Three Problems with Online Teaching

We started our school year today. We have a split group of teachers who are fully online and a group who is hybrid, two days in school and three days online. To make our support manageable, my counterpart and I have worked to infuse systems that support both 100% online and the hybrid model of instruction.

With so much uncertainty, it's hard to push teachers to completely rethink how they approach instruction. Building a foundation on something familiar is an easier ask than jumping into a brand new paradigm with very little time to prepare ahead. What I've ended up seeing is a group of teachers, not just in our district, who are trying to re-create the school day in an online space as closely as they can. So, a group of students is assigned work on Day A and the second group sees the same thing, but on Day B. Time is dictating student access to information, given out at the discretion of the teacher.

That's a bad model, but it's especially bad when you're online or in a hybrid.

It's an Equity Problem

Directing information in this way assumes all students can access that material on your scheduled. In the traditional school strucutre, that's less bad (though still less than ideal) because we have that time with students face to face. It's expected and generally followed for the larger population.

Online, that's asking a lot.

Some families stayed online because they can afford to. It's a luxury they can take advantage of. Others are all online because of necessity. The rest are hybrid for the same reasons. At the end of the day, we have a diverse population with at minimum three different paradigms for schoolwork. That doesn't include family dynamic, Internet access patterns, work patterns, and a number of other situations.

Assuming a typical school day will work as an online school day ignores the varied situations our students are in. Flexibility helps mitigate those differences. Equitable access to content starts with flexibility in how a student both receives that material (assignments, reading, videos, etc) and how they respond to those prompts.

It's an Instructional Problem

Equitable access to information isn't a problem with technology. It's a problem with our paradigms for designing and implementing instruction. Teaching online frees you from the notion of "all here, all doing" when it comes to information transfer. The simple act of offloading the information iteslf into the personal space allows students to develop and practice some agency in their learning.

The most frequent argument to this idea is, "But they'll work ahead!" It amazes me that teachers are worried about students working ahead.

Information isn't the only part of teaching. It's a starting point. Students can watch a year's worth of my biology videos in a few hours, but they're not going to learn anything important unless I design meanginful, engaging activities and tasks that forces them to use what they've watched.

This is an instructional problem. It's a problem that we equate information transfer (I talk, you listen) with learning so closely that we cannot fathom posting videos at the start of the week for everyone, regardless of their class day. It's a problem that we worry about students moving forward in the class on their own time because they have time on Monday to do the work you were planning on assigning Wednesday.

Working online provides a great intervention to the idea that learning happens on the teacher's time, not on the student's time.

It's an Assessment Problem

If your instruction online is crippled from the start because you don't have a way to proctor students during tests, you've got a bigger problem with assessment. Practice problems cam be gamed. "Skill games" don't actually measure skill (yes, I said it). Assessment is a strategy that informs the student of where they are and the teacher of what you should be doing differently. It takes serious planning. It takes skill to create useful, valid, reliable assessments.

It takes even more skill to design assessments that only show student learning better when they're done online.

Giving a test online (if you want to call it a test) allows students to use the vast amount of information on the Internet as a resource. This is a good thing. Your assessment strategy should change in such a way that if a student does Google the answer, their answer only gets better as a result. Open-ended questions, inquiry, allowing students to define their own performance criteria takes the stress out of writing the perfect multiple choice question.

The Hard Truth

The fact is that teaching online should force a teacher to look into a mirror (or webcam) and question everything they've thought about teaching before. If time and place are non-issues, if the vast swath of the Internet is open for searching, and if you had the freedom to design and use it how you wanted, what would be possible? What would you choose to do instead of just do?

It's scary. It's often frustrating. It's definitely humbling.


The featured photo is Space by Ikhlasul Amal is licensed under CC BY-NC

KQED on Active Engagement, Not Compliance

More than that, the characteristics should be observable to anyone who walks into the room.

We work hard with our teachers to make sure they're changing instruction and not just flavoring old ideas with tech. The eight reflective questions in this article are a great outline (guide?) teachers can use as they're planning ahead with technology in general.

Beyond purposeful planning, if you can't see students engaging in some way, they probably aren't. Our indicators for engagement have to be updated as well. From earlier in the article:

...he looks for behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement at play together.

Quiet seat work does not equal engagement.

Source: How To Ensure Students Are Actively Engaged and Not Just Compliant | MindShift | KQED News

Planning the AR Study

Some initial thoughts on my action research design as I get ready to write up the study methods and timeline:

  • Since I already have data to look through, I'm starting to focus in on a mixed method study, looking at past data and teacher feedback to plan out future sessions for comparison.
  • Since we have data to start with, I'm planning on an exploratory mixed-method design.
  • I think exploratory is more beneficial in the long run because I'm interested in mechanisms and structures which increase implementation of ideas by teachers, not just explaining why they do or don't implement.
  • We're finishing workshops this year and already planning for summer work. If I can identify some patterns and structures and correlate the level of implementation, we'll have a good starting point for aligning all PD, not just my teams, to the new structures using data-backed conclusions.
  • Given the timeframe, gathering consent forms right now is difficult, considering we're coming up on spring break and the testing windows. Doing aggregate, anonymized data analysis will allow us to draft a descriptive letter before the summer PD series begins and we can make informed consent a part of the workshop instead of a mass email.

More Redefinition…

From a post last week where I continued to refine my research question:

How does continuity of study (ie, a PD sequence rather than a one-off workshop) affect implementation?

Is there an ideal timing? How often (in a series) seems to be effective?

What does the interim look like in between workshops?

Are volunteers more likely to implement training? Or are groups, even if they're elected to come by leadership?

How does the group dynamic affect buy in or implementation after the fact? Would establishing norms at the outset remove stigma?

I thought I was going to use, "How can my role effect change through professional development?" which isn't a great question for research. It's good for reflection, but it's too specific to me and not great for sharing in a collaborative environment (my team, for example).

Based on some of my literature research, I'm going to broaden back out to generalizing PD structures as a practice rather than focusing on my own role within those structures. Right now, I'm thinking:

How will aligning our professional development programs to goal-oriented frameworks affect implementation by participants?

I'm feeling good about this question for a few reasons:

  1. Much of my day to day work is with individual teachers. They often have a larger focus and I spend my time helping those teachers find solutions or methods to reach those goals.
  2. I am involved in building-level discussions through departments or administrators. It isn't as frequent as one-on-one contact with teachers, but I do work with administrators to help their staff reach collective goals.
  3. My team is housed at the district level, not individual schools. My involvement at the highest level eventually trickles down to buildings and individual classrooms.

We've never done a full, research-based survey on the PD activities we offer in order to evaluate whether or not our work is effective in changing instruction at any given level. Using academic research for a guide, we can begin to evaluate and categorize our work in view of larger goals. Hopefully, we are able to identify patterns, strengths, and weaknesses as individuals and as a team as we begin planning for next year's programs.

Element Interactivity in the Classroom – The Effortful Educator

...an element is anything that needs to be learned or processed and the interactivity relates to how reliant one element is on other elements for comprehension.

Source: Element Interactivity in the Classroom

I was first introduced to working memory by [Ramsey Musallam](https://twitter.com/ramusallam) and I've pulled it out every now and then in workshops with teachers. The idea is easy to grasp, but hard to put into specific practice when planning.

I'd never heard of "element interactivity" either, but this is - hands down - one of the _most_ approachable descriptions of how to adjust planning and instruction to account for cognitive limitations with novel or complex material.

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_Featured image "Dandelion Seeds" flickr photo by thatSandygirl https://flickr.com/photos/thatsandygirl/34111155501 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license_

Planning a Flipped Unit Part 4

Now it’s down to the What of your unit. Standards have been identified and selected, themes established, and your main mechanism for assessment has been designed to check what students know and can do at the conclusion of the unit.

The center of the Golden Circle isn’t the most important. It’s the component that fits within each of the larger rings. The What of your lessons should drive students toward successful completion of the assessment mechanism which, in turn, shows you what the students have learned of the identified standards.

The What is hard to specify, because the variety of activity in a flipped environment depends on individual student needs. Using the 5E structure helped me plan meaningful and varied activities all within the large scope of the unit.

If you’re not familiar with 5E, here’s a breakdown:

  1. Engage
  2. Explore
  3. Explain
  4. Elaborate
  5. Evaluate

I bolded Engage and Explain because it’s where I focused much of my effort in early unit planning.

Engage

It’s easy for me to stand up front and teach a topic. I can communicate ideas clearly and succinctly and ask students to demonstrate understanding with a variety of mechanisms. But, that sucks the joy out of learning something new (not that all students will love chemistry, but you get the idea). Ramsey Musallam and Dan Meyer are two really smart people I found early in this transition who helped frame my view of the engage portion.

Ramsey’s Explore-Flip-Apply structure fit well with my goals. Science is the practice of observation and I wasn’t great at getting students to observe phenomena. Use EFA at times, I was able to both engage the students in an interesting question and push them to draw conclusions based on lab experience.

Dan has pioneered 3 Act Math approach, which works to drive student inquisitiveness as a carrier for math instruction. I took his advice about practicing capturing perplexing things and started trying to photograph or film things that would be useful for engaging my students. (The previous link is a video about halfway through Dan’s 2014 CUE keynote. I recommend watching the entire presentation if you can find the time.)

This is hard to do, mainly because what I find engaging might not be engaging to students at all. Expect to swing for the fences and miss with some. As you hone your units, your engage activities will improve.

Explain

After exploring an idea, there will inevitably be misconceptions which need to be corrected. This is the Flip in Ramsey’s Explore-Flip-Apply. I can assess and gather information about student understanding as they explore and then I can use the power of a camera and a short video to instruct where students need the intervention.

If you’ve been flipping for a while, you know where students struggle. You probably already have a library of support videos you can filter into the unit. This also helps you identify gaps in your own instruction! Pay attention to what material students need additional help with and continue to build those resources out. Structuring your unit (not just a lesson) this way will also help you target which lessons are the most important, and that’s what students do. You don’t have to assign everything every year because the goals of the unit stay the same while student understanding changes year to year or class to class.

More on 5E

Each step in the 5E structure were not prepared for every single day of every single unit. Some components were easier to run across several days (or even weeks) because of low overhead (no prep, etc). Others were limited to specific dates and times. This is particularly important in a science classroom because of lab availability and safety considerations. Giving students choice in how they tackle a particular activity does not mean carte blanche. Specific constructs and limitations are acceptable.

Without repeating the linked 5E article above, Elaboration focuses on connecting to other ideas rather than staying within the immediate context. This is a great place to spiral back to previous units or to build anticipation for future units. It forces you to continue to consider the connections at the standards level rather than looking 24 hours in the future. Not only are your units more powerful, but your course as a whole takes on a larger internal support structure.

Final Thoughts

Much of this is written from secondary math/science perspective because that’s my experience. If you’re not in the same context, pay attention to the support structures rather than the individual examples. How are your standards mapped out? Have you mapped them out? Start large and work down to the day to day. This ensures students have a consistent experience and that the unit has internal fidelity to specific ideas. Looking day to day narrows the scope and makes it too easy to dictate the entire path of the course.

This is a skill that develops over time. There are strong communities of teachers on the FLN website and Slack channel. Get connected with others to solicit feedback and suggestions from people working on the same ideas. As you continue to zoom your lens out and work down to individual lessons your skill will build and your students will benefit.

Thanks for reading the series. If you have questions, leave a comment or head over to my website and drop me a line.


Featured image by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash.

Planning a Flipped Unit Part 3

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. What task(s) 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! This step in planning helps you meaningfully outline the Why of your unit.

Default Action

Defaults surround us. When I use my computer, I have a default web browser. I have default settings on my phone. When I get home in the evenings, I change into more comfortable clothes. Defaults help us work effectively and efficiently to accomplish a specific task.

We also have defaults in our teaching. When I need to quickly assess students, my default is usually a quick poll (choose the best answer from the board) or some targeted questioning to reiterate some important points from the activity. Those quick checks are routine for my students and the default action helps me effectively check for understanding without significant interruption of the class flow.

Defaults can also be dangerous. If I’m going out in the evening, my default clothing choice would not be appropriate. Asking students to answer a single multiple choice question (probably) won’t show me deep understanding. Our default actions need to be overridden from time to time depending on the situation. Relying on the default is particularly dangerous when you’re planning your unit assessment.

Understanding By Designing

This portion of the planning process relies heavily on Understanding By Design (UbD), also called “backward design,” developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigh. UbD outlines seven key principles which permeate all instructional decisions. I’m not going to go in depth on the entire framework in this post, so I encourage you to go read more about how to implement UbD.

At it’s core, UbD “helps focus curriculum and teaching on the development and deepening of student understanding.” The How defines how students demonstrate their learning. I cannot answer the question of whether or not students learned without some kind of assessment mechanism. The Golden Circle parallels the three-step process outlined by UbD:

  1. Desired Results
  2. Evidence
  3. Learning Plan

We’ve already outlined our desired results by defining and organizing standards. Now it’s time to dive into the assessment mechanisms that will flow throughout your unit.

How Will You Know What They Know?

The purpose of defining the assessment before the lessons is to ensure you are hyper-focused on teaching the standards you outlined in the Why. This is absolutely teaching to the test and it’s absolutely okay. Understand that teaching students the material you outlined is expected! Don’t fall into the trap of labelling your instruction as “narrow” or “prescribed” because you define the scope of your instruction. If you find something is missing, you can add it to your unit plan! This is an important component of planning because your assessment, to be reliable, valid, and fair, should reflect the material you set out to teach.

As you learn more about UbD, this portion of your unit planning is for the culminating event, not necessarily day-to-day formative assessments. The formative checks are critical because they help you “correct the ship,” as it were, but those are more aligned to daily tasks, so we’ll plan those in the next step.

There are six facets for understanding defined by Wiggins and McTigh that you should work to include: explanations, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Your culminating event should be broad enough for students to demonstrate many of these facets and narrow enough to ensure they are showing their learning on the defined standards.

A Sample Culminating Event

You have complete control over the culminating event, so try to avoid your default action and plan a true event, not just an assessment.

In my general chemistry course, we spent a significant amount of time on the properties of atoms. Understanding how these little pieces of matter behave is important in later concepts, like describing bonding or chemical reactions. Luckily, we have the Periodic Table of Elements which describes and organizes these properties. A major component was my emphasis on the fact that the periodic table is relatively new - only in its current form since the early 1900’s after many years of experiments and revisions. I needed my students not only know how to read the periodic table (explain and interpret), but to also relate to it’s development and connect it to the nature of science as a revision-based process.

I can definitely assess their knowledge using a multiple choice and essay test, and those were a component as we went through the unit in the form of quizzes. But, I’m missing the other half of the six facets of understanding - empathy, perspective, and self-knowledge. By using a unit test as my culminating event, I was missing opportunities for metacognition and growth.

In 2006, NSTA published an article by Vicki Volpe which described a Periodic Table of Cereal Boxes. I modified the project and added a reflection my students would do to show their understanding at the end of the unit. By putting students in the driver’s seat, I was able to watch them assimilate all of the principles they’d learned over the course of the unit to create something novel. Beyond the chemistry skills, students felt the frustration of building a meaningful representation, not unlike the early organizers of the periodic table. The process involved research, drafting, and revision - and not just one cycle. The reflection included a strengths/weaknesses analysis of their table and many recognized that it wasn’t perfect, but it worked given the data they had access to.

The Role of How

The culminating event brings into alignment to the entire unit. Every standard was assessed in some way, but not in isolation. All learning is connected and our unit assessments should highlight and expect students to make those connections. Designing your culminating event should unify the learning standards and give students opportunity to show the facets outlined in UbD. As a bonus, these holistic assessment items don’t feel like assessments. The conversation changes from “we have a test over this stuff” to, “use what you know and show me what you can do with it.” It’s a rolling performance event for students with checks along the way to ensure a supportive learning environment. This is particularly evident in a flipped environment where students can go back to review material as needed. The support structure is built right in!

What’s Next?

Once you’ve defined the Why and the How, you have a framework which provides support for the What - the day to day items. We’ll look at that in the next post.


The featured image is Geared flickr photo by arbyreed shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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.


Planning

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.

Bubbles

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.