Isabel Sawyer's picture

An Inch Wide and a Mile Deep: Thinking Deeply About the Common Core Standards

I spent the last couple of days with colleagues in Chicago at the Chicago Lesson Study Conference. Not only did we eat great snow crab legs in a “duck your head to get in down-under” restaurant (picture below), we also explored the common core standards and their connection to lesson study.

Mission Statement

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

In our new Common Core, there are fewer standards than exist in most state standard documents. Therefore, they are much more teachable and attainable for students. Our new national standards contain rigorous content and expect students to apply higher order skills—they view rigor as depth and complexity.

But, because of their complexity and thoughtfulness, we can’t just “cover” the national standards as we have with many of our state standards. At the conference, we were encouraged not to use words like alignment and covering when we reference the Common Core. Covering and alignment imply that our instruction is a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s NOT about covering any longer—what is important now is digging a mile deep and an inch wide into rigorous content.

Phil Daro begged us to stop writing the standard on the board in order to feel as if we have taught it—he said, Lesson study may be more than wonderful; it may be necessary. In order to understand the new standards we may have to engage in lesson study and explore them deeply and completely—more so than we have done with state standards in the past.

Steven Leinwand from the American Institutes of Research said, I know of no better professional development than to put a standard on the screen and discuss: What does this really mean? What other better way, then, to explore the new standards than through lesson study?

entrance to restaurant serving snow crab legs

(The crabs were almost as good as the Common Core conversation!)

Isabel Sawyer, PhD, is a Regional Director at Center for the Collaborative Classroom. She presents keynotes, workshops, presentations, and professional development for teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators across the country. Previously Isabel worked as a lead instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools and as an instructional coordinator for an inner-city school in Charlottesville, Virginia. Isabel holds her PhD from the University of Virginia and serves as an adjunct instructor in UVA's Curry School of Education. She has presented at local, state, and national conferences and worked with schools across the country as an independent consultant. 


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Comments (2)

Such an important

Such an important conversation to have.  How deep is our instruction?  How deeply can we understand what the common core is asking us to do with our instruction to impact learning.  

The reflection process needed to understand that depth has to be done collaboratively as we consider the curriculum, instruction and the learner.  (Which is also the essence of the RtI framework).


I disagree with this whole

I disagree with this whole take on knowledge. 

What this 'mile deep' strategy leads to is a class of students who can’t generalize about the world, can’t extend what they learned about one topic to another, and if they find that topic that is narrowly focused on boring, they are out of luck.

Certainly, a cursory take on subjects is not the best strategy, but neither is going a mile deep so one can’t cover enough topics to get an understanding of the field of study. We need to stop using this metaphor and teach as thoroughly and completely as the subject, level of class and student require.