Planning a Flipped Unit – Part 2

--Originally published at nodes

The biggest portion of the circle, the Why, defines everything you do in the unit. Before planning a single activity (or lesson), it is important to take time to outline what the students will be learning within the unit as a whole.

Large circle with the word "Why" at the top

This guiding focus will bring consistency to your individual lessons and empower you to build more meaningful instruction. By outlining the standards, you’ve built a roadmap to help students to go from Point A to Point B in a meaningful - and much more flexible - manner.

If the standards are defined, where does flexibility come from? Here’s a chemistry standard I taught in Indiana:

C.1.5 Describe the characteristics of solids, liquids, and gases and changes in state at the macroscopic and microscopic levels.


From a lesson-centric point of view, I can certainly work with this guidance. Maybe we do a lesson looking at solids, liquids, and gasses in the lab to compare and contrast properties. Then we could look at a PhET simulation and play with particle diagrams. Students would be introduced to the material and hopefully be able to describe properties on their own.

The problem is that I’m artificially limiting that exposure. I don’t know what questions students will ask leading up to that particular lesson. I’m also not thinking about bigger connections because the point of the lesson is to teach the single idea.

By outlining standards rather than lessons when planning a unit, themes begin to emerge. We can move away from teaching standard C.1.4 before we teach C.1.5. More importantly, it gives students a chance to define their own path in describing a particular piece of content. Having options for interaction rather than prescriptions - all within the scope of the outlined standards - gives students more autonomy and choice, which leads to more engagement.

Creating Outlines

There is no ‘best’ way to outline standards, but I’ve found it helpful to create simple documents for each unit I’m preparing. This focuses my attention and gives me one place to brainstorm ideas. I’m a paper-and-pencil first kind of thinker, so I have physical templates that I’ll scribble on as I work. It may also be helpful to print standards or write them on post it notes so you can quickly rearrange as you think, especially if you’re working with collaborative content teams.

If you’re teaching a single course, you really only need two boxes at this point: Standards and Themes.

Single course:

Chart with a space for "standards" and a space for "themes"

In collaborative planning sessions, look for common threads and throw anything relevant in. This is the brainstorming phase where ideas have equal vitality and worth. You can go back and refine later. Seeing standards on paper will help you set the big idea for the unit, so start at the highest possible level.

Multiple courses (cross-curriculuar):

Chart with "standards" at the top and different courses listed below to help find alignments

You can’t begin to design coherent, innovative units unless you know exactly what you need to teach during that unit.

I find it’s helpful to verbalize a story. Why is one standard included, but not another? How are they tied together? What significance comes from the addition (or deletion) of one standard over another? If you’re unable to answer these questions or tie together a narrative for the unit, continue to work through standards until you have something you can articulate out loud.

Looking for Themes

When your standards are laid out and you can articulate a narrative, it’s easier to see common themes and threads. Try to stay away from restrictive topics like, “the 1920s,” or “cells and organelles” because they frequently limit the scope of thinking about material. What connecting ideas permeate all the standards you want to incorporate into the instruction? Brainstorm ideas. Bounce topics off one another. Keep a journal of interesting ideas to loop into other units or pull back in during a different course or even year.

Let’s take the chemistry standard again:

C.1.5 Describe the characteristics of solids, liquids, and gases and changes in state at the macroscopic and microscopic levels.

This used to fall into my “Properties of Matter” unit (real original, I know). Instead of tackling this idea from a narrow materials perspective, it is rolled into a design unit. Why do we use particular materials for different applications? What industries rely on (or manipulate) some of these characteristics?

By opening up our line of thinking about how to incorporate a standard, our students can now take different paths to showing their understanding through lenses they define. It’s also important to remember that the unit or investigation you design might not fit every student’s interests. Knowing the endgame - seeing the big picture of the Why, will give you and your students flexibility in exploring different ideas.

What Now?

The meat of your work is getting standards aligned. Rather than dive into day to day activities (where we’re all comfortable), map out a sequence of units or even your entire year. If you’re in a district that has a scope and sequence laid out, use that as a starting point.

  • Standards-alignment helps you see the big picture
  • Tell a story with the standards. Think about flow from one idea to another.
  • Identify potential themes or topics that include - but are not exclusive to - the standards you’ve identified.

Familiarizing yourself with the standards that are taught in each unit will help you open up different avenues for student learning. If you’re struggling to articulate why a particular standard is included, move it! You’re the architect of the course - you have freedom and leeway to design something meaningful for your students

In the next post, we’ll look at the How of unit design. How will we assess and evaluate student learning within the context of the Why?

Featured image: Where am I? flickr photo by Carol (vanhookc) shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

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