One of the important movements in education over the last 20 years has been the development of content standards. Standards provide teachers, schools, districts, and states with a way to communicate a common vision of education. They form the overarching goals for student learning and performance. However, many times standards are so dense and convoluted they are hard for teachers, much less students, to understand. As a classroom teacher I know the importance of the learning the standards represent, yet the sheer density of standards can lead to a murky understanding of their intent.
So on one hand we have a guide for the learning that needs to happen in the classroom, but on the other hand we have a document that’s so unwieldy as to be an impediment to daily classroom instruction. A resolution to this juxtaposition is to take the standards and break them down into the scaffolding pieces that students can work with as they ascend up to successful mastery of the standard. When done well this deconstruction process results in clearer and deeper understanding of the standard on the part of the teacher and student.
When I began deconstructing standards I struggled. I was often unsure if I was doing it “right”, and wondered whether the end product would actually be useful. The very first set of targets I deconstructed from standards was for an energy unit. I put them on the board at the start of the unit and told students this was what they were going to learn. Then I never referred to them again! Yet I taught that unit the best I ever had, and students performed better than before. The reason was for the first time I was clear on what my students needed to know and do. I understood what the pieces of learning were and how they fit together. I was no longer teaching to a vague idea of the standards. I was teaching to the intent of the standards.
Deconstruction begins by examining a standard and determining the knowledge, reasoning, performance skills, and products needed to successfully master it. This process is time consuming and fraught with potential roadblocks. There will be differences of opinions in how the standards break out. There will disagreements over what parts of the standards are essential learning. However, these conversations will allow a group of teachers to form a coherent vision of what student learning will look like in their classes. No longer will different teachers have their own personal interpretation of the standards. No longer will it matter which teacher a student has because all teachers are heading for the same destination.
The next step involves taking these learning pieces, these learning targets, and putting them into student-friendly language. We want our students to engage with the learning and that starts by clarifying some words and concepts. For example my students will need to know about energy transformations. However, if I use transformations in the target I will have some students who immediately shut down and decide they can’t do it because it’s one of those hard science words. On the other hand, if I use changes instead of transformations, my students won’t be intimidated but also won’t get the real intention of the learning. A solution is to use a “this means” statement. This translates my target from “I can give examples of energy transformations” to “I can give examples of energy transformations. This means when energy is changed from one form to another.” In this way I’ve given my students an entryway into the learning. They still don’t know what energy changes are, but they don’t immediately shut down either. This gives us both a fighting chance for success.
Standards are important for learning in today’s educational system. However, the communication of the learning intention implied by each standard is even more important. We have to make the learning accessible to students and help them see that it’s attainable. It’s never a case that one day students aren’t mastering the standard and the next day suddenly they are. Instead it’s the slow steady accumulation of knowledge, reasoning, skill, and product learning that takes students from the starting line to the finish line of mastery.
Ken Mattingly, a science teacher at Rockcastle County Middle School in Mount Vernon, Kentucky, has 18 years of experience in sixth and seventh grades and holds national certification in early adolescent science. He has worked on implementing classroom assessment for student learning practices in his classroom for the past seven years, and led the implementation of standards-based grading in his school. During the past two years Ken has worked with multiple school districts across Kentucky to help develop a vision of balanced assessment, promote transparency in grading practices, and shift the teacher and student focus to the learning instead of the grade.