Planning a Flipped Unit

--Originally published at nodes

The idea for this series was sparked when I was helping some people research sample flipped lessons for a curriculum workshop I was facilitating. I was embarrassed while working with this teacher because most of what we found was significantly below standard.

That night, I did some more searching and I leafed through page after page of Google results of substitution-level implementations of flipping. Lessons that came up in the search were roughly:

  1. Video for homework, quiz the next day.
  2. Video for homework, worksheet the next day.
  3. Video for homework, lecture the next day.

What I could not find were resources on designing effective and powerful lessons for flipping, let alone units.

This is a problem.


In my early years, a unit was simply a sequence of lessons around a central theme. Essential Questions guided my day to day work, but instead of focusing on content standards as a baseline, I relied on thematic relationships. At the time, I thought I was giving myself freedom to explore related ideas no “prescribed in the curriculum.” In reality, I was making more work for myself as I pulled ideas in without a guiding framework. On top of cherry-picking pieces of content within a unit, I was trying to flip everything. That meant making videos and corresponding materials to help my students in their learning. The majority of my work was focused on lesson preparation and the overall unit structure was left to nothing more than the sum of the parts.

Flipped Learning has been around long enough for most people to have heard about it if not researched it for themselves. Sal Khan’s 2011 TED talk is a firestarter for conversation among teachers and administrators looking for methods to jumpstart some innovation. Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams have published a number of books about flipping at the classroom level as well as for particular subjects. Others like Crystal Kirch, Troy Cockrum, Robert Talbert, and Ramsey Musallam have written books (all linked) about their implementation strategies teachers can model as they begin to explore.

The Gap

There is a significant information gap when it comes to learning about how to successfully implement flipped practices. In a culture of Google results and “power skimming,” most implementations begin - and end - with finding or recording lectures that students watch at home and then “apply” in the classroom.

At it’s worst, the teacher becomes a non-essential mediator of student YouTube binging. At best, the teacher essentially resets the clock on student work, promoting passive listening and devaluing the net positives that can be gained in a classroom setting.

Sherry Turkle explores the advent of using technology to engage today’s “disengaged” students in her book, Reclaiming Conversation. Her point is similar - rich classrooms come with discussion and interaction. Savvy and intentional course design is key in promoting this interaction. Flipped Learning can help you build that culture, but only if you’re prepared with the right instructional tools.

So, our question: When you’re asked to design a lesson, where do you start?

Like many, you may identify your Big Idea and Essential Question for the day (don’t forget to put them on the board!). Then, you’d outline your instruction and some guided practice strategies after which you can assess student understanding of the material.

Lessons are easy. As a teacher, you’ve been crafting lessons since your undergrad years. Over time, they may be refined or updated, but planning is typically spent looking at a calendar, outlining day to day activities.

When you design from the top - starting with the biggest ideas and burrowing down through assessment and lessons - you are rooted in the main ideas. Those themes permeate everything your students do, which leads to more opportunities for exploration and discussions on related topics. You won’t need to think about every contingency to engage students when they lose interest because students will define those topics themselves.


Our worldview informs everything we do in the classroom. “The medium is the message,” the adage goes, and it’s particularly important to remember as you begin to incorporate video (or other media) into your instructional habits. The idea of an asynchronous introductory event is not a common experience for most of our students. How will it communicate a shift in the typical learning cycle?

Our bubbles are strong. Our brains work hard to fit new experiences into existing schemas. When they don’t fit, the schema is broken down and rebuilt. Working in a flipped environment will certainly break your students schemas about learning. If your schema for instruction isn’t being broken and rebuilt as part of the process, your wheels will spin.

The Big Picture

To address the shortcomings of planning effectively for flipped material, we’ll be using a modified version Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” to plan out a holistic unit from the top down. If you’re not familiar with the Golden Circle, here’s a diagram:

The golden circle - What, how, why

The Golden Circle is meant to help organizations determine their core mission. In many cases, employees (or teachers and students) can quickly answer What it is they do every day. For example, a Microsoft employee would say they make software. A student would say they’re learning about the Revolutionary War or linear equations.

Most people, however, can’t answer the “Why” nearly as easily. Why does Microsoft make software? Why are linear equations taught in school? Sinek’s argument for the corporate world is that by answering the Why for your clients, you stand out - you become unique and a cohesive and productive culture develops.

Schools are not businesses, but the principles of the Golden Circle can be applied to curriculum development. How do we transfer corporate descriptors to the classroom?

  • WHY: Standards, essential questions, outcomes.
    • Defining the Why in your curriculum is step one. It sets the tone for the entire course, defining the end results for students. Knowing which standards, essential questions, and outcomes you have for student at any given point keeps your instruction on focus as you plan. Looking unit by unit helps you tell a story to your students - it provides a cohesive overview of how things relate to one another.
  • HOW: Assessment(s)/capstone event
    • Once you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching, you need to define how you’ll know what students have learned or not learned. Step two in Understanding by Design calls this “Assessment Evidence.” What tasks will students complete in order to show what they’ve learned as you move through the unit? Keep in mind that this does not necessarily have to be a written test!
  • What: Lessons, day to day
    • You’ve defined the Why and you know How you’ll be evaluating student growth, now you can start to think about the day to day work. Every single thing you plan for your students should support their growth toward showing what they know (the Why) and How you know they know it.

In our application, we’re going to put the Why at the outside, exchanging it for the What:

Modified Golden Circle - Why, How, What

This Golden Circle hangs on a wall near my desk. It’s a visual reminder as I work with teachers to build units of instruction. Everything defined in the unit is nested and related: all of the What is measured and related to the defined Why. The idea is to root our planning in practices which focus on teaching standards with authentic and meaningful opportunities for assessment.

Admittedly, the visual analogy isn’t perfect because usually, when a dartboard is involved, you’re shooting for the bullseye. We need to get to the what eventually, but it’s always within the context of what’s around it, the standards and assessments.

Each post in this series will dive deeper into designing units of instruction rather than flipped lessons. Comments, suggestions, and feedback are always appreciated.

Leave a Comment