Unpacking Standards, Backwards Mapping, SMART Objectives, a Partridge and a Pear Tree…

Unpacking standards, backwards mapping and SMART objectives are deeply important practices that all teachers need to understand and employ. Previous this to this unit, I knew that having an end goal in mind while lesson planning or teaching is essential to successful teaching and learning (Stokes, 2015). However, these three practices provide practical action steps and process driven techniques to turn that end goal into a concrete and measurable plan for students to achieve the learning desired. All of these skills, strategies and processes are entangled. Each builds upon the previous to make the learning goals and student learning process increasingly clear. They help move the educator and students from abstracts to understanding (Wiggins, 2010). This process shifts the educator from thinking about large, and sometimes generic, content to more focused, measurable and targeted learning outcomes that are wholly focused on the student.

Unpacking is the first vital step in the, sometimes, difficult task of making sense of an academic standard. For example the ELA Common Core standard that I used:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly (Common Core Standards Initiative, 2017).

Unpacking the standard gives the educator a salient and concise view. By focusing on the verbs and nouns, the educator can identify what exactly the students should know and be able to do (Teaching Channel, n.d). This process is extremely helpful in cutting away all the peripheral information that muddies up the standard and might get the teacher hung up on teaching content rather than process; teachers should strive to get to the essence of what the standard is asking the student not the teacher to achieve. It is important to work through this process since the standard should guide the teacher in their guidance of the students. The process of unpacking the standard ensures that students are provided access not only to the information, the nouns of the standard, but the skills, the verbs of the standard. These standards are not about memorization or even the simple presentation of facts. The standards, and their unpacking, give the students access to the big ideas that the students should engage (Wiggins, 2010). This brings the text of the standard to life for the teacher and student. The information provided by the standard is no loner purely academic or rote, but is about engagement with the information and processes to get to the essential nature of the desired student learning (Wiggins, 2005). In unpacking the standards, the teacher takes the first step in that engagement with the information and sets the pace for the class and curriculum. If an educator fails to take this first step they will find ever increasingly difficulty in taking the next step: backwards mapping.

Backwards mapping continues the student centered and process driven focus that unpacking the standard began. The method of backwards mapping is clear. If the teacher starts with an end goal in mind, it is far easier to naturally sequence the curriculum and all lessons, activities and tasks towards that end goal (The Glossary of Education Reform, n.d). Starting with where you want a student to end up (for my standard this is engaging in collaborative discussions that express and build on ideas) and working backwards to it, provides a clearer vision and inherent logic to the steps the educator should take to assist students in the learning process. It builds on the initial step, unpacking standards, and ensures that there is a continuity and consistency to the entire curriculum that the teacher develops (McTighe 2012). If the teacher is primarily focused on what they will teach, the students are more likely to become passive receivers of information. But this is not the goal of education. In utilizing the backwards mapping strategy for designing a unit curriculum, the teacher is more likely to provide the student with more than simple facts and information; they can move beyond the nouns of the standard. They will provide them with learning opportunities that will inspire growth towards a clear goal and demand increasing autonomy in their learning (McTighe, 2012). This extends the learning beyond the educator. The students are given more responsibility and autonomy to engage the learning process and provides them with the skills that they will ultimately need outside of the classroom. (McTighe, 2012).

The final strategy, writing SMART objectives, is arguably the most precise of the strategies presented in this unit. Moving from a large standard, to a consistent sequence of teaching to making specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and targeted learning objectives ensures that the learning, not the teaching, is the focus. Writing these objectives chunks or scaffolds the information that was explored in unpacking the standard, and outlined in backwards mapping. It takes the nouns and the verbs and the large sequences of learning, and places them in specific and measurable objectives. Utilizing SWBAT (Students Will Be Able To) as a guiding principle, when writing these SMART objectives, the educator is ensuring that the focus on student learning, not teacher teaching, is continued. For example, one of my SMART objective is:

Students will be able to recall and apply the target language covered during the class in collaborative discussions, focusing on integration of vocabulary and grammar points.

It is important to remember that these objectives are not only clear to the educator but should be made clear to the learner (Teaching Channel, n.d). This empowers the learner to think about the process and not only the content and helps them visualize the end goal as well. Ultimately, this continues the movement from teacher led to more autonomous learning. These objectives should reflect this gradual transition from simple tasks or objectives to more independent and forms of thought and learning as guided by Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (Integrating It, n.d). By shaping the SMART objectives to guide students from remembering to evaluating, the learner is given opportunity to grow and mature beyond content driven learning and move into more useful skills that will benefit them throughout their educational career and their adult lives.

Overall, I found these strategies to be both helpful and challenging. They require an educator to think about learning and teaching in complex and innovative ways. The shift from focusing on the content that will be taught to the processes and skills that will be learned is a difficult one. It is slightly terrifying since it clarifies the great responsibility educators are tasked with: helping students grow. It is much easier to approach education as a simple transaction of information and facts from teacher to student. Just about any person can succeed in presenting information. Remembering and understanding are the two first steps on Bloom’s Taxonomy; it is much more difficult, but beneficial, to help students work through content in order to get them to evaluate and create. (Integrating It, n.d). But that should be the goal of all educators; giving students the power and skills to be active learners who question and create. I also found it interesting that all of these strategies, in different ways, are measurable. This is powerful since it no longer allows student progress to be ignored. Unpacking a standard is about not only the content but what the students will do with that content. There is an action that can be observed. Backwards mapping is providing a plan for the steps students will take to achieve the specific learning goal. There are concrete steps that are taken. SMART objectives are sharply focused on the tasks that students will achieve to demonstrate their learning. The teacher has a plan to measure their success and needs. These strategies showcase that the educators responsibility extends beyond sharing information; they must help students grow and measure that growth (The Glossary of Education Reform, n.d). I will definitely utilize these strategies in planning lessons, units and curriculum in order to better support, challenge and educate my students. They offer great insight and direction for the monumental challenge that all educators face.


 Wiggins, Grant (2005). Understanding by Design. Retrieved on January 19th, 2017 from http://www.grantwiggins.org/documents/UbDQuikvue1005.pdf

Wiggins Grant (2010). What is a Big Idea? Retrieved on January 22nd, 2017 from: https://authenticeducation.org/ae_bigidea/article.lasso?artid=99

McTighe, Jay (2012). Common Core Big Ideas 4: Map Backwards From Intended Results. Retrieved on January 20th, 2017 from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/common-core-map-backwards-jay-mctighe-grant-wiggins

The Glossary of Education Reform (n.d). Backward Design. Retrieved on January 19th, 2017 from: http://edglossary.org/backward-design/

Stokes, Lori (2015). Creating a High Performance Learning Environment. Retrieved January 20th, 2017 from: https://learnerlog.org/acrossthecurriculum/creating-a-high-performance-learning-environment/

The Teaching Channel (n.d). SWABT: Communicating Learning Goals. Retrieved on January 20th, 2017 from: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/making-lesson-objectives-clear

Integrating It (n.d). Using Bloom’s Revised Domains to Improve Instructional Practice. Retrieved on January 19th, 2017 from: http://farr-integratingit.net/Theory/CriticalThinking/revisedcog-creating.htm

The Teaching Channel (n.d). Think Alouds: Unpacking the Standards.  Retrieved on January 20th, 2017 from: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/understanding-the-common-core-standards

Common Core Standards Initiative (2017). English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening: Grade 7. Retrieved on January 21st, 2017 from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/SL/7/


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