been adopted by 45 of the 50 states (Minnesota has adopted the standards for English Language Arts, but not for Math). The standards “define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.”   The standards make it clear that they are the “what,” and not the “how.” How teachers teach is for schools and teachers to determine.

The importance of developing students’ cognitive skills is both explicit and implicit in the new standards. On the explicit side, the Common Core Standards are designed to emphasize the application of knowledge, not just its acquisition, and the use of “high-order cognitive skills,” including reasoning justification, synthesis, analysis and problem-solving.  These high-order cognitive skills presuppose the ability to use lower-level cognitive skills, and then apply them in a highly integrated, contextual and purposeful (meta-cognitive) way.

On the implicit side, the skills and knowledge defined in the standards suggest heavier demands on cognitive skills than in most previous state standards. For example, the development of reading comprehension is emphasized in the reading and language arts standards. Research is increasingly enlightening us on the critical role of cognitive processes such as working memory, sequential processing and visualization in reading comprehension. Thus, while the standards do not call out working memory, sequential processing or visualization specifically, well-developed skills in these areas will be essential to performing at the level envisioned by the standards.

The fact that different students come to the learning experience with different cognitive capacity is acknowledged in the standards, when they refer to the “great variety of needs, learning rates and achievement levels of students.” However, slower learning rates or deficiencies in cognitive processing do not exempt teachers or students from the expectations of attaining the standards. “All students must have the opportunity to learn and meet the same high standards if they are to access the knowledge and skills in their post-high school lives.”

If the standards are the “what,” then bridging the gaps and differences in cognitive capacity (needs and learning rates) of students to meet the new expectations is a vital part of the “how.”

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