12 Questions teachers ask to guide unit planning

The MYP unit planner, especially if you are designing it through an online platform, seems a linear process: start at the unit title, and move through the different parts until ready to reflect.

The process of planning an inquiry isn’t as linear as the document itself suggests. Inside the process of thinking through the planning are some inquiry questions for the teacher. Like any inquiry, we can start anywhere and ask a question that provokes thinking. Here are some questions we might ask. (They may not occur in the same order for you, but I have arranged them generally in a similar flow as the MYP Unit planner in case that is helpful.)

What are we learning? The conceptual framework

Concepts are abstract, transferrable and timeless ideas (Erickson). Each one can be illuminated with topics and facts from any subject discipline. Change for example, is present in every subject discipline when we ask ourselves to compare time, place and space. 

Concepts cannot be grasped without content to illustrate it; content is not transferrable like concepts are through time, place and space (Erickson). Concepts and content embody what endures of what we know.

Why are we learning this? The Global Contexts

The Global Context is the real-world situation through which we are learning. When we plan a unit, we pick one GC because it is too large an idea, including many ways of looking at the world depending on the particular situation used to frame the unit. GC can be explored through a range of focusses. An exploration, a focal target of the GC, can deepen how we understand why what we are learning has meaning in our world and our lives..

What’s the big idea? The Statement of Inquiry

The Statement of Inquiry (SOI) is the big idea, what surfaces as a principle or general understanding after undertaking the inquiry. The SOI captures the key concept, related concepts and Global Context into one statement.

Elegant SOI are succinct and can open avenues to and from the inquiry into real world and real life connections.

How might we enter learning? The inquiry questions

Inquiry questions are crafted to enter the inquiry from different levels. The factual questions are questions answered with content.

The conceptual questions lead to the key and related concepts and to a great extent, the skills which are explicitly taught in the unit. (Skills are conceptually-based, as discussed by Lanning, 2013).

The debatable questions may be framed in the Global Context exploration or the GC itself, allowing for the learner to make connections between real life situations and the inquiry.

How will we do and be to know and understand? Skills and dispositions

At each stage of development, people learn skills, how to do things. Skills remain the same as described in the clusters of approaches to learning, but as we grow we perform these skills at higher levels of complexity.

The ATL skills are a repertoire of processes a learner needs to traverse the learning pit between not knowing and knowing. ATL serve the acquisition and attainment of conceptual understanding, the application, analysis and synthesis of content knowledge, and the creative and critical construction of what the learner does to learn and express learning through performance tasks.

We also gain increasingly sophisticated and independent ways to blend skills into strategies. Skills learning has great impact on efficacy and flexibility of thinking, ultimately resulting in more accomplished and self-directed craftsmanship as the learner approaches open-ended tasks with no apparent solution.

How will we know we have learned? Assessment

Each time learners perform tasks to show understanding, knowledge and skills, they gain information to help improve what they know, understand and can do. Formative assessment shapes learning by providing information on how to improve. Summative assessment is a complex, open-ended task through which a learner demonstrates what they know, understand and can do.

Summative assessments are ideally planned first based on the conceptual framework and ATL skills. Formative assessments are approximations of the summative task: these are discrete performances to rehearse the knowledge, conceptual understanding and skills the learner demonstrates and manifests in the final culminating task. Through feedback, the learner gains specific descriptions of how they perform in the formative tasks, which feedforward into new iterations toward improved performance.

These are experiences planned for through the inquiry and deliberately rehearsed.

How did it go? Reflection

Reflecting on learning fosters metacognition and the ability to gain an overview of one’s learning process. Through this process, the learner acquires decision-making efficacy on how to improve. The learner also integrates the new learning into a growing repertoire of concepts, knowledge and skills.

The art of reflection is a cognitive approach to learning, which binds what has been learned into the learner’s identity.

How do you know? Student self-assessment

Rather than stop at evaluations of learning, learners can use data as artefacts in a reflection or self-assessment. Using work from a portfolio curated and regularly used for data-enriched reflection, learners are able to describe what they learned, how they learned, and what their next steps might be.

How did you grow? The overview

It is sometimes a pleasant surprise for a learner when work from the beginning of the year and work completed toward the end of the year are placed side by side. An opportunity to examine his own work allows the learner to gain clear understanding of approaches to learning developed over time, which manifest in success. Gaining an overview of learning through a portfolio provokes thinking on the complex relationships between skills that are technical (e.g. how to produce a specific text type) and those that are adaptive (how to persevere in the challenging process of writing effectively).

How might I go further? Student agency

When students perceive themselves as authors of learning, they gain ownership of the process of learning. They learn how to self-monitor, self-modify, and self-manage (Kallick & Costa, 2014; Costa and Garmston, 2016). Learners who are invested in leading their own learning manifest purposeful engagement and enthusiasm. This surfacing of agency may also trigger action as a result of inquiry.

Where are we in place and time? Teacher reflection

Reflecting on inquiry, ideally with colleagues, gives teachers ways to gain insight into individual students as well as all the elements of design which comprise a unit of inquiry. The process of examining student work results in useful data toward improving instruction. This is refinement not only at the unit level but also within an overview of a year level across disciplines or across year levels.

How did the time allocation support the learning? Duration of unit

We want learning to be rich and challenging, and we also want learners to have sufficient thinking and doing time.

Although planning for learning seems linear, it does not have to be.  Like inquiry itself, the process of thinking through elements of unit design might begin with a question, or an idea for a task, or a resource material which brings the Global Context or key concept to life.

Wherever we begin in the unit planning process, the process is an inquiry itself. Through this iterative process, requiring intentional choices, teacher agency and authorship leads to learning for both the teacher and the student.

Suggested further reading

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. (2016). Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kallick, B., & Costa, A. (2014). Dispositions: Reframing teaching and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Lanning, L. A. (2013). Designing a concept-based curriculum for English language arts meeting the common core with intellectual integrity, K-12. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Featured image by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash.

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://learnertoolbox.com.

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