This advice was prepared for my fourth year pre-service primary teachers who are expected to develop a science teaching and learning unit as a part of their assessment. We are looking to assess their ability to build an inquiry unit of science that is coherent, cohesive and concise, developing students’ scientific understandings, skills and appreciation for the nature of science. Pre-service teachers are also required to reflect on their pedagogical choices using research literature to support their justifications.
Unit planning is very important. It is something you will continue to do throughout your career as a teacher. Even when units are provided to you, from the education department, school library, or other resources, you will need to look them over carefully, add or remove activities, adjust assessment, consider the needs of your students and the context you are working in, and think about how you make the learning relevant to your students.
Unit plans fit within a year-long plan that is usually negotiated with the rest of your year level teaching cohort and the Head of Curriculum or Deputy Principal. Lesson plans arise from the unit plan, but are not included in the unit plan.
There are several elements to a good, thorough unit plan. The first is identifying the student learning that you intend to facilitate, and the contexts in which learning will occur. The second is considering how you will assess some or all of that learning. The third is the sequence of activities you will undertake to scaffold learning. Finally, there should be an opportunity to reflect on the unit plan. As a teacher, you will undertake this reflection as you enact the unit plan so that you can make any changes necessary for improving activities, developing student ideas, and responding to challenges or changes in circumstance as you go, but also for improving the unit plan for next time you enact it.
Let’s talk about the first section. This section may be 1-3 pages long and will contain:
- The title, intended length of the unit in weeks, KLA(s), and an inquiry question. An inquiry question isn’t required but helps to guide students’ inquiries toward a final explanation.
- A rationale for teaching the identified scientific concepts, understandings and skills. “It’s in the Australian Curriculum” isn’t good enough, I’m afraid. This paragraph or two should detail the big idea of the unit, the underlying concepts and their connectedness, the value in students learning about this, and the value of the skills they will develop or build upon. You might talk about the value of the knowledge in particular contexts, for participating in events, for making sense of everyday phenomena, for cognitive development, or for later learning. You might talk about the value of the skills for undertaking later inquiry, or for use in other areas of school, work or life, or for the development of epistemological understandings. There may also be other reasons I haven’t thought of yet! These should be specific and contextualised to the concepts, skills and understandings your students are expected to learn.
- A list of the Australian Curriculum: Science Content descriptions, including related ideas (such as, but not restricted to, the Elaborations included in the curriculum). You should also touch on the Overarching ideas that will be developed, and how they will be developed. The General capabilities should also be touched on in the same manner.
- A list of other KLA outcomes developed throughout the unit, as well as any social, personal, cognitive or other objectives, i.e. Students will develop skills for effective communication with peers for group work, including providing supportive feedback, taking turns, including others, and respectful acknowledgement of others’ ideas.
- Classroom context, including relevant resources (physical, digital, and human), class layout, class composition and other situational factors. In this part you will also mention any special considerations to be made, especially where they necessitate any differentiation of assessment or learning activities for particular students. The interests of students might also be considered. In addition, the timing of the unit, concurrent topics taught (what are students learning in English? Perhaps they are learning the genre structure of an explanation or a recipe, both relevant to science texts? What vocabulary or spelling links in with your unit? What are students learning in Maths? Does it contribute to the development of your Science unit? etc). The time of year may also be relevant; students can really develop over the course of the year. There might also be other events happening in the school; a spell-a-thon, regular Friday sport or sports carnival can mean you must make some careful programming decisions.
Now to the second section, assessment. This section will include a task description and a rubric. Sometimes you might also include a C-grade exemplar. It will outline:
- The purpose of assessment: what are you assessing? List the outcomes. These may be directly from the Australian Curriculum: Science in the form of Content descriptions. There may also be other skills, understandings, or social objectives. Be careful with over assessing. During most units you will only formally and summatively assess two to three Content descriptions, and to assess these effectively this might be over several assessment pieces. How will skills and understandings be demonstrated? Also consider how formative assessment will help you to develop and facilitate student learning so that students are receiving feedback to improve their knowledge and skills.
- The context of assessment: where, when, and in what other circumstances will students complete assessment? If there is a component of assessment that is completed at home, how will you check that the student has understood and completed the work herself? How much parent assistance is acceptable? If students are completing group work, how will you check that all students are pulling their weight to complete the assessment, and have learned the intended curriculum in the process?
- The specifications of assessment: what is the assessment product? What is involved in its production? What choices can students make about how and what their assessment product looks like? How and when do students have the opportunity to practice various aspects of the development of the product? Importantly, how will student products be assessed? Usually a rubric is required for a primary science task. The rubric should detail all specifications for developing a product at all possible standards of achievement (in Queensland, this is A – E. Moving students from a grade of C requires that they demonstrate increased originality, complexity, or integration of understandings).
- The constraints of assessment: what could possibly prevent students from demonstrating their learning to the best of their ability?
Be careful when using students’ science journal work as summative assessment at this level. Students who know that their work in the journal will be graded try to ‘perfect’ their work. This can prevent them from true exploration of their ideas, because they focus on being right rather than being reflective. This may also reinforce a fixed mindset of science and themselves as practising scientists. If you are going to grade their journal, be very explicit and clear about which sections or pieces from the journal will be graded, and which ones will not. There should be more opportunity for ungraded journaling and reflection than for graded journaling and reflection.
The third section gives some details of the learning experiences of students in this unit. It is usually 2-3 pages at most.
In primary science classrooms, it is generally expected that learning experiences follow the Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate phases (the 5 Es). In the Engage phase, students are presented with a discordent event or phenomena that makes them ask questions. This is also an opportunity for some diagnostic assessment, in which you draw out students existing conceptions about the world and quietly note any misconceptions that you might need to address later in the unit. Students make records of their initial ideas. In the Explore phase, students experience and explore several related phenomena that will help them to construct explanations in the Explain phase. New ideas and skills are rehearsed and explored. A continual process of reflection allows students to track their new skills and ideas. The Explore phase is usually the longest. There can be iterations of formative assessment in the Explore and Explain phase. Following Explain, the Elaborate phase allows students to extend and build on their understandings, often with more open-ended tasks and with tasks that give students more choice about what and how they investigate scientific phenomena. Sometimes, tasks completed during the Elaborate phase contribute to the summative assessment product. Finally, the Evaluate phase allows students to demonstrate their learning and also reflect on how their ideas and skills have changed since the beginning of the unit.
The learning experiences are not full lesson plans. Rather, in just a few dot points, and using a good table, teachers can demonstrate how student understanding and skills can be scaffolded over the course of the unit. I suggest including these ideas in your table:
- Phase of learning: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, or Evaluate?
- Lesson: What number is this lesson in the sequence?
- Purpose/objectives: What are the specific purposes or objectives of this lesson? 1-3 are achievable, more than that is probably expecting too much.
- Context: When and where is this lesson taking place? Are your students collaborating as a whole class or in a small group or pairs, or working individually or independently?
- Specifications: What are the major activities of the lesson (these should link clearly with the objectives)? Unless a lesson is particularly complicated, it should only take 3-5 dot points to describe the major activities of a lesson.
- Resources: What resources are required? Will you receive any assistance from aides or parents or other professionals?
- Assessment: What types of assessment are occurring, and how? Assessment might be diagnostic, formative (including feedback to students), or summative. It might be by observation, written text with response, discussion, responses to questions, or the creation of a different product.
- Differentiation: How will you cater to the diverse needs and interests of your students? How will you provide alternative pathways to allow for student choice?
Remember that differentiation is about adapting learning experiences and/or assessment for particular students to demonstrate their learning in better ways. It is NOT about adjusting the intended curriculum. Assume that all of your students will be able to understand the content or accomplish the skills of the intended curriculum, but may not take the same path to that understanding or skill!
Finally, we come to the Reflection section of the unit plan. I used to find myself scribbling all over the unit itself, but I always needed extra space to think through some issues with the unit and recommend some changes to be made when the unit was done. It’s a bit hard to reflect on the unit when you haven’t enacted it, but this is be a good opportunity to reflect on some of the decisions you made about what you have included in the unit, the pedagogical strategies you’ve selected and the differentiation plan you’ve developed, etc.
I hope this helps you to develop your unit plan and reflect on the purpose of planning.