Planning for engagement with important science ideas

Here we describe three linked planning practices for designing a unit of instruction. Important ideas in science are about the relationships between a natural phenomenon and a causal explanation that helps us understand why something in the world unfolds the way it does (phenomena are events or processes— things that happen). Studying events or process rather than “things” or abstract ideas really interests students and helps them develop deep and interconnected understandings of science concepts.

ZPlanningBigIdeasWe encourage you to watch the video about this set of practices on the Getting Started page. It shows how teachers sort through their curriculum as well as the standards, in order to select which ideas to focus on during a unit. They then select a phenomenon to anchor their units of instruction and develop a rich causal explanation for that event or process. Finally, they use this explanation to sequence a set of learning experiences for students.

If you are interested in designing full units that are grounded in an anchoring event, then you will want to look at the tools we have for planning unit-length experiences for students. First you’ll want to read the primer for “Planning for student engagement in big science ideas” (link is below and it explains much more about this practice, plus examples), and then try out the tool that will help you plan (also below).

Start with the video to get the big picture and examples too.
Planning for Engagement with big science ideas—the primer for learning more about it.
Planning for Engagement—the tool for designing your own units.

Other tools that can help you plan for units of instruction:

Card-sorting activity for unit planning
One of the activities you’ll have to do in this set of practices is unpack the curriculum topics you will address. Unpacking topics like “earthquakes,” “solubility,” or “cellular respiration” begins with identifying all the big and not-so-big ideas mentioned in the curriculum. It means seeing how they relate to one another, then figuring out which ideas are at the heart of really understanding the topic. We have a basic practice we use to do this, it’s called the card sort. This activity is best done, of course with colleagues.

Explanation-to-activity tool for unit planning
One of the final steps in the “Planning for engagement with big ideas” practice is to identify an anchoring event, develop an explanation for it, and then use that explanation to develop a sequence of activities, readings, and investigations for your students. The explanation-to-activity tool will help you organize this work.


Your browser is out of date. It has security vulnerabilities and may not display all features on this site and other sites.

Please update your browser using one of modern browsers (Google Chrome, Opera, Firefox, IE 10).