How can we plan better?  The advent of the knowledge organiser has challenged us to think more carefully about exactly what we hope students will learn from a unit of work.  I think we can build on this: having specified what we want students to learn, we can think equally carefully about the knowledge we will use in teaching them.  Grounded in Deborah Ball’s research on pedagogical content knowledge, this post proposes a template to capture the preparatory thinking needed to teach effectively – and to share the wisdom of practice efficiently.

Before we start

I’m working from three axioms:

  1. Effective planning must be surprisingly specific about what we want students to learn.
  2. Our plans should focus on the most powerful knowledge we can offer: that is, knowledge which makes the world, the subject or other subjects comprehensible, knowledge which students are unlikely to encounter elsewhere.
  3. The most helpful unit of planning is the unit of work: this allows us to sequence content appropriately, design necessary repetition, and meet the needs of students who have been absent.

Each is worth discussing, but that is not the purpose of this post: it is to suggest ways in which we can apply them.  (I’m also proceeding on the assumption that we already have a meaningful, challenging and worthwhile curriculum, which we are now looking to put into practice).

What do we want students to learn?

The first step is to identify exactly what we want students to know by the end of our unit.  This can be captured in a knowledge organiser.  There have been several interesting posts recently on knowledge organisers, which I won’t reprise here: Toby French’s ‘How to create a knowledge organiser’ is an excellent primer.  As an example of the process I’m suggesting, I’ve drafted a knowledge organiser for a unit which covers the Nazi rise to power and seizure of control, 1929-1934.

Beyond knowledge organisers

Knowledge organisers are productive tools for planning, but I’ve come to believe we can make good curricular thinking more explicit – to ourselves and to others – by including further elements of pedagogical content knowledge.  I’m guided here by Deborah Ball and her colleagues, who sought to refine Lee Shulman’s definition of pedagogical content knowledge:

Although the term pedagogical content knowledge is widely used, its potential has been only thinly developed. Many seem to assume that its nature and content are obvious. Yet what is meant by pedagogical content knowledge is underspecified. The term has lacked definition and empirical foundation, limiting its usefulness (Ball et al., 2008: 389).”

Studying maths teachers, Ball and her colleagues suggested a series of sub-domains of pedagogical content knowledge.  These offer a useful framework for unit planning, building from the knowledge organiser to collect the pedagogical content knowledge we need to put it into practice.

1. Knowledge of Content and Teaching

Teachers sequence particular content for instruction. They choose which examples to start with and which examples to use to take students deeper into the content. Teachers evaluate the instructional advantages and disadvantages of representations used to teach a specific idea and identify what different methods and procedures afford instructionally. Each of these tasks requires an interaction between specific mathematical understanding and an understanding of pedagogical issues that affect student learning (Ball et al., 2008: 401).”

Identifying the most effective representations to teach an idea requires careful selection from a good stock of metaphors, models and images.  While Nutthall (2007) emphasised the importance of repeated exposure to a concept if students were to understand and remember it, he added that this:

Does not mean simple repetition… [which] is likely to be boring… What it does seem to mean is that students’ minds need time to process new information. They need opportunities to come at the material in different ways (81).”

A planning template should collect the variety of representations we can use to explain an idea: the images, the stories, the examples and the metaphors which will help clarify complicated concepts for students.  Here are some examples of ways I might convey key ideas specified in the knowledge organiser above:

2. Knowledge of Content and Students

Teachers must anticipate what students are likely to think and what they will find confusing….  Central to these tasks is knowledge of common student conceptions and misconceptions (Ball et al., 2008: 401).”

Experienced teachers know how students are likely to respond to specific challenges and questions, which misconceptions they may enter the classroom with, and which they may conceive while studying a unit.  Teachers of some subjects are fortunate to be able to draw on large databases of misconceptions: science teachers can use the AAAS website, which not only collects misconceptions by topic, it also shows how prevalent each is among American students.  So, in planning a lesson on germs (or on atomic structure) we can use the knowledge that 17% of 11-14 year olds in the United States believe that a germ is smaller than an atom and plan to tackle this.  In other subjects we have to draw on our experience and that of our colleagues.  A planning template can collect these misconceptions and possible ways in which we could challenge them:

3. Horizon knowledge

[Is] an awareness of how mathematical topics are related over the span of mathematics included in the curriculum. First-grade teachers, for example, may need to know how the mathematics they teach is related to the mathematics students will learn in third grade to be able to set the mathematical foundation for what will come later. It also includes the vision useful in seeing connections to much later mathematical ideas (Ball et al., 2008).”

Experienced teachers use their knowledge of what students learned last year and what they’ll learn next year, and make judicious links between them.  Expert teachers frequently began lessons by asking “Remember when we learned about?” (Westerman, 1991) presumably because they have learned the value of eliciting students’ prior knowledge and helping them to connect it to the current lesson.  In the same vein, by foreshadowing future topics we lay the groundwork for such connections for students in future: “When we study Macbeth next year, you’ll see a great example of supernatural influences and questions over their effects.”  Rather than doing this as it occurs to us, a planning template can collect possible connections and where they might occur:

Ultimately, we need a plan for how this can be sequenced and which representations we might introduce at which points.  We could then create a sequencing tool which looks something like this:

How can this be used?

Expert teachers are doing this already.  Livingston and Borko (1989) found that experts drew on their existing schemas of what was to be taught: they did not record their plans, but they were able to draw on representations, misconceptions and make links on the fly.  But I think this has two powerful uses:

  • For individual, newer teachers, explicitly thinking through the different forms of pedagogical content knowledge they will apply in a unit of work saves them from trying to do so from lesson to lesson on the spot.  A plan for sequencing and repetition ensures that students get the repeated opportunities they need to understand new concepts.
  • More powerfully, I think a template like this can draw on and collate the collective wisdom of teams of teachers.  Lesson plans and powerpoints rarely travel well: collections of representations and misconceptions will: teachers can easily use a good representation, no matter what their teaching style or context.  A collection of good representations is transferable between different contexts, in the way that a lesson plan is not.  Much of this knowledge is tacit, held in the heads of experienced teachers, passed on by word of mouth and implicit in resources.  Collaboratively constructing such planning documents could also be a productive way to share knowledge within departments.

This isn’t necessarily designed to be used by students (I’d give them the knowledge organiser but not the rest of the document), but I’m sure it could be.

So, a template for unit planning?  Thoughts?

You can download the unit planning template here.

You can also download the example here.

This is a draft excerpt from the Classroom Teacher’s Guide to Formative Assessment: access more of the guide here.

I’m very grateful to Toby French for comments and suggestions about this post.

What should I read next?

Exit tickets: a powerful tool for planning and assessing

Formative assessment within lessons: hinge questions

Improving pedagogical content knowledge: why and how


Ball, D. Thames, M., Phelps, G. (2008) Content Knowledge for Teaching: What Makes It Special? Journal of Teacher Education 59(5) 389-407

Livingston, C., Borko, H. (1989) Expert-Novice Differences in Teaching: A Cognitive Analysis and Implications for Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education 37. 36-42.

Nuthall, G. (2007) The hidden lives of learners. Wellington, NZCER Press.

Westerman, D., (1991) Expert and Novice Teacher Decision Making. Journal of Teacher Education 42(4) 292-305.