Unlock deeper learning with foundational skills practice

By Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research

Someday someone will write a retrospective book about the origins of the Common Core State Standards. It’ll be a story of policy and politics, testing, international benchmarking, and teaching. (Mostly politics.) This book will likely never be made into a must-see movie, but from a policy and implementation standpoint, it will be a fascinating read.

Part of the story will look at what the standards authors and advocates didn’t anticipate. Implementing large and complex initiatives—such as new educational standards—often results in as many unintended outcomes as intended ones.

New standards—whether called Common Core, college and career ready, or another name depending on your state—are placing greater emphasis than ever on depth (i.e., complexity) of learning. We want “students to demonstrate deeper conceptual understanding through the application of content knowledge and skills to new situations and sustained tasks” (Hess, Carlock, Jones, & Walkup, 2009, p. 1). A popular frame of reference for thinking about depth and cognitive demand of assessments, standards, and content is Norman Webb’s “depth of knowledge” (DOK), which is popularly conceptualized in four levels, from least to most complex: (1) Recall & Reproduction, (2) Basic Skills & Concepts, (3) Strategic Thinking & Reasoning, and (4) Extended Thinking.

Though emphasizing deeper and more complex tasks is a welcome development, it’s a common misconception (an unintended consequence of the standards rollout) that students should now be spending far less time on learning and practicing foundational skills (DOK levels 1 and 2).

Here’s the reality: , and this is particularly true in mathematics. Descriptive analyses of the Common Core State Standards prepared for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium showed that 89 percent of all mathematics standards are designated DOK level 1 and 79 percent are specified as DOK level 2, while only 21 percent and one percent encompass DOK levels 3 and 4, respectively (Sato, Lagunoff, & Worth, 2011). (Standards often cover a range of DOK levels.) Examinations of standards in non-CCSS states have produced similar findings.

Research tells us why practicing foundational skills is so important. According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (2009), basic processes that initially place demands on working memory become automatic with practice, and this automaticity makes room for higher-level concerns. Willingham recommends that students acquire background knowledge—in other words, foundational skills—while practicing critical-thinking skills, noting that “critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge” (p. 37). While educators must offer students opportunities to acquire and demonstrate deeper, more complex learning, it’s important to remember that doing so must begin on a solid foundation of basic skills—skills that require instruction, practice, and feedback.

In recent years, cognitive psychologists, neurologists, and educational researchers have learned a lot about practice—namely how it works and why (if done correctly) skills practice can be so impactful when it comes to building a strong foundation for more complex skills. We have summarized this research in a new paper called Going Deeper: The Role of Effective Practice in Encouraging Profound Learning. The research and analyses all point to one conclusion: foundational and more complex skills aren’t an either/or proposition. Students need both to be successful.


Hess, K. K., Carlock, D., Jones, B., & Walkup, J. R. (2009, June). What exactly do “fewer, clearer, and higher standards” really look like in the classroom? Using a cognitive rigor matrix to analyze curriculum, plan lessons, and implement assessments. Presented at CCSSO, Detroit, MI. Retrieved from http://www.nciea.org/publications/cognitiverigorpaper_KH12.pdf

Sato, E., Lagunoff, R., & Worth, P. (2011, March). SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium Common Core State Standards analysis: Eligible content for the summative assessment: Final report. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Smarter-Balanced-CCSS-Eligible-Content-Final-Report.pdf

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research
Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research
Eric Stickney works with external independent researchers who conduct evaluations of Renaissance programs. He specializes in analyzing reading and mathematics data collected from millions of students in North America and the UK.

1 Comment

  1. Roslyn Brown says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the concept. It directly contradicts most school who don’t seem to think that students need to practice their skills on a daily basis.