Curriculum planning is often thought of as a linear process. First create objectives or (I prefer) guiding questions. Then think up a bunch of activities for those objectives/questions. Then figure out how to assess what students learned through those activities. This can lead to what I call the “activity trap.” Planning in this sequence can lead to a pitfall resulting in activities that do not readily connect to the big picture of your curriculum planning (assuming there is one of course).
I prefer an approach that is actually non-linear. To illustrate I will use a hamburger.
Imagine the top bun of the hamburger represents the essential questions that guide and organize the content of the topic. Within the top bun lies the Thematic Question. This is the question that drives the unit of study. This is the question that students will answer when they complete the unit through some form of summative assessment (test, paper, project, presentation, etc). Once the Thematic Question is arrived at, this is broken down into smaller Guiding Questions which break this large topic into smaller chunks. Before proceeding however, the teacher needs to actually answer these questions and identify what the students will have to know, do, and understand to successfully answer this question. Knight (2013) calls these specific proficiencies.
To take a simple example, if the guiding question was “what are the components of a sentence?” the teacher should actually answer it. Not just say a student should know what a noun is, but actually take the time to identify all the specific vocabulary, concepts, and ideas the student must be proficient at to answer the question. In this case, one such proficiency would be, “a noun is used to represent a person, place or thing.”
Once the teacher has completed all the guiding questions and answered them with the specific proficiencies then he or she will have a very clear “answer key” to all they expect their students to be able to know, do, or understand.
In this model, the next step is to actually skip choosing assignments and activities, and instead jump to the formative assessment, which I represent with the bottom bun on the burger. The formative assessments might be very informal check-ins with students done during a class discussion, or something more formal like a quiz or short paper. A formative assessment is anything done while still learning the content of the unit before the summative that provides feedback to the student and teacher about progress. It is important to identify the formative assessments after the guiding questions/specific proficiencies, but before the choosing of activities. Identifying how you are going to know if your students have achieved a specific proficiency will help you choose better, more appropriate activities or assignments to meet that proficiency in a way that you can accurately and efficiently assess.
Once the “buns” are established, then comes the meat of what you actually do every day with students—activities and assignments. Find activities for students to complete to learn the specific things they need to be proficient at to then eventually successfully complete the final summative assessment for the unit or topic. Putting the activities together with the guiding questions and the formative assessments used during and at the conclusion of activities and assignments will provide a more coherent experience for the students to be able to then provide a more comprehensive answer to the initial guiding question. If this process is followed for all the guiding questions, the students will build up a stockpile of proficiencies to answer the thematic question.