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Aurora Institute

Curriculum Models Need to Preserve Standards, Not Break Them Apart

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Caroline Gordon Messenger, Ph.M. and Marc Pardee

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Core Curriculum DesignIn a recent article in Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins writes about a definition of mastery that holds students to high standards through authentic, challenging assessments that demonstrate the effective transfer of learning. In order to do this, he says, curriculum design cannot support the creation of “microstandards” – the practice of breaking standards down into “lists of bits” that actually prevent students from developing fluency and skills in authentic work. These “bits,” according to Wiggins, actually prevent deep learning.

And Wiggins is right. He even warns that it is a “peril” of curriculum development and design. What some don’t see is that standards don’t need to be broken into small chunks – they need to be attained. The skills students need to attain the standards are another story. Skills need practice and sometimes we even need to isolate parts of a skill in order to develop it and improve. It’s like hitting a baseball: we know we have to watch the ball, step forward and swing the bat. If the standard is to hit the ball, then the skill required to attain the standard is all in what we do when we swing.

Wiggins cited an interesting analogy: microstandards are like twigs; while twigs come from trees, you cannot use twigs to make a tree, but you can use twigs to burn one down. Breaking apart standards, therefore, renders them useless.

Another pitfall of “microstandards” is “micro rigor.” When we pull the standards apart, we decrease the rigor. For example, if we want students to write a clear, focused essay that contains insightful evidence and well-articulated ideas, do we get there by breaking down the standard to only encompass clarity? And once they have clarity, do we then move on to focus? The result is lots of students who know how to write a thesis statement, but few who know how to actually use one in their writing.

If we never teach them how a standard integrates skills and knowledge, then all we teach them is bits and pieces that they may or may not ever be able to construct into a whole of anything.  The standards are attainable  – they require practice to perfect. It is the practice that should be our focus as educators. The question to ask isn’t how can I break the standard down in order to teach its parts to my students; the question becomes, what skills do I need to practice with my students so that they can attain the standard.

Karin Hess’ cognitive rigor matrix offers educators a great starting point when exploring how to best teach to a standard. First, we explore recall: what is the standard and what does it mean? When we understand what we must attain, we can develop a plan for attaining it. This plan should include key skills and concepts that teachers and students can discuss and practice. Competency can be demonstrated when they write essays that are clear, focused, filled with innovative ideas and grounded by strong and thorough evidence.

Curriculum Can Preserve Standards

A clear and well-articulated curriculum can preserve the standards as an attainable whole. Curriculum, though, needs to undergo a transformation in order to do this effectively. Rather than create learning on a continuum, educators need to see curriculum as an ever-expanding pool of skills and knowledge. (Messenger, 2013) If curriculum starts out with a particular repertoire of skills – a set students can select from based on their needs, their learning styles and their level of proficiency. A solid course curriculum would then contain knowledge and concepts that will be important – and threaded – throughout the entire curriculum. This ensures repetition of ideas, skills and concepts and is a part of the mechanism for how we remember, recall and use information. (Sousa, 2011; Medina, 2008)

Once core concepts and knowledge are articulated and skill sets are developed, teachers can begin to create thematic units of study connected by these core knowledge and skills. For example, a ninth grade language arts curriculum has at its core Greek mythology and a skill set that includes writing strategies, reading strategies and collaboration with peers and the teacher. The mindset for this design is that mythology is the foundation of western literature, and students should be familiar with it and be able to articulate its importance. This means that students will need to understand the concepts of allusion and symbolism. Therefore, all these factors go into planning the assessments that will help students to track and develop their skills. Once the assessment plan is established, curriculum can be constructed through backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005; Ainsworth, 2010) and units of study can be created that assist students in attaining standards articulated in the curriculum.

Curriculum, therefore, doesn’t need to be a straight line with a definitive endpoint. It can have more dimensions and be shaped by student innovation and creativity. Units can be smaller and introduce concepts and skills at appropriate levels rather than all at once in a six-week clump. So mythology becomes a unit of study that repeats several times throughout the year, deepening every time it is introduced. According to Hess’s cognitive rigor matrix, the first unit would establish the knowledge (recall, skills and concepts); the second would ask them to apply their knowledge to other literature, authors, time periods and genres (strategic thinking and reasoning); the third would deepen their application to analysis and evaluation of literature, mythology, culture and intent (strategic thinking, extended thinking); and the fourth would engage students in guided and independent inquiry focused on mythology and its influence on literature, culture, society, authors – wherever the student decided to direct his learning (extended thinking). The study of mythology deepens rather than widens. It becomes a yearlong endeavor that is revisited, revised, re-imagined, re-envisioned and re-created within the students’ own connections and conclusions.  curriculummodel2

But how would other disciplines – like science – embrace this model? How could science teachers – or teachers of other disciplines – adapt their instructional practice and curricular goals in ways that brain research asserts are best for learning? (Sousa, 2011; Medina, 2008)

Science: Upping the rigor, keeping the standards intact

A science curriculum does not need to be a straight line with a definitive endpoint either.  By focusing on topics critical to understanding course content, and frequently revisiting these topics throughout the year with increased rigor, students can gain a deeper understanding of the material presented.

A typical curriculum means covering a topic for six to eight weeks where rigor increases for that topic or concept only. Once the material is completed, students move on and start over with a new unit and new topic of study.

Topics essential to the course should be continually revisited with increased rigor and higher order thinking throughout the year.  Initially, unit information could be covered for shorter durations, working on the core concepts and knowledge necessary to build a strong foundation, and revisited at later dates in the year to work on more complex tasks and make more complex connections between and among core skills and knowledge.

For example, conservation of energy is a topic that is essential to student understanding of physics and is a recurring theme within other units.  Early in the school year, this concept could be presented with a focus on core skills such as variable identification, definitions and units of measurement.  Competency of core skills should be demonstrated up front before students engage in other areas of study essential to the course (i.e. force, wave characteristics) COREsciencesample Microsoft Word - COREsciencesample.docx

Once a student has mastered the core skills for an area of study like conservation of energy, force and wave characteristics, they could then move on to understanding and application by solving a variety of conceptual and mathematical problems. For conservation of energy, this process could be repeated throughout the topics where it applies (i.e., energy and work, simple machines, gravitational interactions, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, nuclear fission).  Typically these topics are broken into separate units taught in one chunk, but they should be revisited multiple times throughout the year. Each time rigor is increased according to Hess’ cognitive rigor matrix and connected to other concepts.

Once students have demonstrated proficiency using core and application skills for conservation of energy in all core areas, they can move on to analyzing, evaluating and creating work of their own through formal labs, research and design projects.  This allows students the ability to deepen their understanding of conservation of energy after they have mastered the core skills necessary to understand the topic.  This also gives students the flexibility to choose an area that is interesting to them, research it and develop their ideas much more deeply than they would with a traditional approach.

By introducing a topic like conservation of energy, force and wave characteristics multiple times – each time with increased rigor and higher order thinking – students recognize and make connections, increasing their understanding through the repetition and the varied contexts. (Sousa 2011; Medina, 2008)



  • Ainsworth, L. (2010). Rigorous curriculum design: How to create curricular units of study that align standards, instruction, and assessment. Englewood, CO: Lead Learn Press.
  • Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
  • Messenger, C. G. (2013, December 9). Curriculum Model for Mastery Based Learning [Web log post]. Retrieved December 18, 2013, from
  • Sousa, D. A. (2011). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.
  • Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

— About the Authors———————————-

Caroline Gordon Messenger has taught English for grades 6 through 12 for the past 14 years. Messenger holds a research Master of Philosophy in the Sociology of Education from Lancaster University in Lancaster, U.K. She currently teaches English and Journalism at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, CT. Reach her on Twitter: @cjmessenger

 Marc Pardee is a Physics teacher at Naugatuck High School.  Pardee holds a Master’s in Science Education from the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, CT.  Pardee has five years of mechanical engineering experience prior to teaching and is listed as an inventor on two U.S. patents.