Unpacking Standards: A Way to Collaborate with Educators While Supporting Learning

Recently, I was asked to consider information literacy teaching and learning from the perspective of educational standards. I offered that standards are the one resource that all educators use to ensure objectives are set for student grade-level mastery. School librarians are especially challenged when using standards. Overlapping state, industry, and association standards require intensive review to support instruction. School librarians also have to be ready with an understanding of all content-based standards to better develop student skills in any of the literacies.

My answer was really nothing new. School librarians have always recognized how standards support the need for a framework of instruction, not only information literacy but any of the “literacies.” 

I was then asked how standards could build collaboration opportunities with educators, especially when teaching information literacy. Well…this answer gets us into the nitty-gritty of school librarians marketing to educators. I explained that I do my utmost to connect with educators using their standards and determining links with AASL and/or the Massachusetts Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards. But the linking between standards is not clear cut. Some standards cut across grade levels, while others are grade and content specific. My approach to gain clarity is to “unpack” the standards.  

Unpacking standards is nothing new. However, unpacking is rarely discussed when designing curriculum and lesson plans. Often an educator looks at a standard and decides, “I know what that means.” Armed with personal meaning, an educator often dives right into the curriculum and/or lesson plan development.

But put on the brakes. Shouldn’t the educator be sure that his, her, or their interpretation of the standards can be understood by others, especially students?  

The basic question of who is understanding the standards led me to learn about unpacking. Hot off the press in 2012 Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe published The Understanding by Design Guide to Advanced Concepts in Creating and Reviewing Units. Wiggins and McTighe (2012) offer that standards have to be unpacked for “local use” by analyzing and interpreting them for “practical meaning” (p. 4). For a school librarian who needed to comprehend content standards that especially related to the library, this book was a goldmine! I dove into the unpacking process.

Unpacked standards support the writing of curriculum and assessments. As curriculum and assessments are designed, opportunities for developing lessons with differentiation and individualized learning and assessments further connect the school librarian and educator. Preparing for a variety of learners is a foundational tenet for all educators. More importantly, having students understand the learning to better transfer information literacy skills to other environments is key.  

By now you are probably wondering how unpacking works. While I cannot truly do the entire unpacking method justice, I will offer Wiggins and McTighe’s five tips when clarifying the standards:

  • Look at all key verbs to clarify valid student performance in which content is used.  
  • Look at the recurring nouns that signal a big idea.
  • Identify and analyze the key adjectives and adverbs to determine valid scoring criteria and rubrics related to successful performance against the standard.
  • Identify and/or infer the long-term transfer goals by looking closely at the highest-level standards and indicators for them or inferring the transfer goal from the content and justification for the standard.  
  • Consider the standards in terms of the long-term goal of autonomous performance (Wiggins and McTighe, 2012, p. 9).

Using these tips, I chart the unpacking to develop curriculum, assessments, and supports for differentiating and individualized learning. I wordsmith and develop new standards-based sentences that offer clarity. Using the various tips, I work with content educators to ensure collaboration and understandings between each other’s disciplines. Unpacking accompanies Understanding by Design, another Wiggins and McTighe framework intended to support student achievement. Together, the tools of unpacking and Understanding by Design make school librarians a powerful resource for all educators and an advocate for our learners.

Work Cited:

Wiggins, G., and McTighe, J. 2012. The Understanding by Design Guide to Advanced Concepts in Creating and Reviewing Units.  


Author: Georgina Trebbe

Georgina Trebbe, Ed.D. is the school librarian at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts. She is also an adjunct instructor for Simmons University’s SLT program. Georgina’s interests include information literacy, collaboration, and school librarians as researchers.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Professional Development

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