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Empower Standards and Standards Sommelier



When I first began teaching in my current school 13 years ago, we had something called power standards. There were specific power standards for each class.  Teachers spent many professional development hours debating about them and refining the wording. These standards were eventually put onto posters to be placed on the wall. In many cases, the were just that: words that hung on a wall. It didn’t feel like anyone owned these standards. So, they had very little power at all.

In John Spencer and A. J. Juliani’s new book Empower, they ask us to rethink standards. If I had been presented with the ideas in Empower 13 years ago, I probably would have argued that I need to abide by these power standards and there is little I could change. The authors reply to this is focus on the areas you have control over.  They say,

“Standards are the architect's blueprint, and you, the teacher, are still the builder and designer.” (pg. xxxviii)

Specifically, they recommend finding opportunities for choice with standards that are content neutral. Also, finding new ways that standards can be combined or overlapped. Ultimately, look at standards with an eye for student choice.

In my district, we are currently in a science realignment process. We are aligning our courses to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This summer, we are working on Understanding by Design (UbD) course documents by looking at the NGSS standards. It is a great opportunity for change, but sometimes the process of documentation gets in the way.  For those of you unfamiliar with the NGSS, they are a progression of K -12 standards that are broken into three different dimensions: Science & Engineering Practices (skills), Disciplinary Core Ideas (content ideas), and Crosscutting Concepts (connections to other science disciplines).  These different dimensions are mapped as a progression from K -12.  

Now, I am a firm believer that every course has fundamental concept pieces that all students should be expected to understand by the end of the course.  That’s where content standards come in.  Too often though, these standards are narrowly defined. Fundamental standards are considered fundamental because they are fundamental to our lives. If they are truly fundamental, we should have endless possibilities to find ways to connect them to students’ lives. So when writing fundamental content standards, they need to be written and presented with that sense of limitless applications and allow space for students find their own way in.

Every content area has a set of fundamental content standards and skills students are expect to master. Too often, I am very guilty of this, skills and content are combined to create learning targets that all students are expected to meet. This coupling is done by the teacher based on what he thinks is the most applicable combination. This design method is the first step towards removing choice from learners.

I have a vision of what I would like to accomplish in my classroom with the NGSS standards. This is a big leap, but I know it’s what’s best for learners. I’d like to use the NGSS Science Practices and Disciplinary Core Ideas to allow students to craft their own learning targets. I’d like them to create Empower Standards.

So what are Empower Standards? Let me walk you through it. As a class, we’d still work through our content area in a unit by unit structure arranged by fundamental content standards, in my case disciplinary core ideas. But for each unit, students would need to pair a content skill or skills, in my case Science Practices, with a content standard or standards. This pairing would guide their work for the unit. Or, their choice of what they would like to explore related to the content standard(s) would help identify the skills they’ll be utilizing.

I’ll try not to get too geeky here, so I’m going to simplify the Core Ideas a little bit. Imagine at the start of a unit on energy we have a set of content outcomes that all students are responsible for before progressing to the next unit.  But, the skills are expected to be mastered by the end of the course.
Disciplinary Core Ideas (Content)
Science and Engineering Practices (Skills)
  1. Energy is a quantitative property of a system that depends on the motion and interactions of matter and radiation within that system.
  2. At the macroscopic scale, energy manifests itself in multiple ways, such as in motion, sound, light, and thermal energy.
  3. All of the different manifestations of energy can be modeled as a combination of energy associated with the motion of particles and energy associated with the configuration (relative position of the particles).

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

The skills pairing that the student will use could be selected in a few ways.  Students may have kept progress of what skills they have already mastered and can move on to work with ones they have yet to master. This is something Spencer and Juliani call Flexible Design or embracing an Adjustable System. Another mode of selecting skills, as I previously mentioned, is to let the path the student wants to explore define the appropriate skills.  These skills and concepts don’t live in isolation of each other.  So, the work a student may undertake to demonstrate mastery of content standards may incorporate multiple skills. As the authors suggest, we need to be aware of areas where standards overlap or can be layered. This not only allows more time to devote to a project a student is undertaking, but gives a more realistic view of how these concepts/skills are observed in reality.  They do not exist in isolation.

Just reading the sample Disciplinary Core Ideas above, you’ll realize that they are not necessarily written in the most student friendly language. It’s so important that teachers understand their standards and can communicate them in ways students will understand and be able to make connections to. When my grand idea is in place, I imagine myself as a Standards Sommelier. Like a sommelier know wines, I have an expertise in my content standards. My goal is to help students craft perfect pairings of content and skills in their learning outcomes based on what they want to explore. This is where it all comes back to relationships. The better I know the learner (and the learner knows herself) the smoother the transition of ownership will go.

Feels like a PIRATE MOMENT: at the start of the unit, I hand each student and standard list mocked up like an actual menu as if we are at a restaurant. As the sommelier, I introduce the standards with flair and suggest pairings. My mind is officially going wild with possibilities. So, I better stop here … for now.

But, Empower Standards are just the beginning. What does the learning look like? Spencer and Juliani do a beautiful job of detailing what work and assessment look like in an Empowered Learning Environment in Chapters 5 - 8 of Empower. I hope to use their vision as my guide.


Please be sure to pick up a copy of Empower and join the conversation using #EmpowerBook.

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