Teachers at the Odyssey School have a mandate from their school leaders, math teacher Ali Morgan said recently. Their charge is to figure out where the new Common Core academic standards intersect with the skills students will need to find jobs in an increasingly white-collar job force.

These new standards require students to learn fewer subjects in areas like math, but in deeper detail, encouraging students to think critically about the questions and collaborate with their peers to find solutions.

“In my mind, that’s asking us as teacher to prepare students to interact effectively with others, while deepening involvement in the content,” Morgan said.

That challenge — finding the balance between meeting new education standards and teaching students to be collaborative and critical thinkers — is one of the many issues Morgan and about 10 other Denver teachers touched on as part of a workshop held last week at Galvanize as part of Summer Institute, a professional development program.

Teachers at the Odyssey School find this balance in a number of ways. Students are expected to demonstrate their mastery of Common Core skills for their grade level, while also demonstrating habits the school has identified as crucial to success: responsibility, revision, inquiry, perspective taking, collaboration and leadership, and service and stewardship. Morgan’s sixth grade math class focuses on the habit of inquiry, generating and analyzing questions to better understand the content.

Morgan said the way students are taught at the Odyssey School, although not directly related, correlate with Common Core. At the end of each year students’ growth is measured in all subjects, and they are given the opportunity to discuss with their teachers how the habits taught in class influenced their success. Allowing students to reflect on their year’s work makes the chances of them retaining it higher.

Teaching Soft Skills

Panelist Brett Goldberg, an entrepreneur who works at software company FieldTek, Inc., said while tech skills are important, teaching kids good communication and collaboration are key to successful businesses and work environments.

“They may be considered soft skills, but they can make or break a company,” Goldberg said.

That is what many teachers are focusing on in their lesson plans. Patrick Seamars, a Spanish teacher at Manual High School, said his classrooms are very collaboration-heavy and project-based.

While several of the educators at the panel agreed that this model of teaching is beneficial, the problem lies in teaching students to think critically and work with one another in an environment that is extremely test-intensive and individualistic.

“(The schools) seem to know that and hear that — the importance of soft skills like communication — but with the reform movement it’s more about getting the correct answers on a test,” Allan Cutler, a librarian at Stanley British Primary School, said.

Teachers’ Concerns

Several teachers said the big challenge is time: school districts have set up a short time frame to implement the Common Core and teachers said they struggle to find the time to introduce the collaboration and critical thinking lessons.

Seamars said students need to be taught that failure is a positive thing in the learning process, but the current learning environment does not allow that. He said in high school — at a time where it is crucial to learn how to cooperate and communicate effectively — students are uncomfortable with it.

“It’s not OK in the current paradigm to fail,” he said. “My classes have always been project based and (students) feel uncomfortable, but if I give them an assignment and tell them, ‘Read this, fill in this blank, read this and tell me what you think I want to hear,’ then they thrive, and that’s unfortunate.”

Lori Nazareno, teacher leader in residence at the Center for Teaching Quality, said there is a dissonance between what educators want to teach and what they can teach.

“We want to create cooperative, collaborative, creative and entrepreneurial spirits in students, in a way that says ‘OK, you have to sit in this row and fill in this bubble’,” Nazareno said.

Coglianese said that problem is also seen in his own company. He recently made several new hires and sees how uncomfortable they are with being on their own and generating unique ideas.

“I’m teaching them on a daily basis,” he said. “That look your students have on their face when you tell them to work on a new project is the same look they have.” They look terrified and the reason they look terrified is they don’t yet have enough information to feel confident doing that.

Nazareno said it will take teachers like Morgan and Seamars to effectively integrate these changes. Gaps between what teachers currently teach and what they need to teach to meet these standards will take time, space and support from school administrations and the public as they try to align their lesson plans with the students needs and the standards.

Update: This article has been updated. It previously stated that Summer Institute was held in part by the University of Colorado Denver, when UCD only provided space for one of the program’s workshops.