Planning for learning, part 1.

One of the ongoing challenges for teaching is the effective curriculum planning that not only addresses all required syllabus outcomes, but also provide students with the appropriate sequence of learning activities that will help to raise engagement and increase both understanding and retention of key skills and content. Wow, that was a long opening sentence.

In my quest to be a better teacher, I go looking for different models of curriculum planning that are easy to use and effective in implementation, and over the next few weeks I will be posting overviews and reviews of some different models with discussions on pros and cons of each. As I commence my new job as Head Teacher of English in 2012, I plan to implement units of work based on some of these different models and be able to provide some deeper evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses.

One of the key elements of any planning model is the structure it follows – the structure provides both a guide for creating and sequencing learning outcomes and also an easy way to map the links between learning activities and assessment processes. One of my favourite ways of structuring an English unit is using the structure of different text types as metaphorical structure for a curriculum plan. In English, I particularly like to use narrative structure, and essay structures as models.

How it works:

Essays and Narrative have some commonly recognised (if  simplistic) structural elements, which are:

Narrative:

  1. Orientation
  2. Complication
  3. Sequence of Events (rising action)
  4. Conclusion
  5. Coda

Essay/Exposition

  1. Introduction
  2. Paragraphs with evidence supporting points of argument
  3. Linking statements between paragraphs
  4. Conclusion

These two things provide great structural models for creating a unit of work. First, the essay structure.

Like an essay, the introduction to a unit of work should include elements to engage the interest of the audience (the students) and provide them with a clear thesis or preposition that will govern everything in the unit. It should also provide a summary of the key elements that will be use din support of the thesis. As a teacher, the key elements here are to remember to focus on Engagement and Summary/Preview of the work ahead, but most importantly, to have a clear purpose to the unit of work that sets up student expectations for everything that follows. Like a good essay, this unit thesis needs to be complex and relevant – just as ‘MacBeth is a bad man’ might be considered an overly simplistic essay topic (well, for a senior English class) likewise is ‘what happens in MacBeth’ a poor way to get students engaged in a unit of work. A more appropriate thesis for and essay might be that ‘the character of Macbeth represents the dark side of ambition and power ‘, likewise is it more interesting for students to consider questions like ‘what is the nature of power and ambition, as represented in Macbeth?’.

Once you’ve established the thesis for the unit of work, the paragraph structure becomes the sequence of lessons in which students develop their understanding of the question.

Just as paragraphs have an accepted structure of a topic-sentence, followed by evidence and a concluding/linking statement a lesson activity should have a clear purpose, an activity to allow students to explore and understand that purpose, and some conclusion that either links the lesson activity back to the substance of the unit, or consolidates their learning to maximise recall and understanding.

How many paragraphs/lesson depends on the complexity of the topic and the length of time available, and the great thing is that the model is flexible. The main thing to remember is that like in an essay, each lesson must have clear links to the thesis driving the unit of work, and must be reinforced appropriately throughout the unit.

Each paragraph’s topic sentence is also where syllabus outcomes come into play – as each activity will usually address one or more outcomes, and this structure makes it much MUCH easier to plan and keep track of outcomes.

In this structure, I want to pay a moment’s attention to the importance of the linking element. In the context of the Schema Acquisition model of knowledge, making links between items of content is crucial to ensuring that students develop a deeper understanding of topic material. Sometimes the links between material are obvious and required very little work form the teacher to confirm, but it is one of the most importance functions of this model to ensure that these links are made and reinforced at every opportunity. This could be as simple as having a large mind map on the wall for students to add to with each lesson, or having individual activities at the end of each learning sequence for the purpose of having students forge their own links between course content.

Finally, the conclusion, or in the case of most units of work, an assessment task. Like a strong conclusion, an assessment tasks must draw on the content of the unit of work, consolidating what is already there rather than introducing new material. There is a whole library of stuff available on effective assessment, however in a unit such as this, each lesson activity provides an opportunity for effective assessment for learning to monitor student progress and tailor future lessons. As such, a portfolio of completed tasks can often serve as an effective assessment task, as can, funnily enough, an essay that addresses the original question of the unit.

Next time… narrative learning structures.

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