Planning a Flipped Unit Part 2

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

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

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

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

Planning a Flipped Unit

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.