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Uncommon core: Refining key practices through STEM

By Jon Bishop
May 1, 2017
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Leonardo da Vinci once said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Sir Isaac Newton opined “truth is found in simplicity, not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” With shifting priorities, new mandates and changing legislation, the field of education is increasingly anything but simple.

As a STEM educator, I continue to wrestle with the wide variety of requirements and challenges educators face every day. But I believe Isaac and Leo were on to something with simplicity. I believe that while life as an educator is becoming increasingly complex, by reflecting on and refining key practices, we can cultivate a streamlined, yet sophisticated learning environment. In my STEM classroom, we have refined our work to identify and use a set of five core practices; our uncommon core.

Work in my STEM classroom has allowed me to get messy, to tinker and try a number of strategies with students. Perhaps the greatest opportunity has been to observe students through the lens of integrated STEM learning experiences and to see essential practices, which range across our standards, come to life in their work.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were developed to refine content and practices with an eye toward fewer, clearer and higher expectations for student learning. Recently, ISTE released its refreshed and revitalized set of standards for students in an effort to provide a clearer, overarching picture of the skills students will need for success in the future.

Each of these standard sets includes a series of practices that reflect the aptitude, skills, drive and strategies desired for students. While each set represents unique targets, at the core of each lies a relatively similar vision of skills, dispositions and practices our students will need to shape the future. By working with students in a project-based STEM classroom, I have observed students using key ELA, math, NGSS and ISTE practices. Rather than considering a series of four isolated pockets of various practices, the opportunity presents itself to identify and analyze the commonalities in the practices evident in my students’ work in order to develop a restructured conceptual packaging of key practices to work smarter.

While there is no such thing as a silver bullet, there is a possible common sauce for success through a framework for reduction and simplification within the standards. I was inspired by John Maeda and Mike Schmoker’s works on simplicity and focus as I reviewed the CCSS, NGSS and ISTE Standards for Students. Throughout the review, I sought to conceptually bundle the practices of the standards by identifying similarities and intersections of practice to identify core conceptual categories and bring about a sense of cohesion across domains.

From this, a “less is more” philosophy was applied to better understand practices in the standards and guide student learning with a clear sense of an aligned practices for use in my STEM classroom, and across all disciplines. After multiple revisions, I developed a set of five overarching core practices I seek to develop with and in my students and to provide teachers with a clearer view of intersections to use across curricula.

Work in my STEM classroom and using LEGO Education kits has provided an exceptional opportunity to develop students within these five areas:

Drive and grit. The world is a challenging place and students must be prepared to live and lead in a constantly changing world. This shifting work will require students to continually learn and seek growth and understanding. Through this challenging work, they make sense of the world, work to completion and their best ability, search for information and solutions, and become independent empowered learners.

Strategic and critical thinking. With so much information available today, knowledge has replaced wisdom. Students need to know how to evaluate and discerningly use appropriate information to make informed decisions, then carefully consider the vehicles they use to convey or construct their meaning.

Building knowledge. The constructivist model of learning, in which one builds understanding through interaction, allows learners to continually develop and refine informed views through experience. As students build their knowledge through instruction and research, they develop a strong base for reasoning, explanation and solutions. This provides a strong foundation of conceptual and skill-based connections for future growth.

Making sense. To better understand the world and its interactions, it’s important make sense of patterns. Using information, students develop intellectual or other models to represent their sense of the concept or skill. Students then innovate on their understanding, creating a new and novel representation to showcase their mastery.

Collaborating and empathizing
In an increasingly digital and busy world, it is important to retain an understanding of the physical and relational world we live in. Students must work well alongside others and learn to lead and be led. Understanding the needs and perspectives of others allows them to better interact in a world that extends far beyond themselves.

Through integrated STEM learning with LEGO MINDSTORMS Education EV3 and WeDo 2.0 robots, students have the opportunity to stick with problems and display drive and grit. They have to think strategically and critically about the information they will need and how they will use it. As they work and learn, they build their knowledge through authentic methods as they follow many of their own questions.

Pulling all of the information together, students make sense and represent their learning through models. Finally, through the collaborative process and an understanding of design thinking, students develop a broader sense of the world around them. Through STEM, my students are becoming future ready.

With limited time, energy and resources, it’s vital we begin to narrow our focus on what’s right and best for students and their future. Through STEM integration and a focus on these five “uncommon core” practices, teachers can narrow their world and find opportunities to multiply their efforts in an increasingly streamlined, integrated approach. An amazing future awaits the students in our schools, and we have the awesome responsibility of preparing them for a world that does not yet exist. By using this uncommon core as outlined in this chart, we can increase our own efficiency while better preparing them to be uncommon themselves.

Jon Bishop is the K-12 STEM coordinator for the Canton Public Schools in Canton, Connecticut. He is passionate about educational technology, STEM learning and experiential education. In his position, Jon models STEM concepts in the Collab Lab for grades 4-6, teaches middle and high school computer coding and robotics, and coordinates the district robotics teams. Jon also works closely with teachers and district specialists to integrate innovative practices in the schools and enjoys cultivating programs. Outside of school, Jon is a LEGO Education Ambassador, an active member of his state’s Computer Science Teachers Association, and Assistant Director of Camp Eagle Wing in Machias, Maine. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @jonmbishop.