How to Unpack a Standard

He must be getting ready for the new school year

By Scott Sterling

Adapted from Libby Garst’s excellent pre-conference session at Building Expertise 2014, Rigorous Standards-Based Unit Planning – Math. 

We spent quite a bit of time last month bringing up the concept of unpacking a standard without going into much depth. Perhaps veterans are already quite comfortable with the concept, but it’s time for those who aren’t acquainted to become familiar with this very important skill that should come into play whenever you plan a lesson.

What does it mean to unpack a standard?

Simply put, standards aren’t always written in the most accessible language. They certainly don’t tell teachers what a lesson that features the standard looks like. Unpacking a standard means to analyze that language, extracting clues that describe two aspects of the standard that students need to know: essential knowledge and essential skills.

Essential knowledge

Many teachers know essential knowledge by its other name: declarative knowledge. This type of knowledge includes the facts a student needs to know to master the standard. Let’s say you’re looking at a fourth-grade Operations & Algebraic Thinking standard from Common Core State Standards. What does a student need to know to be successful in this standard? The key phrases are highlighted for you.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.OA.A.3

Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted.

Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity.

Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

There is obviously some background knowledge that a student needs in order to be successful here, but the new ideas are the ability to identify and interpret remainders, to figure out a letter’s purpose in an equation, and assessing the reasonableness of a possible answer. Those help form your learning goals for the lesson.

Essential skills

In the same standard, students are also asked to perform new tasks that require practice, and exercising of those new facets of knowledge. Compared to the essential knowledge, it’s easy to figure out where the essential skills are hiding in the standard: they are the phrases that start or contain a verb.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.OA.A.3

  • Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted.
  • Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity.
  • Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

 

This can also help you form learning goals for the lesson/unit, as well as pre-, post-, and formative assessment. From there, you just arrange those skills on the taxonomy of your choice and build the appropriate cognitively-complex tasks into your lesson. Who said standards are inaccessible?

Next week: Exploring Conative Skills

Do you find standards as inaccessible as other teachers do? How do your old standards compare to new standards like CCSS? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

Want to go into even more depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Learning Sciences International bookstore for resources that help educators make the critical instructional shift required by rigorous standards.