Teaching by Design, Part Uno

Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

In his book, “Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration,” Dr. Les Foltos outlines three general areas of skills that instructional coaches should possess: “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design.”  Dr. Foltos uses the metaphor of a three-legged stool to describe how these skills are all critical to successful coaching, “Remove any leg and coaching could fail.”  The last of these three areas, lesson design, is perhaps the most nuanced to address.  Teachers start out writing detailed lesson plans as student teachers and slowly move away from this as they become more experienced.  Most, if not all, keep detailed lesson plan books for their own guidance but a lot of the less plan details are internalized.  Given the accelerating rate of change in education, how does a peer coach help teachers explore, reflect, and improve upon lesson and unit planning in their practice?  Dr. Foltos provides one such tool in his book that he refers to as the “Learning Activity Checklist” and divides this approach into four categories: Standards Based, Engaging, Problem Based Task, and Technology Enhances Academic Achievement.  A further exploration of these four areas, with the relevant ISTE Coaching standards in mind, provides some additional insights into the essential question raised around lesson design.

Coaching Standards

1. Change Agent: Coaches inspire educators and leaders to use technology to create equitable and ongoing access to high-quality learning. Coaches: 1a. Create a shared vision and culture for using technology to learn and accelerate transformation through the coaching process.

3. Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches: 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies. 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

4. Learning Designer: Coaches model and support educators to design learning experiences and environments to meet the needs and interests of all students. Coaches: 4a. Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency.

Essential Question

How does one approach lesson design in an ever-evolving classroom context?

Standards Based

In his “Peer Coaching” book, Dr. Foltos is clear about the need for standards based instruction, “There are three groups of standards educators should include in their learning activities: curriculum standards, 21st-century standards, and technology standards (Meyer et al., 2011m).”  There is plenty of support for this approach across educational literature and research. “Understanding By Design” by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe raises the critical approach of beginning with the end in mind.  In the case of standards-based teaching, this means the standards.  The standards will inform construction of learning objectives to be introduced to students at the beginning of the lesson or unit and learning outcomes to be evaluated as student success criteria at the end of the same given lesson or unit. Wiggins and McTighe focus in on this as defining the “why” of the instruction, “Answering the ’why?’ and ’so what?’ questions that older students always ask (or want to), and doing so in concrete terms as the focus of curriculum planning, is thus the essence of understanding by design.”

Not only are objectives important, but individualized feedback coupled with those objectives is critical.  This can take the form of formative assessment along the way or summative assessment at the end of the activity or unit.  “Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback” is so important that Robert Marzano cites this as one of the “Nine Categories in Instructional Planning” based on meta-research he conducted and wrote about in his book entitled “Classroom Instruction that Works”.  Dr. Foltos speaks to this as well with an emphasis on formative assessment of the standards based learning, “Educators must use formative assessment, which gives learners opportunities to receive feedback at benchmarks along the way, “to revise and improve the quality of their learning… while they are engaged in learning new materials” (Bransford, et al., 2000, pp. 24–25).”  While the objectives are classwide and the learning is standards based, individualization is important toward this end as well because every student is different. According to John Hattie’s book on meta-analyses of education research, Visible Learning for Teachers, formative assessment has a student learning effect size of 0.90 and individualized feedback has an effect size of 0.75.

Universal Learning is a valuable approach to consider when looking at lesson planning because it means providing individualized access for students whether they have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), 504, or not.  In the Edutopia blog post entitled “Ensuring That Instruction Is Inclusive For Diverse Learners” by Nina Parrish, she speaks to the idea that Universal Design provides a flexible model for adjusting instructional approaches.  She lists three key ideas for successfully implementing universal design in the classroom, “Teach content in many ways, provide choices to sustain student engagement, and provide accommodations for all students.” Universal Design creates a more student centered approach that is more inclusive across the entire classroom for all students.


“Tasks are essential in learning that asks students to play an active role in solving real-world problems and develop 21st-century skills. They hook the students, engage their interest in a learning activity, and define how students will demonstrate their learning.”  The type of learning tasks that Dr. Foltos is describing in his book on “Peer Coaching” are authentically engaging tasks.  For a task to be engaging, it must be developmentally appropriate.  Chip Wood’s book, “Yardsticks”, provides developmentally appropriate descriptions that can be extremely useful for appropriate engaging students at certain ages.  He speaks to our establish knowledge in this area, “In the first half of the last century, the so-called “giants” in the field of child development—people such as Jean Piaget, Arnold Gesell, Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Lev Vygotsky—observed, researched, and recorded most of the developmental patters that form the basis of our knowledge of how children mature.” Meeting students where they are at based on these established “developmental patterns” means we can better engage students.

In fact, “Engage” is the first of the five “E’s” listed as part of “The BSCS  5E Instructional Model” by Rodger Bybee.  The 5E Model is based on the work of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky, among others, in terms of the natural and “engaging” progressions of learning. According to John Hattie, Piagetian programs have an effect size of 1.28.  By engaging student interest through a discrepant event that connects to previous knowledge, teachers can help student construct new knowledge by moving from equilibrium to the disequilibrium engaged by the discrepant event and eventually back to equilibrium through the processing of new learning in the “Explore” and “Explain” phases.  Teachers then verify understanding via student’s ability to apply new learning in a different context via the “Elaborate” and “Evaluate” phases.

As demonstrated by the three provided examples, appropriate engagement is key.  This is as much an art as a science and will vary teacher to teacher and even class to class with the same teacher.  The importance throughout different contexts is a focus on being intentional about engaging the learner.  Dave Burgess is a master at this as demonstrated through his “Teach Like a Pirate” philosophy.  His book, “Teach Like a Pirate, Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator” speaks to the importance of engaging students in their learning in a way that makes sense for each educator based on their respective passion, “It doesn’t matter what subject you teach, you can become totally engaging to your audience if they can feel your passion and love for what you are doing. You will draw students in as if by some magnetic force.”  Passion is engaging, and it’s also contagious and spreads throughout your learning practice and to those around you.  Passion is engaging.

Halfway Home

So far, with Dr. Foltos’s “Learning Activity Checklist”, we’ve looked at the first two categories of ”Standards Based” and ”Engaging”.  These are two critical areas to keep in mind when reviewing existing lessons and units as well as designing new ones.  There are numerous connections across literature and via educational theorists to support these approaches.  That being said, one is best off focusing on one aspect of one category at a time as opposed to trying to process and apply all four areas at once.  Over time, with practice, many of these approaches can become second nature and intuitive for the intentional teacher. The authors of “Understanding by Design” speak specifically to this process of internalization.  The remaining two areas of ”Problem-Based” and ”Technology Enhances Academic Achievement“ will be addressed in the follow-up to this blog post.  There are entire books written on each topic, so the intent will be to address key points from established resources like this introductory post.  Together, all four areas create powerful opportunities for intentional teaching of carefully designed lessons and units of instruction.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
  2. Les Foltos. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.
  3. Foltos, L. (January, 2018). Teachers Learn Better Together. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/teachers-learn-better-together
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4 Replies to “Teaching by Design, Part Uno”

  1. Love this phrase, “Passion is engaging, and it’s also contagious and spreads throughout your learning practice and to those around you.” This is so important to remember in education. It’s like the idea that you can’t expect students to give more than you are giving. This quote actually made me think of an article I read recently from Character Strong about The Law of the Lid, https://characterstrong.com/blog/146/the-law-of-the-lid. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Really appreciate the wealth of research you brought to bear on this topic of learning design. And again you win the award of the week for the most unusual reading, Teach Like a Pirate. ISTE’s student standards offer a powerful, and clear motivation for innovation in the kind of learning activities we offer students, and none perhaps more than this one from “Knowledge Constructor.” Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions. If you added just one more attribute, students should have fun while learning, you are a world away from what happens in too many classrooms today.

  3. I love your essential question – the world of education is rapidly changing and teachers are continually challenged to learn and improve their craft. As a new coach, it is hard to find a starting point when helping teachers with lesson design. So thank you for starting to “unpack” some of Les Foltos’s categories on lesson improvement: standards-based and engagement. I appreciated how much research and evidence you included to back up your ideas. I also loved how you ended with the reminder that passion acts as a magnetic force. I hope I never lose my passion for teaching! I look forward to reading part 2.

  4. Dave Burgess is amazing. I appreciate the cross connections you are making, and more importantly in how exemplifying and embracing creativity (like Dave “Teach like a Pirate”) benefits students by encouraging like-minded learning and enjoyment. Thanks for sharing!

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