What if we plan backwards from students’ ability to transfer their learning to real-world, dissimilar contexts? What if the goal of each unit wasn’t solely centered around knowledge acquisition but was for learners to move toward meaningful, real-world action and engagement? This is possible when we keep the Learning Transfer Mental Model, Acquire – Connect – Transfer, at the heart of unit design. This blog will guide you on this new adventure, using the template below, and by the time you’ve finished, you’ll have a unit outline you can’t wait to implement.
Planning with a New End in Mind
Source: Stern, Ferraro, Duncan, Aleo (2021) – download at www.learningthattransfers.com, Chapter 6.
Unit planning determines the big picture or purpose of the unit, the priority or core content of the unit, the assessment evidence, and a high level instructional plan. If you have been following along in the series, we started framing the big picture by discussing disciplinary lenses, modern literacies, and the story of our course. Consider the following questions, seen in the unit planning image, to help frame the big picture for your unit.
- What real-world contexts can be incorporated to help students transfer to authentic situations?
- What modern literacies – knowledge, skills, and ways of thinking – will your students need that are outside your standards?
- What standards or learning outcomes are addressed in this unit?
- What disciplinary lenses will students put on to analyze each lesson?
- How does this unit contribute to the story of your course?
Take a moment and consider each of these questions and map out the big picture of your unit before we continue on and look at the core content of the unit.
Core of the Unit
Our current curriculum is jam packed and we’re often left wondering, “how will I be able to cover all of this?” The goal in teaching for transfer is to help students create a strong organizational structure in their minds. By anchoring and organizing knowledge around transferable, organizing concepts, students are better equipped to make the kinds of connections that build schema. This shifts priority from memorizing facts and skills to students developing a deep understanding of concepts and the relationships between them. Facts and skills become examples or a means to help students better understand concepts and their connections.
To map backward from students’ ability to transfer, we must first consider the concepts that are most essential for them to unlock new situations in this unit. We call these anchoring concepts. Anchoring concepts are the focus for a unit of study; they are the essential elements of our content. When looking at the real-world contexts and standards you have identified for the unit, what 3-5 concepts are priority or most essential for students to understand at deep levels?
We realize you might identify more than three to five concepts that are important; however, some concepts must necessarily recede into the background to bring others into sharper focus in the foreground. If we prioritize everything, students will make meaning out of very little.
Subconcepts often specify the meaning of anchoring concepts and are neither too broad nor too specific. Broad concepts are great for allowing students to access many prior experiences, but they often do not help students make sense or understand the nuance of new situations. This is where subconcepts are beneficial. They are usually precise enough to provide students with useful understanding needed to unlock new situations.
Again, we don’t want to create a laundry list of concepts. At the secondary level, we recommend two to three corresponding subconcepts for each anchoring concept and can have even fewer in the elementary years. The following questions might help you identify subconcepts:
- What are the more nuanced, specific ideas embedded in the unit?
- What smaller concepts will help deepen student understanding of the anchoring concepts?
What about facts and skills?
Facts and skills are still necessary for student understanding, but are not the driver of unit design. Now that you have identified anchoring concepts and subconcepts, we can consider which facts and skills are needed to provide students with examples of the concepts.
For instance, after middle school students have explored the concept of a proportional relationship, they can file away the facts that a graph of a proportional relationship is linear and can be represented by the equation y = kx. They will even be able to solve problems by identifying the constant of proportionality on the graph or using the equation.
Consider what students need to learn with memorization, fluency, or automaticity when determining the most important facts and skills for a unit.
Questioning to Build Schema
In planning for transfer we believe questions have the power to invite students into the learning experience and promote clarity so students understand the purpose of the lesson or unit. We encourage developing two types of questions – conceptual questions and compelling questions. Conceptual questions connect anchoring and sub concepts in relation to each other so that students are able to unearth and discover these conceptual relationships as they move through carefully designed learning experiences. The following sample stems are a simple way to get started on developing conceptual questions. Simply plug in your concepts:
- What is the relationship between ____ and ____?
- How does _____ impact _____?
- What is the role of ____ in _____?
- What is the difference between _____ and ____?
These conceptual relationship questions are what help guide students to see and make connections between concepts throughout the unit. Some teachers create a couple while others have close to ten. This is completely up to you. We’ve noticed that usually one or two questions emerge as overarching for the unit while the rest tend to guide thinking and learning in smaller sections throughout the unit.
Now that we have brainstormed the majority of the core content of the unit, we can take time to think about how we will invite students into the unit of study. We recommend posing a compelling question or debatable statement such as ‘will we ever be able to prevent another pandemic?’ or ‘We should bring dinosaurs back to life in the next 100 years. Stand where your level of agreement is on a scale of 1 (no!) to 10 (absolutely!).’ These compelling questions can be debatable, ethical, and cross-disciplinary. The following criteria help us determine if a question would be compelling or not:
- It is understandable: Students can develop initial hypotheses without needing much instruction or new knowledge from the teacher.
- It is open: There is more than one way to reason through the answer, and it requires deep conceptual organization.
- It is authentic: It’s a question that even experts are grappling with, rather than one that is already settled and is rooted in a situation outside of the classroom.
- It is important: Answering this question has implications for real-world action.
Assessing for Transfer
Finally we are ready to map out how we will assess for transfer throughout our unit. The key idea for unit planning is to ensure that transfer tasks are an ongoing part of our students’ journey. If our summative assessment is the first time students have the opportunity to transfer, they will surely struggle. Based on our standards and our conceptual relationship questions and their respective concepts, we should have a pretty good idea of what students should understand and be able to do at the end of the unit. Use these to guide the creation of a performance task that will require students to transfer their conceptual understanding to a dissimilar, real-world context.
While writing, Learning That Transfers, we developed the unit storyboard which acts as high-level overview or outline for units. We find it helps us envision how students will move through each phase of the ACT model over the course of a unit and ensures we plan opportunities to assess students’ conceptual understanding and ability to transfer before reaching the end of the unit. The storyboard with thinking prompts is located below and hundreds of examples can be found in our storyboard database! Each of these was created by one of our Learning That Transfers Endorsed Educators in our online course.
Find resources to support each phase of the storyboard at www.learningthattransfers.com, chapter 8.
To summarize this post and for those who are given a curriculum and don’t feel they have much flexibility, consider the following:
- Identify the most important concepts of the unit
- Create conceptual questions that will help students see the relationship between these concepts.
- Craft a compelling question that excites students about what they’re about to learn.
- Pose your conceptual questions with their corresponding lessons throughout the unit and provide students with time to answer the questions using evidence from the lesson.
- Use the provided assessment and pair it with a real-world task that allows students to unlock a new situation and demonstrate their ability to apply their conceptual understanding.