The Learning Sequence for a Unit Plan

2011 Symposium2

Previously, I have written about writing objectives and assessments for students. Today I will discuss the learning sequence across a unit. A unit consists of a well-sequenced series of lessons that guides students along to a final goal. While the teacher uses a lesson plan for each lesson within the unit–a plan in which activities are ordered to lead students logicallly and clearly through the objectives for that lesson, the teacher also uses a plan for each unit. This plan places concepts and lessons in the best order, so that one lesson will prepare students for the next or later lessons, and each lesson builds on what has been learned previously.

As is often the case in planning learning, I find it most effective to work backwards from the final goal. I write down what the unit is leading up to, and what the students will need to be able to do on the summative assessment. Starting there, I then work backwards, asking myself what are all of the skills and understandings that students will need to possess in order to succeed on the summative assessment. Then work back from there.

As an example, I will use interpreting a song. By the end of the unit, I want my students to be able to convey a stated expressive intent through the way they sing a song; to make choices of tempo, dynamics, articulation, and tone as they prepare to perform a song with two different interpretations. What will these students need to be able to do and understand in order to perform a song with two different interpretations?

In no particular order (yet) I write down a list. Students will need to be able to

  • Understand what it means to interpret a song
  • Know what tempo, dynamics, articulation and tone are
  • Know specific tempos, dynamics, articulations and tones. (e.g. Andante, piano, crescendo to forte, legato when soft at the beginning, then marcato after the crescendo.)
  • Be able to manipulate tempo, dynamics, articulation and tone while singing.
  • Be able to determine the expressive intent of the songwriter of the song they will be singing.
  • Know what the song means to them; what feelings and emotions it expresses.
  • Know how to convey the specific emotions and feelings in the song through singing and through manipulating tempo, dynamics, articulation and tone while singing.

With this list in hand, I can now set about putting them in a logical order. What do students need to know first in order to progress to the next lesson? We could start by defining interpretation. At this point, the definition will need to be general because  the students may not yet have the vocabulary or concepts to understand the meaning of interpretation. For example, “interpretation is the conveyance of expressive intent” is a good definition, but if students don’t know what expressive intent is, the definition is note serviceable. “interpretation is the way a singer sings a song so that it shows others how he or she feels about what he or she is singing” does not have the limitation of unfamiliar vocabulary, and so is a good starting point. It can be made more concise as the unit progresses. I would post this definition in the classroom, and repeatedly return to it as concepts and vocabulary are added, refining the definition throughout the unit. This will help students contextualize new concepts or vocabulary, and serve as documentation of their progress as their understanding increases and expands.

To expand and increase that understanding we would build on the definition by asking some questions to be answered through the instructional sequence. For example, how is expressive intent conveyed? What things does a singer do to convey expressive intent? This is where more vocabulary and the beginning of some skill building can occur. Expressive intent is conveyed through manipulating musical elements in an expressive way. Expressive elements are defined demonstrated and art-of-teachingapplied as part of the learning process. For example, one of these elements is articulation. Students can sing a familiar song with contrasting articulations and then compare the expressive affect of each performance. Staccato might be heard as scary, jumpy or cheerful, while legato might be heard as sleepy or sad. Students learn that by manipulating articulation, a singer can choose what mood, feeling, or emotion is expressed or conveyed. Students can then listen to recordings of songs, and then comment on the articulations used and their expressive affect. Other musical elements could be treated in a similar way.

From there, students can determine the expressive intent of songwriters and singers from listening, identify all of the musical elements used by the singers and for what expressive purpose they were manipulated, and finally apply similar manipulations to their own singing which now can have expressive intent conveyed. To build a successful unit plan, all of the parts need to be considered, analyzed and inserted into the most logical position. Planning units requires careful consideration of minute details, and then assembling them into a cohesive whole that will make sense to the learners and lead them to success.

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