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The 'Affective Domain': Why Common Core Is Guaranteed to Fail

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My older son, who is a high school junior this year, recently talked with me about his desire to pursue a career in counseling.

As he has grown, I have watched with amazement as his classmates gravitate naturally to him.  My amazement stems from my own childhood.  Socially, I was - shall we say - two weeks shy of a full moon. (And to date, in my upper forties, the moon still hasn't quite waxed full.)  I have told my older son numerous times that he is everything I wish I had been at his age.  The problem is they don't give out grades for your 'cool factor'.  (If they did, he would be a straight-A student and I would have been a drop-out.)

But even though he has struggled somewhat academically, he is excited by the opportunity to take AP Psychology.  I think what is happening here is he is becoming familiar with counseling as a profession - and noticing that he can actually make a good living doing what he has always done naturally: being there for a friend, being a good listener, encouraging someone who is struggling.

It seems like a light has come on.  He has an idea about why his high school diploma matters.  But there are two things about this which are crucial: It is his idea, not mine or his mom's.  And the most important part of his idea is his emotional investment in it.  He is starting to discover how his education contributes to the development of who he is.

Educators call this the "Affective Domain."

Before I explain that, let me contrast it with the "Cognitive Domain."  This is a five-level construct of learning, with each level representing a 'higher' level.

The Cognitive Domain starts with 'knowledge'.  This is simply being able to recall facts and figures as they were taught to you.  On top of 'knowledge' is built 'comprehension'.  This is the ability to restate what you have learned in different terms.  Often times it is produced by the ability to relate something you already know to the material you are being taught.  On top of 'comprehension' is built 'analysis'.  This is the ability to take these new concepts and break them up into discrete parts.  This will usually be a process of recognizing how a new subject is partly related to or similar to another subject.  When you are able to break multiple subjects up into their constituent parts and then reassemble some of those parts into a new whole, you are engaging in 'synthesis' - which is built on 'analysis'.  And then there is 'application'.  This is simply the ability to answer a single question: "So what?"  (Why is the subject important?  Who will make use of it.  How will they make use of it?)

My wife and I took a week off a few years back to tear up the carpet on the second floor of our home and put down a new laminate floor.  As I approached the boys' rooms, which are next to each other, the angles at their inside door jambs were a real challenge.  I applied the "measure twice, cut once" rule - and actually measured quite a few times, putting to work my recollection of high school geometry.  Satisfied with my measurements, I went to the table saw and started cutting.  I brought the planks upstairs and laid them down one by one.  After laying down the last one - the one with the most complex cut - I called the boys over.  I picked that last plank up, showed it to the boys and said "this is why you do your geometry homework!" I dropped in back into place.  It was a perfect fit.

The Affective Domain describes both the sense of competence that I could take on the project to begin with, and the sense of satisfaction I then got from standing back after finishing and admiring how terrific the upstairs of our house looked.  That would have never happened without a basic competency - the Cognitive Domain - in geometry.

For my older son, the Affective Domain describes the formation of this sense that his education is his education - the sense that he is working toward his goals instead of toward mom and dad's expectations.  The Affective Domain describes how a student owns the requirements of the Cognitive Domain.  Education only really succeeds when we attend to both.

And this is why Common Core is guaranteed to fail.

Will Education Become Merely Another Chore?

Common Core proponents will point out - correctly and importantly - that these are 'standards', not a 'curriculum'.  Common Core is a set of 'core' standards around which other standards can supposedly be built.  The problems, though, are numerous:

1) At the end of the day, the effort is driven by test scores.  I will show below why standardized testing does not tell us anything really useful about how well our students have met the standards;

2) The budgetary imperatives of an educational bureaucracy dependent on federal funding will ensure efforts to teach to the Common Core standards will push other important standards to the margins, crowding out efforts to teach to these other important standards; and

3) By crowding out everything other than 'Common Core-aligned', Cognitive Domain teaching, the Affective Domain will end up completely neglected.  Education will no longer be about the student's discovery of their own life goals - and a love for how learning advances those goals - but about where they land on some statistical chart.

Education will then become just another chore.

A Square Peg in a Round Hole

The graphic to the left is the easily recognized "bell curve."  A 'standardized' test is a test that has been designed to produce a spread of scores which roughly fall along this curve.  If you can imagine dots representing groups of test scores on this graph, they would cluster evenly along the lines of the curve (called 'score spread').  That even clustering of scores along the standard deviation curve is what puts the 'standard' in standardized testing.

This does two things: 1) it establishes a valid 'norm' - the line in the center; and 2) it ranks each test taker against that norm.  If you have looked at the results from your kids' standardized tests and see that they are in the '90th percentile' that means the dot representing their score would have fallen to the right somewhere along the curve between the "1" and "1.5" line.

It is crucial, though, to understand why this kind of test was developed to begin with.  During World War I the U.S. Army needed a way to identify which among its recruits would go on to Officer Candidate School (OCS).  They commissioned a test which would establish a norm and rank each test taker against that norm so they could identify a certain top percentile and send those recruits off to OCS.  Colleges and universities immediately saw that they had a similar problem.  If they had 100 seats for the incoming freshman class, but had 1,000 applicants, they needed to establish a norm and then rank the applicants against that norm so they could determine which 100 among those 1,000 applicants - the 90th percentile - to admit.  Standardized testing was born. (See Dr. James Popham's "The Truth About Testing" for this history.)

So let's go back to Common Core - and just take up the Cognitive Domain.  We are asking how well our students have done mastering the material called out in the core standards.  The tests, though, are designed to tell us where our students fall against a statistical norm - not the standards.  We are trying to put a square peg in a round hole!

We also have to ask ourselves a question about the statistical norm.  There is another norm to attend to - our cultural norm.  This describes what we culturally believe to be the norm, for example, for a child's reading skills.  When my oldest was in third grade we went to the public library and asked to see the third grade reading list.  We were shocked as the books on that list were books my son had read in first grade.  If the statistical norm does not match the cultural norm, as far as how my kids rank against that statistical norm?  Well, to quote Hillary Clinton, "at this point, what difference does it make?"

And we haven't even introduced the Affective Domain into this analysis yet.

Here is where we have to let the anecdotal stories which are piling up speak to us.  Great teachers are abandoning the profession rather than watch the love for learning they have spent their lives nurturing crowded out of the classroom by the budgetary imperatives of the educational bureaucracy.  They cannot bear to watch something our kids should learn to love become nothing but just another chore.  Common Core is crowding out attention to the Affective Domain in favor of a dot on a bell curve chart.

© Copyright 2014, Xanesti Creative Solutions
Understand Where Common Core Will Take Us

This is going to be really over the top, but it is a reality to which every parent in this country must be exposed.  I have written earlier about the comparison between our students and Asian students in terms of test score performance, and how even Asian educational policy-makers are asking why these same high performing students are noticeably absent later on in life among the thought-leaders in things like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But there is a much more compelling reality.  And in light of how our students are persistently compared with their Asian counterparts, it is essential this reality be examined.

In an article about suicide rates among Asian students, Andrew Lam brings together statistics and anecdotes to bring to the public's attention the significantly higher incidents of suicide among these students.  I'll leave the reader to explore these compelling stories in the linked article.  The thing about this, though, that is most compelling in the context of this discussion is how shockingly consistent the suicide notes are.  Inevitably they express despair at not being able to live up to mom and dad's expectations.

My wife - who is Malaysian Chinese - and I talk, and even argue, about this often.  In Asian culture the family name is prized.  And a student's performance in school is tied to the honor of the family name.  Where this leads is to a focus on the Cognitive Domain to the all but complete exclusion of the Affective Domain.  Education never becomes about discovering one's own natural talents, interests and skills.  Instead it is all about grades and test scores.

The question is whether we will allow Common Core to take us to the place where mom and dad's expectations for grades and test scores drown out that discovery of the child's own natural talents and abilities.  If we do, will we end up at the point where some are overwhelmed with despair about not meeting those expectations?  That is a place where mom and dad are sometimes left with nothing more than a note stained by tears.

This simply has no place in American culture.  None whatsoever.  There is a lot about our educational culture that is determined by things other than policy decisions.  But this is the direction to which Common Core - by crowding out attention to the Affective Domain - will point us.

There are many routes to success in life.  And not all go through college.  But all routes to success, almost without exception, go through a high school diploma.  So the task at hand for my older son is to get that high school diploma with respectable grades in spite of the fact academics are not his strong suit.  But there is something even more important than test scores or even his grades: this discovery of something he excels at naturally so he can begin to form an idea of his own about what he wants to do with his life, and then develop a love for the lifelong process of learning which will take him there.

The grades will then follow.  The test scores are meaningless - except maybe to those Race to the Top grant applications.  And Common Core points us in a direction we do not want to go.

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