A Handy Framework for Designing Units of Study
People, places, and problems offer rich opportunities for real-world learning. This unit design framework ensures engaging, aligned learning objectives, experiences, and assessments.
When designing units of study, it’s important to provide students with authentic learning experiences that are engaging and challenging and that foster essential skills. This is especially important if you are looking to integrate learning between subject areas, develop culturally responsive units, and encourage transfer of understanding between contexts.
With so many things to consider during curriculum design, it can be helpful to have simple frameworks with which to structure your teaching and planning. One approach I’ve developed is People, Places, and Problems (3Ps)—a guide, described below, that can help you create units and learning experiences that are relevant, inclusive, integrated, and meaningful to all involved.
To bring learning to life and develop culturally responsive teaching practices, consider the “who” behind any unit of study—the people and identities most connected to a given curricular topic. How can you integrate these perspectives into curricula?
A unit can include visits from a local expert, visits to community spaces, or conversations with elders. Young people can identify with local change makers and influencers and understand that the world around them is shaped by “ordinary” people—meaning they, too, hold the power to influence their surroundings.
To supplement real-world interactions, teachers can use primary source materials, such as diaries, letters, and photographs, to highlight diverse perspectives and tell stories of real people in engaging and empowering ways.
In a grade five unit on biodiversity, I saw teachers operationalize this approach by connecting students with a local nature society, where they learned about a community environmental activist and understood the important impact that people are having on animal conservation in the area.
This experience had a significant influence on students, helping them to identify as environmental activists in their own right, and a number of them took it upon themselves to study native bird species. They now help lead regular data collection surveys on the school campus, demonstrating how, by centering relational and experiential learning, we can encourage deeper learning in and beyond the classroom.
Incorporating a sense of place by applying place-based-learning strategies can provide context and relevance to a unit of learning that abstract study rarely can. Through deep study of a particular place, students can learn about geography, history, and culture, but they can also integrate other skills, such as writing, art, and mathematics.
Studying place can look like one-day field trips, a series of regular visits to one or multiple locations, or an entire unit based around a particular place. Teachers can use maps, photographs, and other visual aids to help students understand the physical and cultural landscape of a place (this is also a great option if you don’t have the resources to facilitate real-world travel through field trips). Considering opportunities for the study of place immediately opens up options for subject integration, as real-world places are naturally complex and interdisciplinary.
In a grade four mathematics unit on data, for example, students traveled to a local beach to collect data on the types of plastic that washed ashore. Grounded in a particular place, the unit became more relevant to learners who witnessed the impact of plastic waste firsthand. Students could touch, feel, and see the thing they were collecting data about, and it was clear how using data could be an important skill when understanding the human impact on nature. This learning integrated naturally with social science units and provided opportunities for authentic action and interdisciplinary projects later in the unit.
Often emerging within the study of people and/or places, problems provide tremendous opportunities for real-world application and transfer of understanding. Authentic learning experiences should be designed around real-world problems that challenge students to think critically and apply their knowledge and skills. By using problem- or project-based learning, you can empower students to be solutions-oriented and develop a sense of purpose and agency.
When they work collaboratively to solve problems, students can develop communication and collaboration skills in ways that are rarely possible in singular-lesson activities. Solving authentic problems offers an interesting assessment point, giving students the opportunity to transfer their understanding, thereby showing conceptual understanding rather than simple knowledge recall.
I recently witnessed seventh-grade students design ways to stop birds from eating the plants in their school’s kitchen garden. This task required them to understand the needs of the plants in the garden and the behaviors of local bird species, and to apply their design and technology skills to create structures that protect vulnerable plants, integrating background knowledge, acquired skills, and cross-disciplinary thinking to target a community-oriented problem.
A Fresh Approach to Unit Design
Not every unit of study provides opportunities for the simultaneous study of people, places, and problems; however, by using this 3P approach as a mental checklist, you can make sure you’re getting the most out of unit planning, maximizing engagement for all learners.
Articulating the 3P framework to your students can also provide a neat thinking model for researching and organizing their learning. As students study independently, we can encourage them to look at the world holistically and consider the people, places, and problems related to what they’re exploring. I have seen the 3P framework act as a template for a fifth-grade independent project showcase, and when students connected the 3Ps with their chosen topics, they achieved very clear and purposeful outcomes.
In a sometimes overwhelming world of educational initiatives and innovations, using a simple framework can help organize and focus your units in a coherent, digestible way. At the same time, the 3Ps allow us to include many areas of learning that are at the forefront of educational theory and research, including diversity, equity, and inclusion; Universal Design for Learning; concept-based teaching and learning; student-centered pedagogy; and education for sustainable development.
By distilling these various approaches into one framework, we can create a structure that is easily digestible for teachers, students, and even the parent community, facilitating a whole-school approach to making clear the objectives, learning experiences, and assessments that align and enlighten your classroom.