Which Content Is Most Important? The 40/40/40 Rule


Which Content Is Most Important? The 40/40/40 Rule

by Terry Heick

I first encountered the “40/40/40 rule” years ago while skimming one of those giant (and indispensable) 400 page Understanding by Design tomes.

The question was simple enough. Of all of the academic standards you are tasked with “covering” (more on this in a minute), what’s important that students understand for the next 40 days, what’s important that they understand for the next 40 months, and what’s important that they understand for the next 40 years?

As you can see, this is a powerful way to think about academic content.

Of course, this leads to the discussion of both power standards and enduring understandings, curriculum mapping and instructional design tools teachers use every day.

But it got me thinking. So I drew a quick pattern of cocentric circles–something like the image below–and starting thinking about the writing process, tone, symbolism, audience, purpose, structure, word parts, grammar,  and a thousand other bits of ELA stuff.

Not (Necessarily) Power Standards

And it was an enlightening process.

First, note that this process is a bit different than identifying power standards in your curriculum.

Power Standards can be chosen by looking at this standards that can serve to “anchor and embed” other content. This idea of “40/40/40” is more about being able to survey a large bundle of stuff and immediately spot what’s necessary. If you’re house is on fire and you’ve got 2 minutes to get only as much as you can carry out, what do you take with you?

In some ways, it can be reduced to a depth vs breadth argument. Coverage versus mastery. UbD refers to it as the difference between “nice to know,” “important content,” and “enduring understandings.” These labels can be confusing–enduring versus 40/40/40 vs power standards vs big ideas vs essential questions.

Which is why I loved the simplicity of the 40/40/40 rule.

It occurred to me that it was more about contextualizing the child in the midst of the content, rather than simply unpacking and arranging standards. One of UbD’s framing questions for establishing “big ideas” offer some clarity:

“To what extent does the idea, topic, or process represent a ‘big idea’ having enduring value beyond the classroom?”

The essence of the 40/40/40 rule seems to be to look honestly at the content we’re packaging for children, and contextualize it in their lives. This hints at authenticity, priority, and even the kind of lifelong learning that teachers dare to dream about.


Applying The 40/40/40 Rule In Your Classroom

There’s likely not one single “right way” to do this, but here are a few tips:

1. Start Out Alone

While you’ll need to socialize these with team or department members soon, it is helpful to clarify what you think about the curriculum before the world joins you. Plus, this approach forces you to analyze the standards closely, rather than simply being polite and nodding your head a lot.

2. Then Socialize

After you’ve sketched out your thinking about the content standards you teach, share it–online, in a data team or PLC meeting, or with colleagues one afternoon after school.

3. Keep It Simple

Use a simple 3-column chart or cocentric circles as shown above, and start separating the wheat from the chaff. No need to get complex with your graphic organizer.

4. Be Flexible

You’re going to have a different sense of priority about the standards than your colleagues. These are different personal philosophies about life, teaching, and your content area emerging. As long as these differences aren’t drastic, this is normal.

5. Realize Children Aren’t Little Adults

Of course everyone needs to spell correctly, but weighing spelling versus extracting implicit undertones or themes (typical English-Language Arts content) is also a matter of realizing that children and adults are fundamentally different. Rarely is a child going to be able to survey an array of media, synthesize themes, and create new experiences for readers without being able to use a verb correctly. It can happen, but therein lies the idea of power standards, big ideas, and most immediately the 40/40/40 rule: One day–40 days. 40 months, or even 10 years from now–the students in front of you will be gone–adults in the “real world.”

Not everything they can do–or can’t do–at that time will be because of you no matter how great the lesson, assessment design, use of data, pacing guide, or curriculum map. But if you can accept that–and start backwards from worst-case “if they learn nothing else this year, they’re going to know this and that–then you can work backwards from those priorities.

Those content bits that will last for 40 years and beyond.

In your content area, on your curriculum map, pacing guide, or whatever guiding documents you use, start filling up that little orange circle first, and work backwards from there.

Which Content Is Most Important? The 40/40/40 Rule


  • I had never heard of the 40/40/40 rule, and the concept is quite interesting, but you did not discuss the implementation very thoroughly. While it makes sense to decide the most important pieces of information that the students will need to hold on to the longest, deciding that on your own will lead to a drastically different education for your students than other teachers’ students. I understand that there will be discrepancy between each teacher no matter what, but this would clearly increase it. In elementary schools, children are often taught a piece of information one year and then use that information in the next year and build onto that concept. What happens if you decide that children need to learn “x” concept really well but not “y” so much, and their teacher next year really focuses on building off of “y”. Then the students will be left in a bit of a rut. How does the 40/40/40 plan suggest to follow curriculum of the state? I do appreciate the simplicity in deciding the absolute most important pieces of information students need to learn that year, but public school teachers do have to consider a state curriculum as well. What is the method you plan to use in order to ensure long term retention of the subject matter you deem most important? I would suggest looking at work done by Kang, McDermott, and Roediger (2007) which suggests that using tests requiring recall as opposed to retrieval strengthened knowledge significantly. Another study done by McDaniel, Anderson, Derbish, and Morrisette (2007) found that memory performance was greatly improved when chapter readings were followed by review questions about that reading. I would greatly appreciate specification as to which methods of testing and teaching you would use in order to help the students remember what you want them to remember for the longest amount of time, since there are many misconceptions of how memory works especially within the classroom.

  • The 40/40/40 Rule seems to take what Power Standards intend to do, help the child gain knowledge and skills to benefit them in the short and long term, and equips teachers with a method that allows them to actually implement lifelong learning in the classroom. How can the teacher be expected to support children in mastering all the power standards and big ideas set out for them by school standards? Teachers can follow the steps given here to make their goals personalized and obtainable.

    It seems that power standards and state expectations could overwhelm teachers as they try to “cover” all the material, as mentioned above. The 40/40/40 Rule allows teachers to set their own standards for their classrooms through this method that breaks the huge list of knowledge and skills down to three concrete lists that the teacher believes in: knowledge and skills students should retain 40 days from now, 40 months from now and 40 years from now. Teachers will be motivated to teach their students because they have personally developed the main take-aways that they are certain their students can and will learn. The 40/40/40 Rule allows teachers to intrinsically motivate themselves because they will not just focus on the external reward of “covering” all the material, but they will be motivated by their inner-educator that believes each student can and will succeed. Intrinsic motivation was found by Cerasoli et al. (2014) to be more powerful in producing quality outcomes than extrinsic motivation. Instead of using power standards as their external, results-focused motivator, teachers can follow the goals they develop using the 40/40/40 Rule. As mentioned above, it’s important that teachers get other educators to review and validate their classroom goals. However, if the educator personally develops the goals by “conceptualizing” their students and what is best for them to learn, the teacher should create high goals that are inline with any state requirements. Using this method, teachers will be motivated to get their students to learn the knowledge and skills they believe to be most worthy of their acquisition.

    As motivation increases, teacher self-concept of their teaching skills will increase as well. As explored by Shavelson and Bolus (1981), self-concept can be general or specific to subject areas. If teachers believe they are incapable of “covering” all the material, they will be unmotivated because they cannot achieve the goal: getting each student to learn all of the material. However, if their goal is concrete and personally developed for their students, the teachers will be more motivated and more successful. Their motivation and success will allow teachers to form positive self-concepts of themselves as educators. As a result, teachers will believe in why they’re teaching what they’re teaching and believe they can contribute to the lifelong endurance of their students’ learning.

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