I once owned a cafe and I was fortunate enough to have coaxed my brother into working for me as the chef. His food was amazing (see below)! Yet, he still used other people’s recipes. Despite having the expertise to create his own, he didn’t. Why start from scratch, when you can finesse the work of other master food craftsmen?
In education, we have a major workload issue. “More than 90 per cent of teachers say they don’t have enough time to prepare effectively for classroom teaching (Hunter et al, 2022).” One of those time-constraints is lesson preparation. Yet, many fight back against the thought of pre-prepared materials as both Rebecca Birch and Dr. Nathaniel Swain have written about.
Just because we can do everything, doesn’t mean we should. While a cafe has waitstaff to take orders and kitchen staff to create them. In classrooms, most teachers are attending to their customers (students), developing the menu (curriculum) and preparing (lesson materials) and creating the meals (lessons). This leads to many students finishing the school day, without being fed anything.
Why using someone else’s work, can work
I recently started working with a couple of schools and some of the teachers wanted to know how they could move from a “literacy group” style of teaching to a more whole class, explicit instruction approach. As I’m not with either of the schools on a fulltime basis, I wanted a way to guide them through this and decided to put together a unit of work. This way they don’t have to think about the actual lesson content or design and just focus on the instruction (In the future, I will put together a post that goes through the effectiveness of this unit of work).
One of the things we know about habit change is that the more specific and deliberate we can be in what we practice, the more chance we have of changing. Jackson (1990) pointed out that teachers make between 1200-1500 decisions every day and that doesn’t even include outside-of-class time! So, by taking away the need for teachers to design their lessons, we not only give them more time, we also decrease their cognitive load.
In this article, I’m going to go through a unit of work (see below) that I put together. I will address the research behind it, the time it took and the fidelity that will need to be taken upon implementation.
DISCLAIMER: I actually enjoy learning about how teaching and learning happens. I feel the more evidence-informed decisions we can make, the more chance we have of experiencing positive educational outcomes. However, there is a lot to learn!
Below, I have provided some lists of the knowledge I have used in order to put this unit together. Some teachers (although the research tells us, not many) were lucky and they gained a lot of this knowledge at University/College. For me, I’ve had to engage in reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts and watching Youtube videos. The point of the lists is to give people an idea of how much teachers actually need to know just to design a unit of work. This is before we have even entered the classroom!
Those who can, do.
Those who understand, teach.Shulman, 1986
Lee Shulman (1986) wrote a paper – Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching in which he outlined the types of teacher knowledge needed. I have used his framework to outline some of the knowledge that I’ve had to use.
What knowledge is needed about the specific subject content?
Knowledge of the full range of strategies needed to teach the content. For this unit, I have focused on developing Language Comprehension (Scarborough’s Reading Rope). Some of the resources I have incorporated strategies from are:
- Beck, McKeown and Sandora’s Questioning the Author – Comprehension
- Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s Bringing Words to Life – Vocabulary
- Self-Regulated Strategy Development – Writing
- Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution – Language structures
- Konza’s Research into Practice guides
- Think Forward Educators – 5 Ways Series
Pedagogical Content Knowledge
“For the most regularly taught topics in one’s subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations-in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others (Shulman, 1986).”
After developing subject matter content knowledge, I then needed to work out what resources would be suitable for the students and what prior knowledge and misconceptions they might have about this information.
For this unit of work, as well as reading the actual narrative (The Velveteen Rabbit), I also needed to develop my knowledge of:
- Life as a child in the 1920s
- Toys from that era
- The author – Margery Williams
- Similar themes
Having a toolbox of techniques to call upon is essential for any teacher. Clark & Peterson (1986) found that teachers make ad hoc decisions roughly every 2 or 3 min throughout their lessons. We also know that we are naturally intuitive decision-makers, so we need to ensure we have strong mental models of how effective teaching happens.
The science of learning provides the backbone for understanding the purpose of each activity, why students might be struggling to grasp a concept and how to structure the learning.
The evidence tells us that in order to do this, we need an understanding of concepts like:
- Explicit instruction (Rosenshine’s, Engelmann’s and Hollingsworth and Ybarra’s versions)
- Cognitive Load Theory
- Formative Assessment
- Willingham’s Simple Memory Model
- Retrieval, Spacing and Interleaved practice
On top of all this, teachers need to know how to set up an effective learning environment, how to build positive student relationships and understand how to meet the individual learning needs of all their students!
A Michelin Star Chef might make amazing food at the restaurant they are at, but if you threw them into your local Indian restaurant they might struggle. Knowledge is domain and context specific.
6 Things A Unit Of Work Needs to Cover
Here are 6 things that teachers should be thinking about when designing a unit of work.
1. What is the purpose?
What are the student learning outcomes that the teacher hopes to improve from this learning sequence? For this unit of work, the purpose was to develop students conceptual understanding of what it means to be “real”, improve their reading fluency, increase their Tier 2 vocabulary and understanding of language structure.
I have previously written about being purposeful in curriculum development here.
2. How will you know that learning has happened?
What assessment methods will you use? One of the main purposes of schools is to improve student learning outcomes. So, we need evidence of whether or not that is happening. We also want to know whether or not our teaching strategies are effective. On top of continuous formative assessment, I have created a pre and post test to check students knowledge of text specific Tier 2 Words and grammar and there is also a narrative writing task to be completed.
3. Where does it fit in?
How does this unit fit into the mandated syllabus and whole school curriculum? What knowledge is this building on? Unfortunately, the schools I’m working at don’t have an enacted and sequential whole school curriculum. This meant that I had to go off anecdotal evidence of what teachers had told me and couldn’t be intentional with what prior knowledge we revisited.
However, by having students write using the knowledge they develop through reading, the students will gain the required background knowledge to support their writing task.
4. What activities will support students’ learning?
What activities will best allow students to develop their understanding of the concept you are trying to teach? How will you guide them through the process, scaffold your support and allow practice opportunities? I have already mentioned a number of resources that I have used in putting together this unit. Also, the NSW Department of Education have developed some fantastic Science of Reading aligned resources on their Universal Resources Hub (only available to NSW DoE employees).
5. Setting up the learning
There are also a number of behaviour and learning norms and routines that need to be thought about and developed. For example:
- Daily Reviews
- Choosing non-volunteers
Time would need to be dedicated to specifically develop each of these routines.
6. Honing the presentation
You will see that the presentation is very pretty (if I do say so myself). I have been intentional with the structure and layout to reduce extraneous load and take into account things like the redundancy effect, split-attention effect and transient information effect.
The Text-Based Unit
I chose the Velveteen Rabbit, as it is one of the recommended Archaic Language texts from the Reading Reconsidered Reading Spine compiled by Matthew Dix based on Doug Lemov’s book – Reading Reconsidered.
With almost 300 slides, this would have taken me at least 30 hours to develop, with probably about a third being during “school time” through my Curriculum and Instruction role. I’m sure that as it is used, there will still be many areas of improvement that pop up, yet that’s the whole point. This provides a starting point for teachers to adapt as they use it responsively in their classroom.
Caveats for using pre-prepared materials
I feel for any pre-prepared materials, teachers need to understand what the key mechanisms are that must be maintained with fidelity and what can be adapted. I’ve designed this unit knowing that I will also be able to provide teacher support by providing professional learning, instructional coaching and modelling lessons.
If teachers were to just “plug and play” without knowing the actual story, learning intentions and effective teaching strategies, there is a high probability that the unit would not be as effective. It is still just a tool for teachers to use.
The lesson plans are like recipes – adjust and modify based on the feedback you receive from your customers!
So, my suggestions for using pre-prepared materials is that they should always be provided alongside the evidence to support it and guidance on how to implement it. Later in the year, I will write about how it was actually used, learning gains and how it could be improved.
As you can see, there’s a lot of knowledge to develop, but we just expect teachers to have this. Since we can’t necessarily rely on Initial Teacher Education to set up our beginning teachers for success, we need effective professional learning. However, designing effective PL is another skill in itself (see here) and another time-constraint!
I enjoy the learning and design aspect, but not all teachers can be expected to put in the amount of time that I have put into it.
If the food tastes good, the customers don’t care who created the recipe!
It goes without saying, that I have stood on the shoulders of giants in putting together this resource. I have been inspired, educated and supported by people such as Dr. Nathaniel Swain (Cognitorium), Shane Pearson (PhOrMeS), Stephanie Le Lievre (Syntax Project), Brad Nguyen‘s icons, Jocelyn Seamer and everyone involved with Think Forward Educators and the Reading Science in Schools Facebook Group. Thanks, legends!
Berliner, D. C. (2001). Learning about and learning from expert teachers. International journal of educational research, 35(5), 463-482.
Hunter, J., Sonnemann, J. & Joiner, R. (2022). Making time for great teaching: How better government policy can help. Grattan Institute. Retrieved March 2022.
Jackson, P. (1990) Life in Classrooms. Teachers College Press
Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational researcher, 15(2), 4-14.