This is the last blog post in the 3-part series on planning, assessment, and learning (you may want to read part 1 and part 2 as they build the broader context for this one which is more practical). *NOTE – click on the pictures to enlarge.

If we are to start any planning we must always bear in mind the following principle:

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and ONLY from what the student does and thinks.

The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” (Herbert Simon)

I think many teachers miss the subtlety in this simple and so evident a claim. Why am I saying this? Because over and over, teachers focus on *their* teaching sequence and activities they prepared for the students instead of paying more attention to what the *students* themselves need to THINK about while engaged in those activities. Dylan Wiliam made this point very clear, 

Say, the teacher gave the students a crossword puzzle to practice learning new words. How effective is that truly? Basically the student is asked to do a low-level thinking task: matching a definition to a word in a particular place. How could the learning of new words be actually more effective? Deepen the thinking the student has to do: give the words and ask them to manipulate them in various contexts (see what I designed for my students and the example for “migration”). Notice the complexity of connections they need to make (contextualizing in a sentence, comparing-contrasting with a similar word, using affixes – prefixes and suffixes and so on). This helps strengthen not only later recall but also deepens the understanding of the word unlike the crossword puzzle activity where the simple matching leads to superficial encoding in memory and does not equip the student with a genuine understanding of it let alone a rich use of the word in the future.

In any subject, you can find lots of “activities” that have only a brief effect on student understanding and skill. I spoke about that in the previous blog post (e.g. making dioramas after a reading) so I won’t insist on it now.

Similarly, Ron Ritchart, made the same point in his work, Making Thinking Visible:

“If we want to support students in learning, and we believe that learning is a product of thinking, then we need to be clear about what it is we want to support – what kinds of mental activity are we trying to encourage in our students?” (p. 5) “We must first identify what kind of thinking we are trying to elicit from our students…” “Thinking is intricately connected to content. It makes little sense to talk about thinking divorced from context and purpose.” (p. 6) “The opposite of this same coin is a classroom that is all about activity. Playing a version of Jeopardy to review for a test may be more fun than doing a worksheet, but it is unlikely to develop understanding.” (p.9) “To develop understanding of a subject area, one has to engage in authentic intellectual activity. That means solving problems, making decisions, and developing new understanding using the methods and tools of the discipline.” (p.10)

David Perkins, in Smart Schools,  insists on it as well:

Learning is a consequence of thinking. Retention, understanding, and the active use of knowledge can be brought about only by learning experiences in which learners think about and think with what they are learning. As we think about and with the content that we are learning, we truly learn it.” “Thinking is a largely internal process. We, as teachers, however, must create opportunities for thinking. For thinking to occur, students must have first something to think about (n.n. content) and be asked to think (n.n. tasks/opportunities).”

The second principle I would like to emphasize is actually a quote:

“If you fail to plan, you pretty much plan to fail.”

It might sound somewhat restrictive and too narrow but, in my view, it is at the core of good teaching. Knowing the why, what, and how of your content is essential in mapping out learning experiences that will enable students to develop the factual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge that are the markers of genuine intellectual rigor. And by “intellectual rigor” I mean an ability to think carefully and deeply when faced with new knowledge and arguments. It requires vibrant engagement with ideas and high standards of excellence while allowing space for questions and explorations. It empowers students to become what we all aspire them to: critical thinkers. 

In what concerns me, 90% of the hardest work I do is actually planning. There are far too many elements to consider when designing rich learning experiences so I spend days prior to a new unit to clarify, anticipate, combine, and tweak these factors in order to achieve the best outcome for students. I tried to convey this work in the iceberg model below but it is much more complex. Take one factor, for instance “assessment” and how many questions I ask myself: What type of assessment should I use in ..? What formative assessment tools are most effective for this task in math at this point in learning? How will I record it? What degree of openness should it have? Should I involve students in designing a rubric for this specific task? etc. Moreover, because I collaborate with other teachers, the initial plan is altered to incorporate other ideas, too. Not to mention that, as the teaching-learning process unfolds, we must make changes when we notice the students are still struggling or developed misconceptions. In the IB Primary Years Programme we also focus on student agency which adds to this dynamic process by engaging students themselves to co-plan some inquiries, investigations, and tasks.

When I plan I have 5 principles that I developed years ago as guidelines:

As a general template, regardless of the system you teach in (more progressive or more traditional), the KDU planning model (Know, Do, Understand) gives you a good, clear start. I loved its simplicity and I kept using it – it brings together all the facets of understanding. I am an adept of KSS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) approach because our time and energy as teachers is spread over a really big plate, from planning and teaching to staff meetings, in-school professional development, field trips, report cards, and the list is endless… I showed and explained the model in the previous blog (part 2) but it gives context to the practical plans I will further show you:

Because I teach in the IB, I developed a different structure due to the programme constraints. The Enhanced PYP allows us to design our own planners now and that came as a relief to me as the old, standard IB planner was extremely long (spreading over 12 pages!) and a lot of the information we needed to add was redundant. For those who do not teach in IB schools, you could focus *only* on the Know, Do, Understand columns. I will exemplify that, too, later in the post.

Notice that what the students should be able to DO is expressed in clear verbs that link to OBSERVABLE behavior. Learning, as I mentioned before, is an internal process so the only way we can partly capture it is through what the student actually does and we can observe (and sometimes measure more easily). Also, to reiterate a previous idea, what you write in this planner in the blue column is NOT the learning experiences you design for your students but what they can actually DO. See example below:

To go back to the planner I made above (Societal decision-making), the next page is straightforward, simple, and to the point. Thus, I turned a 12-page planner into a 2-page one that enables me to keep track of the most important information as the unit unfolds:

I also turn the key understandings of the unit into “concept trackers” for students to use throughout the inquiry. I print them on large A3 sheets and students add post-its as they move throughout their learning. They select a stage they think they are in (“bubble”), and explain why they think they are there. It is a simple but powerful way for them to reflect on their learning, to justify their choice, and make that visible to the classroom community. *Gareth Jacobson introduced this idea in one of the schools I worked and I found it very useful.


What does this look like in subject-specific content? Here are two examples, one for language and the other for mathematics.

*Obviously, you design them according to the age-group you teach (e.g. adding more layers of difficulty and/or complexity). After you design this KDU plan you can then create (or co-create with students) the criteria for assessment, self-assessment and reflection. I combine 3 types of thinking moves – related to factual /procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, and also leave room for open inquiries (see an example below in math).

It is important to balance the STRUCTURED tasks with the OPEN-ENDED ones so plan for “open” tasks, too (see my examples here). If you only insist on structured tasks you deprive students of making stronger connections between factual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge. The student *performing* impeccably in a task (say, long division) can give us what is called a “false positive” – I illustrated that in this blog post but do read this one by Robert Kaplinsky or watch the 1-minute videos below.

What else is essential? To sequence the teaching in such a way that the students can make increasingly deeper AND more complex connections between actual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge from various disciplines. In primary years that means a transdisciplinary approach while later an inter-disciplinarity should be the focus. It is something that is missing in traditional systems where disciplines become completely separated and students fail to recognize the deeper connections between them (aspect that I touched upon in the first part of this series).

What does it look like in the IB PYP practice? It means looking at an inquiry unit through all the lenses that would enhance student learning. That does NOT mean “dumping” every single subject into the unit of inquiry but making connections ONLY with the subjects that actually help students develop strong skills and understanding. In progressive systems this is one obvious error as the units become thematic instead of conceptual – I talked about that here. and here.

Therefore, when we plan we need to keep an eye on the best possible connections that would enrich student learning and would allow them to strengthen the web of ideas, concepts, facts and skills pertinent to the core concepts. Getting back to the unit planner I showed before on Societal decision-making, this is what I plan:

I know it has been a rather long blog post but I felt the need to give some background principles behind these practical examples of planning. If I were to summarize, these would be the main ideas:

  1. Always plan for COGNITIVE WORK

  2. Make sure you BALANCE factual, procedural and conceptual knowledge

  3. Work COLLABORATIVELY with teachers in your grade-level/department

  4. Make planning a TRANSPARENT process 


Thank you for reading. I will blog next time on ASSESSMENT and FEEDBACK and also answer a question that Jamie House posed last week: “I wonder what your thoughts are regarding language acquisition within the international context, especially ELLs.” It is an important question for teachers who work in an international setting *precisely* because the student population is so diverse in terms of languages they speak, countries they come from and so on.