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Common Core Big Idea 3: Standards Must Be Unpacked

Jay McTighe

education author and consultant
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Editor's note: This is the third post in a five-part series which takes a look at five big ideas for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, authored by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

As suggested in my previous post, the first step in translating the Common Core Standards into engaging and outcome-focused curriculum involves a careful reading of the documents in order to ensure clarity about the end results and an understanding of how the pieces fit together. This idea is not new. Over the years, we have suggested various ways of unpacking standards in conjunction with our work with the Understanding by Design framework.

When working with the Common Core, we recommend that educators “unpack” them into four broad categories -- 1) Long-term Transfer Goals, 2) Overarching Understandings, 3) Overarching Essential Questions, and 4) a set of recurring Cornerstone Tasks.

The first category, Transfer Goals, identifies the effective uses of content understanding, knowledge, and skill that we seek in the long run; i.e., what we want students to be able to do when they confront new challenges -- both in and outside of school. They reflect the ultimate goals, the reason we teach specific knowledge and skills. Unlike earlier generations of standards where transfer goals were implicit at best, the Common Core Standards have made them more overt. Indeed, the College and Career Anchor Standards in ELA specify long-term transfer goals, while the Mathematics Standards strongly suggest a goal such as, Students will be able to use the mathematics they know to solve “messy,” never-seen-before problems using effective mathematical reasoning.

The second and third unpacking categories -- Overarching Understandings and Essential Questions -- are like two sides of a coin. The Understandings state what skilled performers will need in order to effectively transfer their learning to new situations, while explorations of the Essential Questions engage learners in making meaning and deepening their understandings.

Here are examples for Mathematics and English Language Arts, respectively:

Overarching Understandings

  • Mathematical Modeling: Mathematicians create models to interpret and predict the behavior of real world phenomena.
  • Mathematical Modeling: Mathematical models have limits and sometimes they distort or misrepresent
  • Determining Central Ideas in Text: Writers don’t always say things directly or literally; sometimes they convey their ideas indirectly (e.g., metaphor, satire, irony).

Overarching Essential Questions

  • Mathematical Modeling: How can we best model this (real world phenomena)?
  • Mathematical Modeling: What are the limits of this model?
  • Mathematical Modeling: How reliable are its predictions?
  • Determining Central Ideas in Text: What is this text really about? (e.g. theme, main idea, moral)
  • Determining Central Ideas in Text: How do you “read between the lines?”

The term, overarching, conveys the idea that these understandings and questions are not limited to a single grade or topic. On the contrary, it is expected that they be addressed across the grades with application to varied topics, problems, texts and contexts.

The fourth category, Cornerstone Tasks, are curriculum-embedded tasks that are intended to engage students in applying their knowledge and skills in an authentic and relevant context. Like a cornerstone anchors a building, these tasks are meant to anchor the curriculum around the most important performances that we want learners to be able to do (on their own) with acquired content knowledge and skills. Since these tasks are set in realistic contexts, they offer the natural vehicle for integrating the so-called 21st century skills (e.g., creativity, technology use, teamwork) with subject area content knowledge and skills. They honor the intent of the CCSS, within and across subject areas, instead of emphasizing only the content measured more narrowly on external accountability tests. These rich tasks can be used as meaningful learning experiences as well as for formative and summative purposes.

Cornerstone tasks are designed to recur across the grades, progressing from simpler to more sophisticated; from those that are heavily scaffolded toward ones requiring autonomous performance. Accordingly, they enable both educators and learners to track performance and document the fact that students are getting progressively better at using content knowledge and skills in worthy performances. Like the game in athletics or the play in theater, teachers teach toward these tasks without apology.

The four categories that we recommend are initially unpacked at the “macro”, or program, level to establish the equivalent of a curriculum blueprint. More specific course and grade level curriculum maps are then derived from backward from them, just as rooms in a building are constructed using the architect’s blueprint as a guide. Practically speaking, this macro level work is best undertaken at the state, regional or district levels by teams of content experts and experienced teachers. Currently two states, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, have assembled teams of content experts to unpack their Common Core state standards in this very manner, and the Next Generation Arts Standards, presently in development, are using this same construct to frame the Standards from the start!

While we strongly advocate this type of unpacking and have witnessed its benefits, we have also seen the process become way too narrow and granular when applied at the “micro” level. Thus, we concur with the important cautionary note offered by the Kansas Department of Education about a misapplication of Standards unpacking:

"‘Unpacking’ often results in a checklist of discrete skills and a fostering of skill-and-drill instruction that can fragment and isolate student learning in such a way that conceptual understanding, higher order thinking, cohesion, and synergy are made more difficult. Too often, the process of ‘unpacking" is engaged in an attempt to isolate the specific foundational or prerequisite skills necessary to be successful with the ideas conveyed by the overall standard and is a common precursor to test preparation and reductive teaching. Although this process may be important work in some instances and can certainly be enlightening, it also poses substantial problems if those completing the work never take the time to examine the synergy that can be created when those foundational or prerequisite skills are reassembled into a cohesive whole. Metaphorically speaking, ‘unpacking’ often leads educators to concentrate on the trees at the expense of the forest.”

From “A Cautionary Note About Unpacking, Unwrapping, and Deconstructing The Kansas Common Core Standards" (DOC) 05/03/2011

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From Common Core Standards to Curriculum Series: Five Big Ideas
In this series, authors Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins explore five big ideas about the Common Core State Standards and their translation into a curriculum. The goal of this series is to clear up misunderstandings and offer recommendations for designing a coherent curriculum and assessment system for realizing the standards' promise.

Jay McTighe

education author and consultant
In This Series
In this series, authors Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins explore five big ideas about the Common Core State Standards and their translation into a curriculum. The goal of this series is to clear up misunderstandings and offer recommendations for designing a coherent curriculum and assessment system for realizing the standards' promise.

Comments (2) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kevin Greszler's picture

Thanks for a very informative post. My school/district is in the midst of transitioning to the CCSS, and I feel that it is being presented in exactly the way that you warn about. We have been given a list of standards, and have been told begin to implementing them in our classroom, but not in a way that encourages students combine the skills they learn in a meaningful way. This is the same way the previous curriculum was presented and I have found myself wondering on several occasions, "What makes the CCSS any different?" This makes things a bit more clear. I will be looking forward to parts four and five.

Byron Early's picture

Additionally, "The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers," which will place American students in a position in which they can compete in a global economy. Forty-five of the fifty states in the United States are members of the initiative, with the states of Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Minnesota not adopting the initiative at a state level.

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