Social-Emotional Learning and the Common Core

By Katherine McKnight, Ph.D., author of The Common Sense Guide to the Common Core

Social-Emotional Learning and the Common CoreThere’s no magic spell that can transform students into learners. Strong standards alone can’t do it. Strong standards combined with inspired teaching, committed schools, a limitless supply of learning materials, and supportive communities can’t do it either. Students themselves need to be ready to learn before learning can happen. This means they have to have the emotional and social skills to master basic academic tasks, and they have to find meaning in the tasks that teachers ask them to perform. Each student needs to independently develop his or her own reason to grow.

Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) recognize and support this truth. In fact, CCSS is the first framework to promote student independence in skill building. It’s specifically referenced in the introduction to the ELA standards.

[Students who are college and career ready in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language] become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials. (CCSSI-ELA Standards, page 7)

A close reading of this quote clearly indicates that the authors of the standards consider teachers to be the number one resource in developing students’ learning skills. Please don’t misinterpret this. Students are not expected to teach themselves! Self-directed learning is a goal, it’s not a description of the path.

This isn’t something new. The CCSS wasn’t first in promoting self-directed learning, and it isn’t alone in recognizing its benefits. In recent years, many researchers and educators have talked about the advantages of letting students control their own learning experiences. Much has been written on the motivation, independent volition, and personal goal-setting of self-directed learners, and support for this learning style is still growing. My colleague, Richard Cash, continues to explore the connection between students’ affect, behavior, and cognition (what they feel, what they do, and how they think) in his upcoming book Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of the widely acclaimed book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, writes at length about the role of teachers in self-directed learning. Essentially, Dweck claims that by pushing students toward progressively more difficult tasks—and allowing them to fail in the pursuit of their goals—teachers can encourage a growth mindset. Helping students learn to generate new strategies in the face of setbacks is one of the ultimate teaching goals. Students who are prepared to adapt to ever-increasing complexities are most likely to succeed in college and beyond.

Both Dweck’s and Cash’s focus on progressively sophisticated tasks aligns with one of the key requirements of the Common Core standards for reading:

[S]tudents must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school. (CCSSI-ELA Standards, Appendix A, page 2)

What can teachers in a CCSS-aligned classroom do to ensure students are ready to learn today while encouraging them to grow into lifelong learners?

I think the most important thing we can do is to teach all of our students a wide variety of strategies: reading strategies, math strategies, and reasoning strategies. Not only will this help them master content today, it will help them when they enter the “real” world tomorrow. Ready or not, when they enter the workforce, our students will have access to extensive peer support networks and an ever-increasing number of reference sources that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago. While they are still our students, we teachers have the opportunity to equip them with tools that will enable them to take advantage of those resources.

We don’t need magic. Strong standards, like those in the Common Core State Standards, will ensure that we’re all working together toward the same achievable goals. And when I say “all of us,” I mean all of us—teachers, administrators, parents, communities, and most importantly, the students themselves.

The Student-Centered Learning ChecklistBonus! Download the Student-Centered Learning checklist from The Common Sense Guide to the Common Core. Use this checklist for self-reflection at the end of every day to help you make sure you are placing students at the center of your curriculum and instruction.


Author Katherine McKnightKatherine McKnight, Ph.D., is an author, an educator, and a consultant. Her career in education began as a high school English teacher in the Chicago Public School system more than 25 years ago. She is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Her books include Interdisciplinary Literacy for English, Social Studies and Humanities; Interdisciplinary Literacy for Science and Mathematics; Getting Students College and Career Ready: Using Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (Grades 9–12); and The Teacher’s Big Book of Graphic Organizers, Grades 5–12, which was a recipient of the 2013 Teachers’ Choice Award.

The Common Sense Guide to the Common CoreKatherine is the author of The Common Sense Guide to the Common Core: Teacher-Tested Tools for Implementation.


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