Friday, May 24, 2019

How to design a Social Studies course in 10 not-necessarily-easy steps

Many teachers never actually plan the course they teach but rather borrow an intact course from another teacher, complete with unit divisions, assignments and projects, lesson plans, and assessments. While this is a nice gift from one teacher to another, and is certainly better than just making it up as one goes along, eventually every teacher has to make their courses their own or risk a loss of credibility and fulfillment. I would suggest that for each course a teacher plans to teach more than once, at some point they should work through some kind of design process, preferably before their first go at the course. If that ship has sailed, it can still be of great value to spend time on design for a familiar course, to take back the curriculum as it were, and own the pedagogy that makes or breaks a great course. The design process below is just one way to plan out a course, but it was worked well for me many times and I am happy to pass it on.

This is a draft -- there are parts I am not yet satisfied with!  Feel free to offer feedback.


Have a skim though the curriculum rationale and goals at <>. Think about how you could do something to address each of the five goals in your course. Write these ideas down, as well as a simplified statement about why this course will be important for your students. This would be a good time to activate or become familiar with a few other foundations for the work of course planning. These should include the Core Competencies <> and could also include philosophic documents, beliefs, theory, differentiation, and ways of knowing such as the First Peoples Principles of Learning <>. This is also the opportunity to bring other theory you value into the fore, the chance to do backwards design by starting with the basic beliefs about what you want your students to be able to know, do, and understand. Whether or not your vision for the course is fine-tuned or not (sometimes backwards design doesn’t bring the desired results), come back to this later in the planning process to see how this “grounding” turned out.

Print a one-sided copy of the curriculum guide pdf/doc for your course at <>. Read it over, becoming familiar with how the “Big Six” are parsed as Competencies for the course and about the range of topics mentioned or implied in the Content section. Start thinking about how you will group parts of the content and how you will involve the Competencies. For each Big Idea, brainstorm 1 or 2 corresponding class activities, an assignment or project that would tie content and competencies together. You can find a home for these ideas later -- just a rough sketch at this point. Use separate paper of the backs of the printed docs.

Talk to other teachers you respect about how they have taught this course, and what kinds of things fill their lessons. Ask about their major projects, favourite go-to resources, and what their tests, if any, look like, or how they provide feedback and generate marks. Make some notes if you like what you hear. Using your hard copy of the curriculum guide and pen/highlighter to take notes, think about what you know about this course, the competencies, and especially the content. Think about how much of what you know might find its way into the course, including ideas about projects, activities, and resources. Think about the gaps in your knowledge, and whether you have the time or energy to learn about these things before the course starts. Do an internet search for course outlines specific to your course; observe and compare, but don’t get lost in the rabbit hole. Save and/or print 1-3 outlines that strike you as a good way to teach the course.

Think about whether you want to chunk content into units, or use some kind of thematic structure around the Competencies, Big Ideas, or some other schema (like focus questions or content themes like governance, ideology, or rights). If you use content as your structure, decide on a flow of topics and how these fit into units. Chunking topics sequentially on a timeline is a traditional way to this, but is not the only way. Sometime a regional approach works better, e.g. deal with the course timeline in one region before turning to another. As you decide where the content goes, it is quite likely that there will be many topics and skills you don’t have time for, so at this point you should have an idea what you’ll include and what you’ll drop. You should emerge from this step with a list of units and rough idea of the skills, themes, competencies, or content that belong to each one. For most courses you’ll want at least three units, perhaps four or five or more. The sweet spot is one that allows you to enact your vision for the course, makes sense to your students, balances your planning and marking load, and shows fidelity to the curriculum. This means that your unit planning allows multiple ways of addressing moving through the curriculum -- each one can be about the content, competencies, themes, skills, and even the kinds of assignments you’d like your students to do.

On a whiteboard or a big piece of paper (i.e. 11”x17” or larger), map out your division of units in the order you want to teach them. Leave some spaces for adding notes. It usually works best if your first unit is relatively easy (in terms of concepts or content), has high engagement, and is a good place to develop competence -- the first unit is the bootcamp where your students will acquire the skills necessary to proceed to the rest of the course, and set habits that you want to see in your classroom. Some teachers choose a current event or a topic that is germane to whole course and spend a week or so on it as their “bootcamp.” Now, take a good look at your unit map and spend some time “wandering” -- think about which ones will take more time, perhaps because it is connected to a major project and/or a presentation cycle. From your DIVIDE work, jot down the key skills, themes, big ideas, or competencies that will be emphasized in each one. List the main content topics that will be covered -- a good idea is to use a trusted textbook to help select topics, even if you don‘t intend on using the text. If you do plan on using a textbook regularly, this step is important. Include as many details as you wish at this point, including listing particular resources you want to use because you think they will work well -- video titles, special lesson activities, primary sources, etc. List some of the assignments that match the unit; try to include writing, map reading/making, and interpretation of evidence as often as you can. If you can, list some of the more challenging vocab words that will come up in each unit, as well as any “threshold concepts*” that you can identify -- ideas or constructs that will be necessary for students to see the big picture or the topic under study or competency being developed.

Look at your school calendar and determine how many days of instruction you have for this course and how that translates into blocks of time. Subtract a few for assemblies, locker clean-up, etc. Next, divide your days evenly between the units -- this is a placeholder number. Review the priorities and kinds of work you have placed on each unit. Start taking blocks of time away from units that don’t need as much time, and adding them to the ones that do. This will leave you with the rough number of days or blocks of time belonging to each unit. That may be enough for some teachers -- a general sense of how much time they can spend on each unit. If your style is to go down the rabbit holes, to indulge student questions and dive into topics more deep when the opportunity arises, you may want to pick a unit you can live without -- the one you will drop or truncate if you run out of time. On the other hand, if your style is a bit more controlled and measured, you may want to take the extra step of matching your rough allocation of time to your actual calendar. This allows you to match the units to natural breaks, to plan for assessments or project deadlines on specific days, and so on. Only the most festidious and determined of teachers maintains a precise adherence to a course-long day-by-day schedule, but for some it is a reassurance to know what they can or should do on a certain day, even if they regularly deviate from the self-laid path.

Each unit will benefit from a question, statement, quote, idea, or image that ties it together. In particular, a question is a basic and powerful way to do this. While a quote or image can be a creative way to frame a unit, let’s start with a question. What kind do you want? Regardless of the kind of question, it should provide a marker for your unit intentions, where the inquiry will take them, or the basic understanding with which they should emerge from the unit. A general question reiterates the unit topic in the form of a question, e.g. How did Canada change during the 1930s? A focus question provides a little more context and hints at further questions, e.g. how did Canada and Canadians react to conditions of the Great Depression? The driving questions that follow might be more specific, e.g. how the the governments of Bennett and King respond to the economic conditions in the 1930s? An essential question is meant to tie the unit’s topics to larger inquiries or topics of study, e.g. How do Canadians respond to economic crisis? This kind of question might anchor a unit with many lessons about the Great Depression, but it can also open up parallel topics such as modern economic cycles, comparisons with other crises, or a broader look at economic theory. A guiding question can be any of these. For each unit, formulate a guiding question that roughly approximates what you hope your students will come to know, a question that makes other lesson-specific questions possible. If it relates to the Big Ideas of the course, great, but this is not necessary and sometime can be constraining. The Big Ideas should roll in and out of your units and lessons, and serve just as well as course review tools as they do the substance of guiding questions of unit divisions.

Your unit map should be festooned with ideas and plans at this point. At this point, take a clear picture of your whiteboard or scan/copy your paper map. This will serve as a template for further uses. If you have room you can continue with the next step on the map; if you do not have space, use separate paper or a clean whiteboard. This step will provide you with rough lesson plans that you can flesh out later. For each unit, scheme out how you will use the number of days/blocks you have allocated to it. For example, let’s say you have a unit on the different ways Canadians see themselves to which you have allocated twelve 77-minute blocks. Make a box on one side with 12 divisions or bullets, with your guiding question at the top, and on the other side list all of the ideas you have for lesson elements that fit the unit -- see Figure 1 below. Include anything that is likely to soak up some time, such as visits to the library, a video title, an anticipated discussion, test review, or a test. Unless you have a reason not to, include some kind of direct instruction each day (slideshow, chalk-and-talk, lecturette with a student note-taking guide, demonstration, etc.) as well as a learning activity that requires students to be in their heads, even if it is only a short period of time. The remainder of the activities can be quiet or loud, individual or group, sitting or standing, and so on -- these will of course match your teaching style, tolerance for animated learning environments, capacity for classroom management, beliefs about learning (e.g. the research you trust about how learning is effected), and most importantly the needs of your students as you understand them. I would suggest at least one activity that gets students moving, not necessarily for any pedagogical reason but because 77 minutes is a bloody long time to sit in a chair, especially if students have to repeat four times a day. Once you have enough matter on the brainstorm side of your lesson box, draw lines to indicate the block to which they belong. 77 minutes is probably too long to do just one thing, but is also too short to try a dozen things. Your goldilocks zone will depend on the kinds of activities you have planned, or whether you clump things that belong together. I’ve found that three is my magic number of for a 77 minute block. This might be a 1) slideshow with some chalk-and-talk (starting with a good question or an interesting image or source), 2) a video clip or current events story with a student guide that extends into individual work with some questions based on sources, and 3) a review activity involving groups and knowledge organizer on chart paper. Of maybe it’s a play-debrief-replay -- time to explore a provocative question using some unsorted primary sources (the product perhaps being a hypothesis or proposition), a mini-lecture and discussion in the middle to provide some context for the question and sources (with some time for students to share their propositions), then a return to the activity with a renewed focus and probably a different product, e.g. a revised hypothesis with annotated sources on a chart paper. So, my advice would be to have at least three things for you and the students to do in each block. If you decide to use some kind or project-based or inquiry-based program, this still involves specific tasks that need to be attached to specific lessons, not just a big block of time for students to work on the project.

Your actual lesson planning may differ wildly from the sketch-version you have built so far, but after a scan of your work, it will immediately become apparent whether you have enough ideas to populate your lessons (the pattern is satisfying) or whether you need to cycle back through your planning process to find more stuff (the pattern is weak, too regular, or seems boring). Look for trends, e.g. a prevalence of mini-lessons or lecturettes, lots of boardwork, reoccurrence of student activities centred around the interpretation of sources, simulations, bookwork, or time spent on projects. Do these patterns really reflect the way you want to spend your time in the class, or the way you want your students to spend their time? Do they make sense with what you know about how students learn (either from your understanding of research, what you have picked up from others along the way, or observed directly in your own classroom)? If you answer no to any of these, then back up a bit and think of other ways to approach the teaching and learning within your lessons. If you responded with yes, then ask if you are good at these things, and will they provide meaningful use of your students’ abilities? In other words, are you prepared to spend the time necessary to make these patterns successful? If not, either tweak your lesson ideas, or make a commitment to get better at the teaching strategies that are required to get the most of your most common lesson elements.

Now you’re ready to flesh out the details on as many lesson plans as you want to have ready before you begin teaching. For some teachers, this means two or three, for others, they want all of their lessons planned. I would suggest planning the first week, and see how it goes. There are many lesson plan templates out there, some with spaces to indicate connections to Core Competencies, other areas of the curriculum, First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, Differentiation, and so on. Most of them encourage the planner to indicate what both the teacher and the students are expected to do at various points in the class. There are references to the learning intentions, and also assessment. Other lesson plans are short and sweet, just enough information that it is useful for the teacher. It generally holds that the more detailed and comprehensive the course or unit plan, the less detailed the lesson plan needs to be.

* “The notion of the threshold concept arose out of research by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, who define it as a core idea that’s conceptually challenging for students, who struggle to grasp it—but once grasped, it radically transforms the students’ perception of the subject. Although this material is difficult to learn, understanding threshold concepts is essential to the mastery of any field of study.” source: <>

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