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  • Sara Needleman

Unpacking Standards

I wonder if any of you are like me in being compulsively organized? My family suffers through my affliction in the tidiness of our home, but I sometimes see my compulsion as a cornerstone of my ability to plan and deliver lessons, units and whole courses. The desire to organize has helped me broaden the usual approach to “unpacking standards,” the topic I promised to return to after my last post. In that post, I discussed that my starting place for planning curriculum at the course or unit level is not the standards but big ideas and the Essential Questions which stem from them. Once I have those, I seek out the standards that I should address through their study. That’s where the unpacking and organizing come in.

“Unpacking” is commonly defined as figuring out what the students need to understand, internalize and demonstrate according to the language of the standard. North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction provides some strong print resources that deconstruct the College and Career Readiness standards in conjunction with the content-specific standards of the Common Core. You can find links by grade level to that useful tool here. If you’re game for jumping on my train of thinking about where to place those unpacked standards (gotta stay organized, right?) and especially if you’re a visual learner, check out this resource from California’s Digital Chalkboard.

“How to Unpack a Standard” on the Digital Chalkboard addresses a few really important ideas in this process. First, the teacher has to identify the concepts contained within the standard, “the what.” Next, it’s helpful to figure out the skill or the type of thinking attached to “the what.” And, finally, we teachers need to identify the context for working on that thinking. Here’s an example from Reading: Literature at the 8th grade level:

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

KEY: red = “the what,” blue = type of thinking, purple = context

This is where the manic organizer in me, the person who wants to unpack things into their proper places, takes over. I start to think about the demands of this standard: How complex is the thinking it asks students to do? How broad is the context? How challenging will it be for my students to grasp the central concept?

I have three schemas for putting the unpacked standard into little, manageable compartments. First, I use my trusty taxonomies (Blooms, Marzano and Wiggins and McTighe are my favs) to figure out the complexity of the thinking. In addition to knowing how complex the requisite thinking is, I like to categorize the thinking into factual, conceptual or procedural knowledge. Here’s what I mean:

Factual: names, dates, places, definitions and terms, memorized formulas or sequences

Conceptual: explanations of how and why, impacts resulting from, reasons behind, contributing factors

Procedural: writing a bibliography, writing a paragraph, using a microscope, using a protractor, drawing axes, making a map

Finally, once I have identified complexity and category, I can access the compartments labeled “lesson,” “connected lessons,” “unit” or “course” in my own head to figure out which of those the standard and all its component parts fits into.

In short, I do think “unpacking” is an important process, but as a process unto itself, without a system for organizing the unpacked pieces of the standard, it’s incomplete. My organizational tools are the taxonomies I mention above; the categories factual, conceptual and procedural; and my own understanding of the time it takes to successfully move students to proficiency with the standard.

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