7 Questions in Designing Coherent Instruction

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

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Is the ability to design instruction an art form, or is it a science? I argue teachers have to be artists while thinking about the science of not only the make-up of their classrooms, but what information should come next in the learning process. Robert Marzano talks about the art and science in teaching in his newly expanded book, The New Art and Science of Teaching (©2017). Marzano argues the 43 different elements that maximize instructional effectiveness. Several of them rely on the artist, or human qualities, that a teacher brings to instruction, as well as using proven strategies backed by the latest scientific data.

I believe after classroom management, curriculum planning is the number two factor for new teacher burnout and new teachers wanting to leave the profession altogether. New teachers are asked to do an enormous about of planning with a multitude of expectations, requirements, and understandings. The amount of time they need to put in is intimidating. To be a master teacher in designing curriculum, the teacher must be a consummate coinsurer of the latest curriculum developments, best practices, brain research, as well as nurturing their own growth mindset by taking risks. They must have a firm understanding of how to differentiate instruction.

Here are 7 questions you can delve into in order to go from being a "proficient" to an "exemplary" teacher regarding designing instruction.

1 - How Do You Connect Your Curriculum to the Students in Your Classroom?

Your school and district has curriculum that you are required to use in order to teach students. Most states require school districts to review their curriculum every so many years (five in Montana). They do this order to make sure the curriculum they have chosen meets the standards, whether that is Common Core standards or standards the states develop.

How the teacher decides to connect this curriculum to the students looks different in every classroom…and, rightly so, the students are different. Master teachers decide what curriculum modifications, adjustments, and enhancements they need in order to reach and teach the students in their classroom.

When planning curriculum, the teacher must first study and learn as much as possible about the students in their classroom. They must dig into the demographics, prior assessment data, cultural aspects, and any other prior events that may affect learning (I.e., trauma, anxiety, or behavior problems). In addition, the teacher must study the students who have a customized learning plan (if they are using a tiered support system), health care plans, individual education plans, and any section 504 plans. A master teacher uses this information to tailor the curriculum offerings, as well as addressing the social and emotional needs of the classroom.

In order for a teacher to be exemplary in this area, they must also be exemplary in knowing their resources and materials. What works for one set of students in the past, may or may not work for the current students. The more years of experience and research a teacher accumulates, the more efficient and effective the teacher becomes. The master teacher is always searching for resources and materials that are more effective and efficient for the students in front of them. They use the required curriculum as a foundation when planning instruction for their classroom. They differentiate the curriculum by developing learning experiences for below level, on grade level, and above grade level learners.


2 - How Can I Incorporate the State, District, and School Expectations into My Daily Instruction and Planning?

42 of 50 students have currently implemented the Common Core Standards. They are different from what most states had in the past, more rigorous. There has been controversy in the implementation and understanding of its use. The eight states that chose to create their own curriculum standards include the following: Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Indiana, and South Carolina. With that being said, whatever standards are required by your state, the job of your school district is to set you up for success in teaching them with adequate resources and materials.

Master teachers develop curriculum maps that support pacing and sequencing of the required standards. Many districts help plan this pacing and sequence for you. Curriculum mapping lets you know what to cover, when to cover it, and if you are pace to cover the required curriculum. See Heidi Hayes Jacobs work on curriculum mapping for more detailed examples. In addition, when planning units of study, best practice is to "start with the end in mind." Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins work titled, Understanding by Design or UBD made this concept famous. UBD starts with the end goals and gives you steps in how to develop curriculum and learning experiences that meet that those goals.

Exemplary teachers design learning experiences that cross disciplines and covers multiple standards. They chose a few standards to focus or address in these learning experiences, but they also know they are covering more. They understand that formative assessment towards these learning objectives determines the pacing and sequence of the upcoming instruction and content to be covered. Best practice and research states that students learn better when they can make connections between other subjects or disciplines. An example of a unit of study is a 5th grade science lesson on food and nutrition. The master teacher would connect this to the discipline of social studies by including the heritages and cultures of the students with the foods they are studying, while also learning more about the students' backgrounds. Students would be using math to calculate the calories in each food item, as well as the fat content. Students would be reading and writing about the chosen food, as well as the corresponding heritage and culture. The spelling list for the week can come from the vocabulary from the content. In this unit, all disciplines are covered and multiple standards are addressed.

3 - When I Design Instruction, How Does Pacing and Sequencing of Content Affect Student Achievement?

Knowing when to speed up and slow down, as well as what content should come next is both an art and a science. This is why teaching is so difficult and placing a non-certified employee into this position is ridiculous! First year teachers are bombarded with information; they are learning the content themselves, and making decisions on what will be best for students next. That is why most school districts have curriculum maps and pacing guides for teachers to use in order to cover the required content.

Curriculum and pacing guides can be powerful tools for teachers. The guide teachers by letting them know where they should be in the coverage of the required curriculum. They can be controversial as they only take into account the average timeline for most students and teachers. As you start teaching, you will find that there are multitudes of factors that affect pacing. Classroom management and engagement are the two factors that affect pacing the most. A teacher that is not very strong in classroom management will find himself or herself behind. Likewise, a teacher that has low engagement will find him or herself not being able to cover curriculum as fast as necessary. With roughly 1080 hours of instruction time a year, it is difficult to cover all the necessary content.

Sequencing is vital to the coverage of the standards. Textbook companies and other curriculum providers build from research what concepts should be taught and what order they are introduced and assessed. These textbook companies state they use Common Core standards for content coverage. Yet, when researched recently in 2013, only a small number actually cover all the content standards in reading or math. The best thing administrators can do is develop teachers to be the ultimate judge of curriculum. Master teachers understand that concepts should build on each other. Assessment data should drive these instructional decisions. Without this data collection, teachers run the risk of introducing concepts too soon or not in a logical order for students. This will have consequences for student achievement. Master teachers connect back to prior learning in the classroom, as well as prior knowledge that the students encompass. Teachers know when to plant seeds early in their instruction so that students are ready to learn new concepts. These teachers are aware of their student's readiness levels.

One assessment tool that teachers can use is NWEA's MAP assessment or Measurements of Academic Proficiency. Students can be tested in three areas: language, math, and reading. They receive a RiT score from the assessment that places them on a learning continuum. The RiT score lets instructors know what students have already mastered, what they are ready for currently, and what they will be ready for in the future. Master teachers use this data, as well as formative data to determine the necessary sequence of instruction.

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4 - How Do I Plan for Student Engagement with High Levels of Cognitive Activities That Advance Learning of the Required Content?

Master teachers understand they must intentionally plan for engagement opportunities in the instruction. They implement engagement strategies, including active participation techniques, which match both the content and the specific students in their classrooms. Until this is automatic in the instructional delivery, "proficient" and "exemplary" teachers write down the engagement strategies in their lesson plans. The difference between the two levels is the ability for a master teachers to change, adapt, and modify mid-lesson as they assess the feedback from the students.

The ability to advance learning through planned cognitive activities can be time consuming. Many teachers believe they do not have the time to plan such activities. Yet, what they do not realize is that though there may be a lot of time up front in the planning, they can implement the strategies later with more effectiveness and efficiency. The strategies can cross disciplines and can be modified easily for other learning experiences.

Master teachers understand the intricate idea of engagement. They know the difference between engagement strategies that are well-designed learning structures and active participation techniques. There are many tools and ideas that can support increased engagement in the classroom, here are a few ideas: Kagan Learning Structures, Whole Brain Teaching, Maker-Space, Genius Hour, Total Participation Techniques, CRISS strategies, Project-based Learning, etc.

5 - How Can I Group My Students to Create Instructional Effectiveness and Efficiency?

John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning, explains that grouping students has an instructional effectiveness of d. = 0.49. Anything above d. = 0.40 is in the "high" zone of desired effects and should be done in our schools. Master teachers understand this and plan for group work throughout each school day. They understand that grouping students helps them teach more effectively and efficiently. Group size can vary and the make-up of groups are flexible. What students are part of a small group math intervention may not be the same students in a small reading group.

A teacher must decide using formative data if a majority of the class needs curriculum or instruction retaught or covered again, but differently. If there is only a small group of students that need further support, the teacher carves out time for a small group mini-lesson or other learning experience. Master teachers look for misconceptions, missing skills, and students that need more support in order to make groups. In fact, a master teacher may have a plethora of reasons for small groupings in order to teach more efficiently. Devising small groups is a science and the more you do it, your efficiency becomes an art form.

Grouping students can be as complex as described in Kagan Cooperative learning structures. You break your students into four categories: low, medium low, medium high, and high. Then the teacher devises groups of four that include each one of these categories. The "high" student and the "low" student never sit next to each or across from each other…diagonal. In this fashion, whether students turn and talk with their face partner or shoulder partner, they are always talking to someone that is only one level away from them. This amount of planning by teachers may seem frivolous, time not well spent, but the deeper discussions, and classroom culture that is built with Kagan Cooperative learning is powerful. This amount of planning may even save you time in further instruction later in the school year.

Some master teachers have partners or grouping for different subject areas or even similar/dissimilar likes. Science teams may have a different DNA make-up then a small reading group. Master teachers take into account student strengths and interests, and they know that small groupings can make the difference in student achievement.

6 - How Can I Plan Instruction to Meet Individual Needs of Students?

The ability to plan instruction that takes into account the student needs in the classroom is a daunting task. A teacher that is "developing" or "basic" in this area covers the required content without worrying about the specific needs in the classroom. They do not take into account learners that are below or above the grade level in their readiness level. In fact, many of these teachers believe that if the students are not proficient with the content, it is not their fault. They believe that students should have learned it the first time it was taught…many times through lecture!

For the past two or more decades, Carol Ann Tomlinson has been educating teachers on how best to differentiate instruction. In her book titled, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (©2014), Tomlinson discusses several strategies to differentiate for the varied learner needs in the classroom. She states there are several ways to differentiate; the three easiest ways to differentiate instruction is changing one or all of the following: content, product, and process. Changing content refers to the changes in materials and resources that are used. Changing the product refers to the changes in the assessment or outcome, and how the students will show proficiency towards the learner objectives. Lastly, process changes are how the teacher choses to teach the content to the student. Here are some examples of each type of differentiation idea:

  • Content - Changing the resources and materials used to either meet below or above grade level learners (lower/raise the reading comprehension level of the content, lower/raise the math progression level of the content, extensions in science experiments, etc.)
  • Product - Changing the assessment to show master of concept for below or above grade level learners (lower/raise the comprehension levels of questions, using Bloom's Taxonomy to raise/lower the level of difficulty of questions, Lower/raise expectations on a rubric for project-based learning, etc.)
  • Process - Changing how the content is taught in the classroom (using an inquiry-based learning style, direct instruction, small group or individual instructional support, reciprocal teaching, more/less engagement and active participation techniques, etc.)

Master teachers understand they are the ones fully responsible for the success of each student in their classroom. They are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure students succeed. They allow for student choice in determining how their learning should be differentiated. Choice can be a powerful differentiation strategy for students. Here are a few other ways to differentiate instruction according to a recent Edutopia article, by Lina Raffaelli (2014), "18 Teacher-Tested Strategies for Differentiated Instruction":

  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Interest surveys
  • Use the Five Senses
  • Cross-training (2 or more learning style approaches)
  • Giving choice and variety
  • Design curriculum connected to the students in your current classroom
  • Individual feedback
  • Peer to peer and other groupings
  • Use mini-lessons connected to individual student goals
  • Open-ended questions
  • Group students based on goals and not labels

7 - How Can I Build Agency with Students, Provide Student Choice, and Solicit Ideas from Students on How to Best Structure the Learning?

This component within the Charlotte Danielson model seems humungous for teachers to tackle. In order to score in the "exemplary" category, teachers must do all of the above, and then include students in the decision making process. The ability to empower students in the instructional decisions of changing the content, process, or product of their learning creates a sense of agency. Agency has been a buzzword the past few years in education. Agency is the human act of taking initiative in your own learning process. It is argued whether agency is a product of the structure provided by adults in the school setting, or is it the student's innate ability to act. I believe it is both…the teacher providing a safe learning environment with defined structure and allowing students to take action. Students that have a stronger innate ability to act thrive in these environments.

Bill Glasser's Choice Theory continues to be strong research and evidence that students thrive when given choices. Choice empowers students to make a decision. Master teachers create learning situations where students get to make choices in their learning. The secret for teachers is that they must create choices that they can live with that. For example, a teacher may assign a writing task with the following two options: 1) Write about a famous leader in history and the impact he or she had on society, or 2) What are the qualities that make an effective leader? By letting students chose between one or two, they can reflect and connect on which question will be easier for them to answer. Likewise, in math a task can be assigned to choose five math problems from the 20 on the page. This little bit of empowerment gives students a sense of agency. These are simple ways to provide choice. Students can make much more elaborate choices when master teachers design learning experiences. An example of this is the strong English Language Arts learning structure titled, Daily 5. It is built on student choice and empowerment: read to self, read to someone, word work, listen to reading, and work on writing.


The difference between "proficient" and "exemplary" teachers is the ability to empower students. Master teachers include them in making decisions along the pathway to success.

(Charlotte Danielson Model: Domain 1 Component e)

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