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Beyond Unpacking: How to personalize a standard

Beyond Unpacking: How to personalize a standard

Personalized Learning  |  Curriculum Strategy & Adoption

If you’re an educator, my guess is that at some point in your career you’ve been to a workshop focusing on unpacking standards. Unpacking a standard refers to the practice of reviewing what is often a long, clause-ridden statement and breaking it down into component parts to identify what students should know and be able to do. 

This is a worthy pursuit, as standards are rarely, if ever, written in language that students and parents truly understand. For example, take this ELA Common Core item:  “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.” There is a lot going on there; even for a well-practiced teacher.


Unpacking standards can be a tad reductive and more than a little boring.


A common practice involves having teachers circle and underline statements in a standard: “Circle the nouns in the standard...that’s what students need to know. Now, underline the verbs...that’s what students need to be able to do.” From there, you might write some student-friendly “I can” statements, and then start thinking about a lesson plan for the entire class.

Is there anything wrong with this picture? If part of a thoughtful process about what students really need to know to be successful, there is nothing wrong at all; it can be an essential step in developing learning targets for competency-based education. But many educators crave the charge to be creative in their work, and standards can feel stifling. So here’s a follow-up question to consider: how can we make the unpacking standards richer, fuller, more inspiring? And how can we personalize learning in a standards-driven culture?


Charting the course in personalized learning [Blog]


Consider these options

There are several directions to take when “unpacking” standards that I think educators might want to consider in order to reflect on what students need, and frankly, to have a bit more fun thinking about what can be a dry set of objectives. They will not all apply to every standard, but hopefully at least of few of them stretch your thinking about how you might make standards more relevant, engaging, and personal for both you and your students:

  • Curiosity - how can you get students to ask their own questions about this standard? Your average 5-year old is as open and curious as they come. You might assign someone the role of “Kindergarten Questioner” in a workshop to ask all manner of questions that get you to think differently about what’s interesting or assumed about a certain standard.
  • Culture - how would different cultures think about the standard you’re unpacking? How can you embed the lesson you’re looking to teach in the cultural context of the students that you have in your classroom?
  • Community - how does the standard connect to the world around you and your students? Here’s a PD exercise I’ve always wanted to try - leave the school building, go walk somewhere your students walk (a park, a nearby street, the mall, etc), and think about how you might connect a standard to that experience.
  • Career - where does knowledge of this standard lead? Brainstorm 5-10 different jobs in which mastery of this standard would be important. Design lessons or problems that ask students to pretend they’re succeeding in that career.
  • Delivery and Interaction - when students are learning about the standard, how much of that experience is driven by the teacher? Where can they explore and form their own hypotheses? What resources, online or offline, will you use?
  • Design - can you do something totally different, like a game or a puzzle, to get kids interacting with key concepts? What if students had to master a standard to “break out” of your classroom? This exists, and designing a game like that is an incredibly fun unpacking experience.

If you’re able to tease out some great answers to these questions, and connect your practice to students’ strengths, needs, and interests accordingly, my guess is you’ll be moving in the right direction on one dimension of personalizing standards-based instruction.


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About Mike Wolking - Guest Author

Mike Wolking was formerly a Senior Strategist at Education Elements, and left to pursue the Ian Axford Fellowship in Public Policy in New Zealand.

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