NGSS UbD Unit Planning Cycle for PLCs (Collaborative Teams)

As an Instructional Coach primarily supporting MS and HS science teachers, I have spent a lot of time in the past year thinking about the process for designing NGSS units that are based upon the UbD framework, and which also connect with the PLC work of collaborative teams. Fortunately, I have been able to trial and refine this process as I work with collaborative teams. This has allowed me to improve and more clearly articulate the process each time I have worked with a team to help them plan a unit.

Recently, a colleague shared a book called Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice. Although this book has been around since 2008, reading through a few of its chapters was a lightbulb moment for me. It became very clear that I needed to make the process of planning and implementing an NGSS unit simpler and more VISIBLE to teachers in order to allow us to build shared understanding. The timing of my colleague sharing this book with me was perfect – it was a few days before I was scheduled to facilitate two different collaborative team planning days. I took the graphic from Assessment-Centered Teaching that outlines a unit design cycle, modified it slightly, and incorporated essential aspects of NGSS. I posted this graphic up on the wall during the planning days to help explain the overall unit design cycle, as well as which steps we were focusing on that day. Here is my first draft of this NGSS + UbD + PLC cycle for a unit:


It was so helpful to have this process visible to all of us; it served as a reminder to stay focused on where we were in the process at specific times during the day. We started with UbD Phase 1: Identifying Desired Results (PLC Q#1 – What do we want our students to learn?), then focused on thinking through UbD Phase 2: The Assessment Plan (PLC Q#2 – How will we know if they’ve learned it?) Of course, UbD Phase 3: The Learning Plan (instruction) often comes up naturally during both of these conversations, but it is helpful to focus on identifying desired results, as well as think through assessment before getting too specific about instruction.

To help make sense of my thinking and to better guide teams, I’ve drafted an NGSS Conceptual Flow Protocol for Step 1 of the unit design cycle above. This will lead to the creation of what Paul Andersen refers to as an ‘anchor chart’ (sample photo below) to help determine the storyline for the unit. (I am certain I will continue to refine it over time.) Protocols for Steps 2 & 3 (NGSS specific) coming soon!


Protocol for Developing the Conceptual Flow3 (Anchor Chart4) for an NGSS Unit

UbD® Phase 1: Identify Desired Results

PLC Question #1 – What do we want our students to learn?2

Prior to this Protocol:

  • bundle the NGSS performance expectations (PEs)
  • individually brainstorm main concepts and vocabulary related to the topic that will be considered
  • read over relevant evidence statements

Materials Needed:

  • collaborative team (2 or more teachers)
  • orange and green sticky notes, pens, large whiteboard or poster paper
  • planning cards (PEs, SEPs and CCCs)
  • evidence statements
  1. As a team, write what students should know (concepts/DCIs) on orange sticky notes. Begin to organize the sticky notes on a large whiteboard or poster paper.
  2. Are there 1-3 ideas that, if students could really understand them deeply, would help them explain other ideas in this unit?5
  3. Also consider the following questions:
    • Are there any concepts that are not aligned to the PEs? If so, are they essential for student conceptual understanding?3
    • How might the concepts be connected to one another? 5
    • How might the concepts be nested and linked to help build student understanding?3
    • To what extent is the sequence of concepts developmentally appropriate? 3
    • To what extent does the sequence of concepts anticipate alternative conceptions students might have as part of their prior knowledge? 3
  4. How do students need to THINK about the concepts? Use green sticky notes to incorporate the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) into the anchor chart.
  5. What might the conceptual storyline be for this unit? (A storyline means “the coherence is from the students’ perspective, not just the teacher’s.”6)
  6. What anchor phenomenon (anchoring event5) might drive the unit? Consider writing a driving question to go with the anchor phenomenon/event.5
  7. What supporting phenomena might drive individual lessons?
  8. What Essential Questions, Enduring Understandings, transdisciplinary transfer goals (TTGs) and disciplinary transfer goals (DTGs) might be appropriate for this unit?
  9. Start to write a draft description of the unit that incorporates the phenomena and storyline. This will help to guide you in UbD® Phase 2: Assessment Plan (PLC Question #2 – How will we know if students learned it?)


Protocol based on work from:

  • 1 Understanding by Design (UbD®) Framework by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins
  • 2 Marzano, Robert J. Collaborative Teams That Transform Schools: The Next Step in PLCs. Marzano Research, 2016.
  • 3 DiRanna, Kathryn. Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice. London, 2008.
  • 4 Andersen, Paul. “Anchor Charts” The Wonder of Science, 20. Oct. 2018,
  • 5 Windschitl, Mark, et al. Ambitious Science Teaching. Harvard Education Press, 2018.
  • 6 “What are storylines?” Next Generation Storylines, 20 Oct. 2018,

True Collaboration = Incredible Professional Learning

I am so very grateful to work at a school that values collaboration. Currently, I am part of a collaborative team of five instructional coaches. Prior to this, I was incredibly fortunate to have been a teacher in the Innovation Institute program at Shanghai American School. (Check out this video of Innovation Institute.)

At present, I am still involved as the Innovation Institute Coordinator, but I do miss the challenge of collaborating to create meaningful, engaging interdisciplinary projects. I was thrilled recently that some of my Innovation Institute colleagues created a game to represent the program from the teacher’s perspective. It is an excellent portrayal of the highs and lows of working in a collaborative team in which your success is truly dependent on your colleagues. This kind of interdependence is quite often challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. The unique experience of helping to develop this program, as well as teaching and coordinating within the program, has been some of the best professional learning in my career. Without a doubt, it has made me a much better educator.

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 12.20.01 PM  Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 12.20.15 PM  Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 12.18.46 PM

Innovation Game Instructions

Innovation Game Board

For more information about the Innovation Institute program, check out the excerpt we wrote for The PBL Playbook by A.J. Juliani:

The Innovation Institute program originated from a series of conversations between high school faculty and administration. Several teachers were inspired by their previous educational and professional experiences. After numerous discussions (at least one of which was based upon Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel), James Linzel and Tom Musk spoke with their high school principal at the time, Sascha Heckmann. They were inspired to help develop a program driven by phenomena or issues-based perspectives. These conversations began to include more teachers as they gained momentum and became more structured as they focused on subject integration and overlap. Eventually, the program was approved, school administration secured financial support, and professional learning and time for teachers to collaboratively to develop the program was provided.

Conversations around meaningful outcomes and pedagogical philosophies, as well as developing deeper understandings of each other’s content areas, were important steps in creating the Innovation Institute program and specific interdisciplinary projects, recalls Patrice Parks.  She explains that it took about six months to address both philosophical and practical aspects of the program. Understanding collectively what project or problem-based learning was going to look like in our particular context—a private, college prep school in Asia—was essential to creating a program that honored our responsibility to our students, to parents’ expectations of an SAS education, and to our belief in what education can and should achieve.

Tom explains that teachers found it to be an incredibly challenging process to get the program started, and it felt high-stakes at the time because the school invested so much money into infrastructure. He feels that this program would not have survived, and ultimately thrived, without administrative support and teachers willing to support and inspire one another. In addition, Patrice says that pioneering students who were willing to take a leap of faith in a tradition-bound educational environment were also instrumental.

Another challenge, according to Patrice, is that [it] is deeply difficult to de-program/wean (for lack of a better term) students from the traditional classroom educational paradigm, but it can be done. The fact that this is a two-year program is essential to its success because it takes real time and effort to shift students’ horizons of expectations around their learning experiences.  The first year (grade 9) lays down the fundamentals in skills and content for the disciplines, as well as the 5 C’s (Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Compassion). The second year (grade 10) enables students to continue the journey and takes them to the next level of conceptual understanding and a better grasp of the 5 C’s.

Ultimately, all of the conversations, planning days and professional development led to the creation of a two-year, interdisciplinary, PBL program where students are expected to attempt to answer four to six ‘driving questions’ per year using their learning from Design, English, History, and Science. James explains that these questions are focused on contemporary challenges such as: ‘How to endure justly on a finite world?’, ‘What is the biggest catalyst for change in China?’ or ‘How do we adapt to scarcity in a globalized world?’ David Gran points out that in the Institute, content is not emphasized over skills. Instead, students start with real world applications and meaningful integrations and work backwards from there.

Amy [Foley] further explains that the driving questions (DQs) are always open-ended and can be answered in a variety of ways. In addition, student teams must draw upon their knowledge from all four disciplines to fully address the DQ. Depending on the project, students are involved in foundational learning prior to, or just after, the project launch. This foundational learning often involves students attending separate classes for each discipline as they would in a more traditional program. However, teachers co-plan in advance to ensure that what is being taught connects to the other classes and is also setting students up to be able to later further their understanding in order to answer the DQ.

After each project launch, the teachers’ role is to facilitate the process each team goes through to incubate their potential answers for the DQ. Team contracts are written, and teams are given time to ideate (brainstorm). Patrice says that while it can be difficult, teams must be given time to pursue less than stellar ideas far enough that they either realize on their own that their idea is going nowhere or is not deep enough to adequately answer the question. At times, student teams need to be redirected by a teacher facilitator. This can be tricky as there is usually only 6-7 weeks allocated for each project. When designs/products/research have to be cast aside, both students and teachers begin to feel the pressure. Timing for teacher intervention is important—and delicate.

In fact, helping students to collaborate effectively is one of the main challenges throughout the program. Students need help learning what collaboration looks like and feels like. To go beyond cooperative work to true collaboration, honesty and vulnerability is required. Patrice further explains that PBL can go the way of polite divisions of labor that prevent inspiration, depth, or innovation – or can perhaps lead to one responsible and driven student doing most, if not all, of the work. One way to avoid this is for teachers to model true collaboration. Patrice and other Institute teachers often share some of their challenges in becoming a truly collaborative team. The teachers also often hold meetings in spaces where students can observe teachers’ processes and how they negotiate conflict and honor each other. Teachers ensure that students know how to reach out for help when [they] need a mediator to help the team get back on track. Institute teachers also model hypothetical situations and frequently conference with student teams.

An exciting element of collaboration for students is the big reveal of teams during a project launch. Teachers may solicit input from students when forming teams for a new project, but ultimately teachers finalize teams that they feel are balanced and best accommodate students’ needs. However, it is a puzzle trying to ensure all teams will be successful. One interdisciplinary project requires grade 10 students to design and build a board game to answer the question ‘How do we adapt to scarcity in a globalized world?’ Tom recalls that during this project, there was a team that teachers were concerned about. The students were solid individually, but there was uncertainty about how they would work together, as well as whether any would step up as a leader. As the ideation process unfolded, the team really struggled to find a unifying idea to answer the driving question. However, in the final few weeks of the project – when other teams were iterating their final product based upon the expert feedback from a game consultant – one student made a joke about creating a game about competitive sushi chefs who compete to destroy each other. After further discussion and brainstorming, the group decided it was actually a good idea that would allow them to answer the DQ. Ultimately, the team produced an exemplary game that truly impressed parents and visitors during the Family Game Night showcase. Tom points out that this is a great example that team strength is not simply assembling strong individuals – it is about groups collaborating effectively. As an end note to this story, for the final project of the two-year program (eight months later), student managers were given the freedom to assemble their own teams. Perhaps not surprisingly, these four students chose to be a team again because they knew they could persevere and work well together. They ended up producing another fantastic project.

Another key element of the program is incorporating experts or members of the community. Tiffany Kelley explains that Institute teachers want to empower students to see the world as their classroom, and the meaningful connections students make with experts, authentic audiences and even places visited outside of school during PBL, contributes deeply to their engagement in the learning process and ultimately to their final products. It can be challenging to secure experts, so at times teachers have asked parents, other faculty, or members of the communications department to act as experts or audiences. Tiffany has observed that sometimes these experts are giving the same message as the Institute teachers, but having another voice say something in a different way to the students can have a profound effect.

Authentic products or audiences are also a focus for the Innovation Institute. Grade 10 students complete a film project to answer the driving question ‘Do we live in a Brave New World?” Both years that students submitted films to the Shanghai Student Film Festival, teams won awards. David explains that the significance of this is that Institute students were competing against more experienced film students, while this was the first film the Institute students had produced. Innovation Institute students most likely created impressive films because they were exceptionally skilled at working together as a collaborative team in their undertaking of creative tasks.  The technical skill of film can be challenging, but effective collaboration is crucial for most fledgling film crews.

Finally, time must be made for reflection. Student teams need to be guided through a reflection of how well their team worked together, and students need to individually reflect on how they could better support their team in the future. Student feedback can also be useful to help teachers refine projects and PBL structures. Institute teachers often seek student feedback before launching a newly-designed project. Running a protocol with a small group of students gives them input into the project and helps teachers to improve the project prior to an official launch. Amy recommends that teacher teams set aside time – both during and after a project – to regularly reflect and document necessary improvements. Teacher reflection helps to improve the program. For example, David recognizes that Institute teachers have learned over time to more effectively incorporate individual accountability through specific roles, teacher check-ins and student peer reviews both during and at the end of projects.

It is really important for teachers to remember that taking risks or implementing something innovative is sometimes overwhelming, says Amy. There are many obstacles along the way. However, focus on positives such as students who are benefitting from the program. The following quote is from a student who spoke about their experience after they had completed the two-year Innovation Institute program.

In Inno, every major project we had was a ride of its own. No ride was the same as any others, because of different group mates, different objectives, and different end products. After finishing each project, there’s a feeling that “Hey, I did this!” that I can sort of get when I do well on something like a test, but not really. That’s because my group and I had made something tangible, like a coffee table book or a film or board game. I feel satisfied knowing all the work that goes into something like that. Sure, it feels good when you ace a test, but that’s just me feeling great about my grades. These projects make a person feel good about themselves.

This is the sort of feedback that shows teachers they are on the right track and, like our students, need to keep persevering. Despite the natural ups and downs of implementing an innovative program, Patrice articulates what other Institute teachers feel – that this has been the hardest yet most satisfying work of our teaching careers and we are forever grateful for this opportunity.

If you are interested in project-based learning, I encourage you to read The PBL Playbook for some inspiration!

pbl playbook