The Critical Skills Program: An Experiential Approach to Implementing the Common Core

As educators everywhere continue “rolling out” the Common Core State Standards, many worry that the Common Core will roll over them – and their students- at the same time.  One group of educators, utilizing the Critical Skills Classroom approach to instruction, is taking a more optimistic perspective, seizing the notion that “a teacher might prefer to teach a topic of his or her own choosing that leads, as a byproduct, to students reaching the standards for topics A and B,” (NGA, Math, p.5) as an opportunity for powerful transformation in their classrooms. They are taking to heart the call that “teachers are…free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the standards.” (NGA, ELA p. 4) Students in their classrooms solve meaningful problems, combining not only discipline specific content but also the skills and dispositions necessary for successful participation in our 21st Century society.   

For Critical Skills teachers, the expectations of the Common Core math and ELA standards flow easily back and forth across disciplines and learning experiences.  These teachers, trained through Antioch University New England’s Critical Skills (formerly Education By Design) instructional program, are using the CCSS as a platform for “challenges,” the rigorous, interdisciplinary, inquiry-driven lessons used for as a primary instructional tool in Critical Skills Classrooms.  Rather than bearing the responsibility for imparting all information, teachers are charged with structuring experiences and then with clarifying, questioning, prompting and guiding students as they tackle increasingly messy problems- creating environments in which students take ownership of their work and learning. 

Critical Skills teachers utilize a set of skills and dispositions (see sidebar) as a springboard for their own instructional design, but the Critical Skill classroom is also an excellent vehicle for building the skills defined by the 21st Century Skills, Habits of Mind, International Baccalaureate and other locally grown “Learner Attributes” lists equally successfully.

In Millie Pike’s 2nd grade classroom, this might take the form of a Fairy House challenge in which students (groups of 2 or 3) must combine their understanding of local climate, habitats, and how people adapt to the changes in the natural world in order to survive (the central idea of the International Baccalaureate program to which her school subscribes).  After reading How to Find Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker students were excited and motivated to build their own fairy house or other mystical creature that may live in the woods. Then the class read Fairy Houses by Tracy Kane to learn more about building them. They stuck to the rules of the woods as described in Kane’s book, to use only natural and non-living things. Following a series of intense rain storms, students returned to their structures to see assess the damage, make home repairs, and consider what they should do differently to provide a safe structure for their fairies. Throughout the planning and building process, students wrote about their progress and observations.  Students drew pictures of their fairy houses and described their design, including materials and how the structure would protect their fairies and help them to adapt to and survive the harsh NH winter. Then, they drew a picture of what they would like to do for “home improvements” based on the outcome after the storm.

In another classroom, the teacher may ask students to help “spruce up” the post-holiday room by creating a unique mobile, using items given to create a balanced mobile to hang from the classroom ceiling. While students are practicing innovation and creative thinking, they are also demonstrating an understanding of the concept of balance, weights and measures.  When they present their mobiles and the processes by which they achieved balance, (after referring to a class-generated rubric describing Quality Speaking and Quality Listening), they are practicing the speaking and listening standards (NGA, ELA p.22).

Older students might act as horticulturists within a fictional scenario, applying principals of biology and geometry along with ever-developing collaboration skills in order to win a specific contract or be charged with the creation of a math game that will convince national leaders not to remove multiplication from middle school classrooms.  (see sidebar)

In each case, the teacher wraps up the experience by helping students to reflect upon their what they have learned and done, gaining both formative data about their understanding and an opportunity for students to become metacognitive learners. This new learning and the gaps or new questions that emerge as a result become the foundation for the next challenge, creating a curriculum which “is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” (NGA, ELA p. 10)  

The specifics of each challenge differ based upon not only data around student learning needs and objectives, but also the unique interests of the students and the local context.  Over time and with experience, challenges are designed to become increasingly complex, building upon one another as students gain new content and process skills, embodying the idea that we think in terms of “Students who already know…should next come to learn…” as described in the standards. (NGA, Math, p. 5)  Classroom structures, rituals, and traditions move students into the center of the work, but also provide clarity about what quality product, process and content learning looks and sounds like at each juncture- the Quality Criteria for the process, content, and form of the work.

The Common Core State Standards require that, “students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations- as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner,” and that “students contribute accurate, relevant information, respond to and develop what others have said; make comparisons and contrasts; and analyze and synthesize a multitude of ideas in various domains.”(NGA, ELA p.22) The Critical Skills Program goes one further than this by providing not just opportunities for students to practice collaboration and communication in meaningful contexts, but also structures for teachers to teach and assess these skills (as well as research, critical thinking, and media skills described in the standards) (NGA, ELA p. 4) so students don’t just learn how to do them perfunctorily or in specific discipline settings- they learn how to do them well in a variety of situations.


National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers,


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