Supporting educators and leaders in their important work of helping every student become a confident and successful learner

"Unwrapping" the Common Core And "Unwrapping" the Standards


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So after prioritizing the standards, what then? “Unwrap” them! Priority Standards provide focus; “unwrapped” Priority Standards provide clarity. “Unwrapping” demystifies the often muddled meaning of academic content standards, and our educational consultancy group is proud to be able to offer such a solution.

In 2003, I wrote “Unwrapping” the Standards: A Simple Process to Make Standards Manageable. This first volume includes over 80 kindergarten through high school examples of “unwrapped” state standards, with related Big Ideas and Essential Questions.

In 2013, I updated the process in “Unwrapping” the Common Core: A Practical Process to Manage Rigorous Standards (republished as “Unwrapping” Common Core State Standards in 2022). Based on my years of experience presenting “Unwrapping” workshops across the country, the book provides a detailed, how-to guide for busy K-12 educators and shows how to assign levels of rigor to each of the “unwrapped” concepts and skills. Applicable to all standards, not Common Core only, it’s organized in an easy-to-read format with 60 ELA and math examples illustrating each of the four steps in the process.



1. “Unwrap” the Unit Priority Standards. Analyze and deconstruct (break apart) the Priority Standards to be taught in a unit of study in order to determine the specific, teachable concepts and skills that students need to know and be able to do.

2. Create a Graphic Organizer. Choose a graphic organizer format (outline, bulleted list, concept map, or chart) to visually display the “unwrapped” skills and their related concepts. Determine the approximate level of rigor for each skill-concept pair, using Bloom’s Taxonomy and/or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.

3. Decide the Big Ideas. Referring to the “unwrapped” concepts, decide the Big Ideas (key understandings, “aha’s”) you want the students to discover on their own—and be able to state in their own words—by the end of the unit of study.

4. Write the Essential Questions. Referring to the Big Ideas, write creative, open-ended Essential Questions that will engage students throughout the unit and lead them to discover the Big Ideas for themselves.

Even though the entire “unwrapping” process was developed in response to the need for a more effective way to manage the standards, essentially this is about good teaching. Experienced educators have told our educational consultancy company that this technique formalizes what they have been doing informally throughout their careers:

  • Deciding what is important for students to learn in a particular content area (“unwrapping”)
  • Helping students make connections to other areas of study and utilize higher-level thinking skills (Big Ideas), and
  • Engaging students in the material to be studied by setting a purpose for learning (Essential Questions).

Even if your standards change in the future, “unwrapping” will remain relevant. You will always be able to use this timeless process with whatever standards you are assigned to teach — be them Common Core or otherwise.

Larry Talks About “Unwrapping” the Standards

Praise for “Unwrapping” the Standards Book:

“With his process of ‘Unwrapping” the Standards, Larry made planning and implementing lessons so engaging that administrators wanted to go back to the classroom…Larry is down-to-earth, funny, practical, knowledgeable, and he really listens to teachers’ needs. If you can’t manage to get Larry Ainsworth to your school district, the next best thing is to read his books!” –Meg Sanchez, Lennox School District, California

“Unwrapping” the Standards brought our state standards to life. Our teachers are thrilled with the discoveries they have made through this process…our students understand what the learning expectations actually are.” Karen Gould, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indiana

“As my staff began to ‘unwrap’ our standards, we began to see exactly what should be taught as well as what we were missing. ‘Unwrapping” the Standards has resulted in improved scores—and a deeper understanding of our students.” Deb Mansfield, Norfolk Public Schools, Virginia

“After Larry conducted an all-day ‘Unwrapping’ the Standards workshop for our New York City administrators and staff developers, the sentiments were genuine. Participants said, ‘Now the standards make sense…we know what we have to do when we return to our schools.’ We wished we could have had him for a longer period of time!” Sandra Herndon, New York State Education Department