Saturday / June 22

Going on an Intellectual Journey: Designing a Course for Learning that Transfers 

This blog is part five of a series on learning transfer. For more on teaching for transfer, see the first postsecond post,  third post, and fourth post. 

How can one of the most powerful questions help us in this moment in time: What if?   

What if rather than marching students through a pacing guide going from unit to unit, topic to topic, we took them on an intellectual journey? This slight shift in mindset is the tipping point for dramatic differences in instruction. We can begin this shift by considering what needs to be learned and in what order. We will then turn this into a compelling story that invites students to join us on the journey.  

A transfer-focused course must place attention on deeper structures of both disciplinary literacy and modern literacies. The past two posts in this series zeroed in on these literacies’ components, and now it’s time to think specifically about a course. There are four critical steps of designing a course that promotes transfer – prioritize thoughtfully, arrange effectively, supplement strategically, and flow cohesively. Teachers and curriculum specialists alike can use these steps whether you are working on a curriculum team or in your classroom.  

Critical Steps for Designing a Transfer-Focused Course 

Prioritize Thoughtfully 

We have an overwhelming number of standards to teach in a given school year. However, we can use standards to understand the larger patterns and structures within the discipline, adding them up into a coherent whole instead of breaking them down into an atomized maze. Like all great journeys, every stop and every detail cannot be included. This prioritization requires us to determine what is most important and will make the most significant impact on learning. Think of your standards in a sort of hierarchy. These questions can help determine which should be the lead “characters” of your course and which should play a supporting role.  

  • Do the concepts and skills within the standard serve as powerful vessels for conveying my disciplinary vision to students?  
  • Do the concepts and skills within the standard reveal the underlying structure that will transfer between grade levels creating a cohesive curriculum?   
  • Do the concepts and skills within the standard transfer to a real-world application? 
  • Do the concepts and skills within the standard transfer between domains of the discipline? or across disciplines creating interdisciplinary connections?  
  • Do the concepts and skills within the standard have greater weight on high-stakes tests?   

As you work through the content of your course, strive to deem no more than one-third of your standards as “priority.” Prioritizing helps us identify where to focus most of our instructional time, not all of our instructional time.  

Arrange Effectively 

Now that you have identified priority standards or priority concepts arrange your course’s other standards around those priorities. This arrangement should build or spiral progressively so that students can apply their understanding to units throughout the year. Arrange your standards based on their connection to the priorities you’ve identified for your course. As you go along, it may help to cut and paste or otherwise manipulate the text of the standards, like bolding or highlighting, so it is easy to distinguish your priorities and see how the other standards relate to them.   

Keep in mind that standards might not remain in a linear sequence like they are listed on the curriculum documents. This process might require us to rethink how we arrange or structure our units to best form a comprehensive journey for students. This process aims to make the standards more manageable to work with and meaningful for the student journey. 

Supplement Strategically 

As course designers, we have to determine which concepts and competencies from our modern literacies will best supplement our content to add relevance and authenticity to our units while at the same time leaving room for flexibility and responsiveness to students’ interests.  

  • At what point in the year are students most ready for these concepts?  
  • Where does the content of your course best support your modern literacy goals? 
  • Will it work best to establish a baseline understanding of your modern literacy concepts upfront, or does it make more sense to introduce each idea gradually? 
  • How should student understanding of these concepts and competencies evolve throughout the year? 

Flow Cohesively 

Now it’s time to create a cohesive flow for our students’ journey.  As we reconceptualize our curriculum’s order, we must take a step back and take a zoomed-out view. Situating learning in authentic contexts and weaving a common conceptual thread between each unit is a powerful way to provide momentum and meaning to a course.  

What separates this step from the traditional pacing guide is again a simple shift in mindset. We are still mapping out the order of units based on the school calendar. However, instead of moving from one disparate chunk to the next, we intentionally plan a journey that is aligned and flows cohesively. This allows students to see how their learning is connected and has grown throughout the year. 

As we move away from the era of stringent and linear standardized testing and toward an unknown future, this vision will become the focal point of curriculum, not one-off tests. This paradigm shift might feel disorienting at first, but we believe it will ultimately be liberating for teachers.  

Story of Your Course 

Once we have created a logical flow to our course by placing units into an intentional sequence where they build from one another, we can frame this flow in terms of a story or narrative. This helps us communicate the big picture of the course to students in a way that is accessible and meaningful. 

The story of our course allows us to show students that learning is not linear; it occurs through a complex set of experiences that require us to question what we understand, persevere as we experience confusion or cognitive dissonance, and ultimately gain new understandings. The story of our course can take a narrative or visual format, for templates and ideas go to The questions below might help you consider how to create a visual representation or articulate the ‘moral’ of your story? 

Brainstorming Ways to Share the Story of Your Course With Students


Along with a visual depiction of your course, distilling your story into a single line, or perhaps two can serve as a powerful compass for the course. The story requires us to take a big picture approach to planning rather than starting at the unit level. Suppose we never stop to question why specific topics or standards are bundled together or to reconsider the order in which we teach them. In that case, we may be missing key opportunities to improve the structure of our courses. With transfer in mind, we can create a meaningful journey for students and teachers alike. And encapsulating this journey in stories, visuals, and “morals” can help us convey the journey simply and powerfully to a wide range of stakeholders. 

For more strategies that will help you teach for transfer, check out Learning That Transfers by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. 

Written by

Julie Stern is the best-selling author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary, Visible Learning for Social Studies, and Learning That Transfers. She is the thought leader behind the global workshop series Making Sense of Learning Transfer, and is a certified trainer in Visible Learning Plus. Her passion is synthesizing the best of education research into practical tools that support educators in breaking free of the industrial model of schooling and moving toward teaching and learning that promotes sustainability, equity, and well-being. She is a James Madison Constitutional Fellow and taught social studies for many years in Washington, DC and her native Louisiana. Julie moves internationally every few years with her husband, a US diplomat, and her two young sons. Her website is   Krista Ferraro is a history teacher and department head at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts. Her passions include civic education, social justice, and preparing students for effective global citizenship. Previously, she served as Deputy Director of Public Policy and Curriculum Innovation at Chavez Schools in Washington, DC, where she also taught history and public policy courses. Her published works include the bestselling Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary. Krista holds bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and Spanish from Cornell University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from American University. She is also an alumna of Teach for America.   Kayla Duncan is a personalized instruction coach for Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Georgia. Her passion centers around empowering student voice through meaningful, authentic experiences and increased ownership. Kayla currently supports personalized learning schools in creating their new vision for education through the design thinking process. She believes the voices of students and the community should drive what happens in the school building. Before her coaching role, Kayla taught elementary physical education and middle grades mathematics. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Georgia, a Master of Arts in Mathematics Education from Western Governors University, and an Educational Specialist in Learning, Design, and Technology from the University of Georgia. Kayla is pursuing a Doctor of Education in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia and hopes to use this new knowledge to propel schools toward innovative visions for education. Kayla resides in Georgia with her husband, a fellow educator, and their fourteen-year-old dog Georgie   Trevor Aleo is a middle school English teacher in Wilton, Connecticut where he designs meaningful learning experiences while reading and writing alongside his students. Prior to his current position, he taught high school and was a grade level lead in Prince William County, Virginia. In addition to leading teams at his own school, he’s drafted curriculum at the district level, created instructional resources for the Virginia Department of Education, and presented at local, state, and national conferences. He believes education should help people become better sense makers and story tellers and is a passionate believer in pedagogies that align with those values. Growing up in a house of teachers, he developed a love of learning that continues to serve as the driving force behind all his work. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Teaching from James Madison University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Learning Design and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Trevor currently resides in Fairfield, Connecticut with his amazing wife Lindsey and will be welcoming a son into the world somewhere around the release of this book.

No comments

leave a comment