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9 Ways to Plan Transformational Lessons: Planning the Best Curriculum Unit Ever

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Beyond possessing bodacious instructional expertise, outstanding K-12 teachers provide students with a disciplinary View-Master to see the world in stereoscope. We call those teachers transformational for how they engage learners, develop ability and understanding, and amplify students' identities.

But how do they prepare? Do they just show up for class and spontaneously uncork the awesome?

Obviously not.

Behind the scenes, transformational teachers conscientiously labor over curriculum plans that look simple and even elegant to classroom observers. This post explains how they do that, specifically looking at nine transformational practices -- refinements in curriculum planning that have occurred fairly recently.

1. Professional Emphasis: From General Strategies to Standards, Curriculum, and Strategies

For decades, teacher talk centered on strategies. Meanwhile, some educators let a textbook's table of contents determine the scope and sequence of a course. Then the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) arrived. Along with other influences, the CCSS made us more critical consumers of curriculum and strategies.

Today, transformational teachers know their anchor standards by heart and recognize the difference between teaching strategies and learning strategies:

  • Teaching strategies are approaches that teachers use to improve student learning. Example: whole-class discussion.
  • Learning strategies are initiated and controlled by students to solve problems and increase their understanding. Example: brainstorming.

We distinguish the two categories because balancing teaching strategies with learning strategies keeps instructors and students actively engaged.

2. Lesson Design: From Solo to Collaborative

As teachers gain fluency in using Google Docs, collaborative planning is becoming second nature. Additionally, more sharing of relevant curriculum is occurring via terrific open education resources (OER) like EngageNY.

3. From "Design Content, Then Assessment" to "Design Assessment, Then Content"

Due in part to the influence of Understanding by Design (UbD) by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, transformational instructors no longer "teach then test" -- instead, they "design the test, then teach." By building checkpoints into their plans, instructors know when and why students don't understand a skill or concept.

4. The Audience for Objectives: From Principal to Students

A while back, teachers submitted lesson plans for their principals to check. In many cases, the administrator remained the primary audience for written objectives. Today, objectives are posted and made understandable to students. To ensure clarity, transformational teachers follow the Goldilocks rule: objectives can’t be too general ("students will learn about the Civil War") or too narrow, because narrow objectives "will put you in danger of listing activities or assignments," writes Robyn R. Jackson in Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching.

To add relevance to the curriculum, simply add the stem "so that . . ." at the end of each posted objective as a way of describing how the skill and content will benefit students. Example: "Students will be able to evaluate the credibility of sources so that they can protect our democracy from the influence of those spreading misinformation."

5. Presentations: From Tell to Show

On the rare occasion that transformational teachers feature lectures, they are sure to use visuals. Using pictures can "banish boredom," asserts Dan Roam, author of Show and Tell. To keep pace with the 30 percent of students who access online videos for homework assistance, T-teachers' materials are more interactive and appropriate for consumption on mobile devices.

6. From Learning Tasks Designed for Extroverts to Tasks for Both Extroverts and Introverts

"Introverts like to work autonomously," says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, "but the trend in education over the past 20 years has been focused on group learning." Cain notes that popular teaching strategies like cold calling don't allow introverts time to process what they want to say. Adding a think-pair-share activity or increasing wait time to seven seconds after asking a question plays to the strengths of introverts.

7. From Bell-to-Bell Instruction to Less Structure and More Student Choice

In her research, danah boyd found that teenagers' lives are over-programmed: "[C]ontemporary teens often have little freedom to connect with others on their own terms . . ." A boost to student motivation can occur, says Kevin Perks in Crafting Effective Choices to Motivate Students, if we let learners determine -- when possible -- whom they work with, content, due dates, where to work, and how they will complete tasks.

8. Making Time to Plan: From Last Minute to a Month Ahead

Transformational teachers plan at least a month ahead, building in flextime to absorb inevitable interruptions in the schedule. Using a spiral curriculum increases understanding and retention.

9. Curriculum: From Undemanding to Productive Struggle

Lubricating the learning process with frictionless turn-in-the-worksheet compliance denies students opportunities for productive struggle -- a condition important for retention, according to an article by Richard Schmidt and Robert Bjork in Psychological Science. When students struggle, relax. Don't lower the expectations of your next lesson plan. Instead, scaffold instruction and check to see that you are challenging students appropriately with Hess' Cognitive Rigor Matrix.

Quality curriculum planning -- publically unacknowledged, unglamorous, and taxing -- is ultimately the golden road to Areté (Homer's word for exemplary effectiveness). Keep an eye on curriculum developments, because transformational teachers never stop learning.

Due to space limitations, this post does not include all the ways of planning transformational curriculum. What else would you include?

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Deb DeBates's picture

Great article - all educators should read as they prepare to head back to school.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

*Really* useful tips and advice Todd.

I especially like this one and it's worth repeating: "Adding a think-pair-share activity or increasing wait time to seven seconds after asking a question plays to the strengths of introverts."

This blog post also talks about the importance of waiting when asking questions (it recommends 3 seconds): https://www.edutopia.org/blog/asking-better-questions-deeper-learning-be...

FrankieP's picture

Fantastic article. Each point worthy of continued discussion. #7 Requires a change in how teachers prepare, the teacher's role in instruction and a change in classroom culture. It serves students in life to be empowered, engaged and self-directed with learning. Teach this and start young!
Let's do it!

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

There are some teachers (and research) that support cold-calling...but it always seems like cruel and unusual punishment for introverts.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Hi Frankie...I've always thought it was better for students to be leaning forward into curriculum, then passively waiting to be told what to do/know.

Brian's picture

I like the statement "Transformational teachers never stop learning." I think this has become a problem with teachers. Many have stopped learning new tools, resources or instructional strategies. We can not impart what we do not have. Educators must be continually learning in order to impart this mind set into their students.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

And your comment resonates a lot with me Brian: "We cannot impart what we do not have." Thank you!

Deb DeBates's picture

Great article - all educators should read as they prepare to head back to school.


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