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The 5- Step Full Proof Process to Create Ridiculously Awesome Units!

New week- new opportunities

How many of you know exactly how many days are left until Thanksgiving Break? Hopefully nobody raised a hand. The beginning of the year can certainly be a tough time, but I’m hoping you had a smooth start and are excited for things to come! Being the sound educators you are, I’m sure you have already established routines, built relationships with your students or staff, and are ready to launch into your first major unit of study.


But before we break out the confetti and streamers, I want to ensure your 1st unit runs as smoothly as your 1st few weeks.

That’s why I am presenting to you..*Drum roll* *cue the lights*…

“The 5- step full proof process for ridiculously awesome units!”

Ok, so maybe the name needs some re-working, but really, if you follow these simple steps, I’m willing to guarantee your unit or 1st project will be out of this world.

So here they are…

Step #1: Begin with the end in mind and work backwards

This one is hard to do. So often we get lost in the details of unit planning, and forget that it’s the big picture that is most important. What is the big understanding you want students to come away with? What will they produce or create to show that understanding? Think concrete. If it’s a unit on government policy, perhaps students will create a public policy document that passes through a mock session in Congress. If it’s probability, perhaps they will create a probability game to play on game night. Try to focus on one big deliverable and work backwards from there.

Step #2: Find the essential/ driving question that will prompt students to reach this understanding

Now that you have envisioned what students will produce, create a driving/ essential question for the unit to direct them there. For example, if students are to create a public policy to pass through Congress, the driving question for the unit might be:

“What does it mean to be a “good citizen?”

The driving question for the unit should be open, inspiring and action oriented. It will establish the deliverables for step #3.

Step #3: Establish a need to know

What will students need to know to answer the driving question and be successful in this unit? Divide your content standards into two columns, “Need to know,” and “Nice to know.” For the “Need to know” column, determine when and how they will learn these standards. Establish a timeline for teaching these standards, and make it seem natural to the needs of the project/ unit. For example, if creating a public policy, students will need to know the two major political parties and their values and beliefs. Uncovering these values early in the unit makes sense as they will have to draft public policies that are approved by both sides.

Step #4: Plan out major assessments/ milestones

Again, start from the final product or piece of work and work backwards from there. Establish first what mastery looks like in that final piece. What knowledge and skills will students have to demonstrate? Next, create some formative milestones and assessments to help students reach mastery. For example, when asking students to write a proposal for improving air and water quality in Beijing, we knew they would need to first identify the major culprits. Therefore, one of our major milestones was a class debate on the effect of automobiles, factories, pesticides and waste on air and water quality.

These formative understandings helped students create proposals that were well researched and free from bias.

Again, most importantly, knowing what you want students to produce in the end helps will help simplify this process.

Step #5: Create weekly plans

Now that you have identified major assessments and milestones, weekly planning should be a piece of cake! Plan your weeks according to the knowledge and skills students will need to reach each successive milestone. If one of the milestones is a class debate, students will need to learn how to research and gather information, in addition to learning argumentative techniques.

In closing

As always, remember to keep things simple! It’s easy to get lost in the minutia of subject- specific standards and forget about the big picture. Tell students on the very 1st day of the unit what they will be creating/ doing at the end. This concrete deliverable will ensure the stage is set for the deeper learning that will take place throughout the unit.

Have a different process for unit planning? Have some additional ideas that should be part of the conversation? Shoot me an e-mail at and I will be sure to add them!

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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