unit pitfalls

Common Unit Pitfalls (and How to Fix Them)

By Amber Villa-Zang, Rubicon International

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Unit planning is never simple, nor should it be. Part art, part science, there are so many elements to consider and bring together, that to do so thoughtfully requires time. It’s also common to hit roadblocks along the way. This blog address a few of the “unit pitfalls” we often see and how to fix them. As you work on a unit, our hope is to share a few “best practice tips” to help you along the way.

The Pitfall:

Standards Overload: 

too many standards to meaningfully address

When developing a unit it’s common to start with standards. It’s easy, however, to bite off more than can be chewed within a single unit!

I recently worked with a team of middle school science teachers as they collaborated on a unit about fish. They worked diligently, but after a while a look of frustration and fatigue hit as they became noticeably stuck. Their process was to select any and all standards that connected with their unit, and the result was a long list of standards that was, quite simply, overwhelming. Looking over their list, it became difficult to clearly identify the unit’s focus. When it came time to outline how they would meaningfully address each standard within the unit their work drew to a grinding halt.

The Fix:

To use a baking metaphor, selecting standards is like adding flour and mixing it, little by little, into the batter. Add too much flour at once and the batter will turn into a thick mass, impossible to stir. Add a little at a time, however, and the texture will be smooth and easy to manage.

Thinking of standards as our flour, you can start your unit by selecting two-four truly essential standards that capture the focus of your unit. Before adding more standards, take the time to “unwrap” and align those standards to other elements in the unit planner. This might mean taking the time to clearly identify the content and skills embedded within that standard, and then perhaps creating assessments to capture how you will measure your student’s understanding of those specific standards. From there, when you’re ready, you can add additional standards and continue to unwrap, align, or “mix” into your unit.

Best Practice Tip: When unit planning, only target standards that you will explicitly teach and assess within the unit.

The Pitfall:

Mapping the Textbook: 

units are chapters from a textbook

Textbooks are important element of our curriculum, but it’s important to note that they are not THE curriculum. As teachers, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of this because we work so closely with our textbooks every day. Curriculum mapping is a perfect time to shift our mindset. To do this we must move away from seeing the textbook as THE curriculum. Instead, we need to assess HOW the textbook addresses the essential content and skills within our grade level and subject area. This shift implies a greater focus on the content and purpose of the unit.

This shift is important for a few reasons, one of which is simply time. A textbook may be “standards aligned,” but that doesn’t mean it’s aligned to the learning curve of our students. In addition, the academic year is never long enough to teach a textbook cover to cover, so educators must make strategic decisions in how to use a textbook to teach concepts and skills. Another reason is around engagement. Rigor has emerged as a favorite buzzword in education, and it certainly is a focus of Common Core Standards as well as IB and NGSS. As a result, many textbooks are embracing this in their language and approach. But what does rigor really mean? Does book-work build the capacity to think critically, construct viable arguments, critic the reasoning of others, or truly value evidence? Textbooks provide an important foundation for what we teach, but we also need to step back and identify how to enrich that material with instructional strategies that truly ignite the fun and higher order thinking that leads to long term learning.

The Fix:

When creating and naming units, think about their focus and purpose. What do we hope to accomplish as a result of the unit? In other words, what key content and skills will the unit address? Even if you do choose to follow the order or pacing of a textbooks, unit titles should reflect the focus of the unit. For example, you can go from “Chapter one” to “Patterns,” or “Chapter 1: Patterns.”

Best Practice Tip: Ideally, when you switch out your textbook, the curriculum map should stand on its own, requiring only minor adjustments.

The Pitfall:

Confusion between skills and learning activities

This is an easy one to trip into. After all, we define skills as key verbs which identify what we want students to do as a result of a unit, while learning activities are what students will do in order to learn.

The Fix:

To avoid this pitfall, let’s step back and review the purpose of having separate categories for “skills” and “learning activities” within a unit. By listing key “skills,” we are identifying our key learning targets. We list these in order to identify how we build those specific skills during the course of an academic year. From there, as an academic team, we can step back and see how those specific skills build (or fail to build) over multiple years, and thoughtfully address how we can impact student learning.

Learning Activities, on the other hand, is how we teach key content skills. We capture these “learning activities” in order to document how we engage our students in our day to day practice. This includes how we give students meaningful exposure to content, how we prompt critical thinking, and how we design meaningful opportunities to speak thoughtfully on a subject. This does not mean you should include every handout, reading assignment or discussion within a unit; think of the activities that really become an anchor of the unit, a vehicle through which we teach those skills.

I remember in high school we were studying World War I. To help us process the experience of soldiers and the high number of casualties from the war, Mr. Malone did an activity where he used a formula that compared the number of solider casualties to the number of students in the class. Based on that we each crumpled up a specific number of paper balls. We then shifted our desks to represent the barbed wire fronts, including a no-man’s land in the middle, and took positions around the room. Crouched low and armed, at Mr. Malone’s command we launched our attack, chucking and ducking and waiting to see who got hit. The answer was most of us. He followed that activity with a somber oral and written reflection on the experience, as we digested how it felt to see so many of us hit. We closed class by reading war poems from the era. Our homework was to write a dramatic poem about the experience. That learning activity deepened our understanding of the horrific toll of The Great War. In a safe environment, we imagined what it would be like to be on the Western Front and considered our likelihood of survival.  In a unit plan the skill and learning activity might be documented in the following way:


  • Examine the experience of WWI soldiers on the front lines
  • Meaningfully Explain the high casualty rates of the war
  • Apply and dramatize understanding of the casualty rates

Leaning Activities:

  • Front Lines Paper-Toss
  • Poem reflection

Best Practice Tip: If you have detailed instructions for your learning activity, be sure to attach them to the Learning Activity Category. This makes it easy to access and share with others.

Have some unit pitfalls of your own that you would like to share? Share them with us at pd@rubicon.com!

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