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The 20 Years Project: Illuminating Standards Video Series

This video features a project that shows how Common Core math standards can be addressed in work that is engaging and compelling for students and connects to real-life. The project asks students to imagine their life 20 years in the future. There is a literacy component (written sections), but the math work—the focus of this video—involves projecting future finances such as income, loans, expenses, and taxes.

The Illuminating Standards Project

In the last two decades of the ‘standards movement’ in American public education, many educators have concluded that ‘teaching to the standards’ and project-based learning are incompatible. Ron Berger (EL Education) and Steve Seidel (Harvard Graduate School of Education), co-directors of The Illuminating Standards Project, wondered if this conclusion was true. Indeed, they speculated that long-term, interdisciplinary, arts-infused, community-connected projects may well be one of the best ways to actually see what state standards look like when fully realized in the things students make in school—to make the standards visible.

Three questions frame the work of The Illuminating Standards Project:
- What does it look like when state standards are met with integrity, depth, and imagination?
- How can we use standards to open up and enrich curriculum, rather than narrow and constrain it?
- How can we use student work to raise the level of our understanding of standards and our dialogue about them?

The Videos

Collaborating with Berger and Seidel on The Illuminating Standards Project, over 30 students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have explored these questions by choosing projects from the Student Work Archive in the Center for Student Work and considering the ways in which those projects did—and didn’t—meet specific state standards. Further, they examined how the student work illuminated the standards—and vice versa. Many of those students created short films and 13 of those films are presented here.

We invite you to watch these films and we encourage you to use them as the catalyst for discussions with your colleagues about the relationship between your commitment to meet demanding state standards and approaches to designing powerful learning experiences for our students.


- [Narrator] The headlines are full of financial information that require considerable mathematical knowledge to understand. Student loans are overwhelming. Most baby boomers haven’t saved enough for retirement, and there’s a neverending federal budget crisis. Yet most students never encounter these subjects in school.

- If we wanna keep rebuilding our economy on a stronger, more stable foundation, then we’ve gotta get smarter.

- [Narrator] Across the country, schools are in the process of implementing the Common Core State Standards to help kids get smarter. Unfortunately, in many of these schools, instruction will remain much the same. So let’s take this standard for example. This seventh grade math Common Core State Standard calls for students to solve real-life and mathematical problems using numerical and algebraic expressions and equations. So what does this look like in a typical classroom? In most classrooms, real-life math problems mean word problems, like this one. Students generally hate these problems, and see limited applicability to their own lives. Instead, students are usually thinking, math is so boring. When am I ever gonna need this? And I wish I were watching a movie now. In essence, they’re bored. So what would it look like if students really met the Common Core State Standards with depth, integrity, and imagination? Well, it might look like 20 Years Project, High Tech Middle School in San Diego, California. Each student in High Tech Middle School create a portfolio, mapping out the next 20 years of their lives. In addition to researching their desired career path and writing an essay about their futures, they also calculated their monthly budgets, putting how much they would need to save for retirement and their annual tax bill. This particular 20 Year Project was done by Kathleen, a 13-year old girl who planned to become a medical scientist.

- We worked on Excel budgeting, so they can figure out their expenses. Searching out different careers. They went on Monster.com to try to find jobs.

- [Narrator] So let’s look at this in seventh grade math standard again, in light of this project. First, solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems. Kathleen did this by creating grocery lists, and determining her weekly budget. Then she researched the car she wished to purchase, and calculated its fuel efficiency. Finally, she determined the cost of the university she planned to attend, and how much she would have to borrow in student loans. All of these tasks have very real implications for students’ lives. Second, the standard requires that these problems be posed with both positive and negative rational numbers. In calculating her monthly budget, Kathleen determined both the projected and actual costs, which included surpluses and deficits. Standards also expect students to be able to use numbers in several forms, whole numbers, fractions and decimals. Kathleen used all three, as well as percentages, to calculate the proportion of her budget that she would spend in each category. Kathleen also strategically used Excel spreadsheets and graphical representations to complete and explain her work. Next, Kathleen accurately applied the properties on multiplication and addition to calculate her retirement savings. When determining her taxes, Kathleen appropriately converted 28% to 0.28 as a decimal. Finally, the standard expects students to be able to assess the reasonableness of their answers using mental computation and estimation strategies. Although we can’t know exactly what Kathleen was thinking, her written explanation about the struggle she would have paying her future bills and college debts indicate that she has internalized the real-life implications of her computations.

- I learned a lot of things that are definitely real-life things that are going to come in handy in the future, like I learned how to do my taxes, and to create a monthly budget, and I found a house for myself, and I have to apply to colleges. So these are all things that I’m gonna be doing.

- [Narrator] It’s clear that the 20 Years Project enabled Kathleen not only to meet the Common Core State Standards, but also to gain skills that she will use throughout her life. So let’s ditch the boring word problems, and let kids tackle real problems.

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