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,

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