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Solving Lesson-Planning Challenges with Backwards Unit Design

posted Jan 29, 2016, 1:52 AM by HSD Principal

(Originally titled “Writing a Master Plan”)

In this Education Update article, Laura Varlas addresses five challenges teachers face as they plan lessons:

Coverage – Getting through the curriculum is an imperative, but if that’s the main focus, teachers may lose sight of deeper goals. In an English class, says Understanding by Design author Grant Wiggins, planning shouldn’t be about what book is being read but “how students are different when they’re finished reading it.” UbD co-author Jay McTighe agrees: “Just like a coach plans with the game in mind, teach individual skills and knowledge with the performance in mind, not as ends in themselves.”

The fun trap – Many teachers plan cool, engaging activities that don’t necessarily push toward understanding. “Activity-oriented lessons can be fun in the short run, but they’re cotton candy,” says McTighe. “They don’t have any deep nourishment.” Wiggins: “It’s possible to build a model of a working roller coaster but not learn any physics.” He likes to ask students:

  • What are you doing?

  • Why are you doing it?

  • What’s it helping you learn?

The key: deciding on lesson strategies after formulating learning outcomes and how they’ll be assessed. Activities should be a series of steps leading students to being able to perform the objective and explain what they’re doing.

Information overload – “The wealth of free online lesson planning resources can become tempting distractions as teachers sit down to design learning,” says Varlas. The same is true of digital planning software that links a unit to standards and spits out 40 objectives. Teachers need to take a deep breath and (ideally with colleagues) think through the content and what students should learn, focusing on the new standards being taught.

Educator egocentrism – It’s important for teachers to step out of their own mastery of the material and imagine how students will experience it – in particular, what misconceptions they may have and what rough spots they’ll hit. This means working through the material in advance and preparing during-lesson questions that probe for deeper understanding – and then responding nimbly to students’ partial answers and errors.

Lesson plans – Wiggins and McTighe believe the smallest unit of curriculum planning should be the unit plan. “I’m not saying ‘stop planning,’” says instructional coach Mike Fisher. “I’m saying, ‘stop planning for the isolated moment.’” Varlas adds: “Moving away from the potential myopia of daily plans requires schools to shift from isolated teacher planning to collaborative, integrative teams. It also begs principals to question the merit of requiring teachers to submit daily plans. Instead, look for a coherent unit plan with rich, well-aligned assessment tasks built into it.” McTighe sums up: “Don’t micromanage day-to-day teaching. Manage results on things that matter.”

“Writing a Master Plan” by Laura Varlas in Education Update, April 2016 (Vol. 57, #4, p. 1, 4-5), http://bit.ly/1DD4hut for ASCD members; Varlas is at lauravarlas@ascd.org.

Excerpt taken from Marshall Memo 587, April 27, 2015