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Teaching with Technology

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Lesson Plans
by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)

We've got technology now. We don't need lesson plans. The computer and the Internet provide us with all we need. We just provide the infrastructure of the information highway in the school and classroom, and away they go, learning what they need to learn from a variety of sources. Our job is to serve as the Guide on the Side, answering their questions as they arise and fixing things when they go wrong.


Teachers have been designing lessons at least as long as architects have been designing buildings. Socrates in the 4th century B.C. was famous for his challenging lessons that involved direct dialog between student and teacher. The onset of the printed book after the 16th century widened the possibilities for teaching and demanded a new kind of lesson plan with more independent work by the student. Later we developed lesson plans for incorporating film, newspapers, radio, and television into the curriculum and into the classroom. The arrival of the computer simply adds a new dimension to the important task of planning the act of teaching and learning.

This week's article looks at some of the varied approached to planning a lesson that uses technology. You'll see that no two are identical, but all share certain aspects. No matter which approach seems best for your work, all of them provide food for thought as we integrate computers and the internet into our profession.

Unit of Practice

This approach to lesson design was developed in the 1990's by Apple Computer as part of its Classrooms of Tomorrow research project. With funds from the National Science Foundation, Apple worked with a wide variety of teachers and schools throughout the country to develop a common vocabulary and process for designing an effective lesson. The Unit of Practice proposes eight parts of a good lesson plan:

  • Invitation. Here you briefly and provocatively describe the project in an inviting way. How will this lesson have a improve student learning?
  • Tasks. What exactly will the student do? What is the nature of the work to be accomplished?
  • Interactions. What happens? Who talks and works with whom? Who initiates interactions? Are students in groups, teams or do they work individually while working on the task?
  • Situations.What's the setting? Where will the learning take place? What's the nature of the environment?
  • Time Frame: How long does this lesson last? What is your time frame for the lesson or unit?
  • Tools.What technologies and materials are provided to present the ideas and enable student work?
  • Standards.What objectives are set for the students? Which of the local, district, state or national standards are addressed by this lesson?
  • Assessment. How will you evaluate the students' work? They encourage the use of authentic assessments.

A good place to learn more about this approach is at Apple's own Web site at http://ali.apple.com/ali_help/help_units.shtml, where you will find a database of lesson plans as well as instructions for designing your own lesson. Next, take a look at their rubric for evaluating a Unit of Practice, on the Web at http://ali.apple.com/ali_media/Users/1000286/files/others/UOP_RUBRIC.pdf

The Unit of Practice approach has been widely adopted, as the collection of lesson plans at The Eighth Floor will prove. Connect to their Web site at http://www.eighthfloor.org/resources/units/units.htm. You will be able to read a wide variety of lesson plans. Another source for sample lessons based on the Unit of Practice approach can be found at Tennille's Technology Tips, http://coe.west.asu.edu/students/stennille/ST3/unitofpractice.htm

Many school districts use the Unit of Practice as their own lesson planning rubric, as you may see at http://www.carteretcountyschools.org/lenc/uop/uop.htm , the site of Learning Environments for the New Century from the Carteret County Schools. Here you will find a description of the approach, a template for writing a lesson plan, and examples of lessons created by Carteret County teachers.

Understanding by Design

This approach, widely promoted by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), is based on the book of the same name authored by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. It proposes that the form of a lesson should flow from its function; its learning goals, the ideas you want the students to understand, rather than from the activity or the curriculum content list.

You may learn about this approach at http://www.ubdexchange.org/ You'll find it hard to locate a precise list of the parts of an Understand by Design lesson at this site; it seems to be aimed at people who have already read the book and understand the approach. But look at the PowerPoint slide show they provide at http://www.ubdexchange.org/resources/ppts.html, and you'll find a good introduction to their ideas. (You can do this without registering on the site.)

We find these aspects in an Understanding by Design lesson:

  • Summary
  • Enduring Understandings
  • Essential Questions
  • State Standards
  • Key Knowledge and Skills
  • Performance Tasks
  • Other Evidence of Learning
  • Learning Activities
  • Teaching Materials & Technology

At the ASCD Web site at http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/198199/ you may read chapters 1 and 2 of the Wiggins book, which will provide some rationale for their approach to teaching and lesson design. Follow this up with an examination of a sample lesson created by a 5th-grade teacher in Hebron, Connecticut, which you may find at http://www.lengel.net/hebron/5ssunit1.html, and a sample template for writing such a lesson plan at http://www.lengel.net/hebron/unitform.html.

The book is Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. ISBN 0-87120-313-8

The Big Six

This is not billed as a lesson planning strategy, but rather as a general approach to using technology to study any topic. The authors call it an information problem-solving process. Nonetheless, its list of steps in the study process is widely used by teachers (and students) as a way to structure a lesson. Begin with the Big 6 web site at
http://www.big6.com/showarticle.php?id=16 to examine the list of steps in the Big 6 process. These steps are:

1. Task Definition
2. Information Seeking Strategies
3. Location and Access
4. Use of Information
5. Synthesis
6. Evaluation

Examine how the SBC Knowledge Network Explorer describes the Big 6 approach at http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/big6/. Read the introduction and the section on Using the Big 6. You'll find another explanation of the Big 6 approach, with many commentaries from teachers, at http://nb.wsd.wednet.edu/big6/big6_resources.htm.

Then look at how the Austin, Texas public schools use the Big 6 as an assignment-organizing process for middle-school students at http://www.standrews.austin.tx.us/library/Assignment%20organizer.htm. You'll find other examples of how it's used in schools at http://www.lufkinisd.org/lhshome/library/big6main.htm.


This lesson design strategy, very popular these days among teachers, is focused on planning lessons that use resources from the Internet in a structured way that's tied to traditional curriculum goals. You will find a good definition of the Webquest approach at http://edweb.sdsu.edu/courses/edtec596/about_webquests.html, and you'll find more general info on the concept at http://webquest.sdsu.edu/.

Webquests have these parts:

  • An introduction that sets the stage and provides some background information.
  • A task that is doable and interesting.
  • A set of information sources needed to complete the task.
  • A description of the process the learners should go through in accomplishing the task.
  • Some guidance on how to organize the information acquired.
  • A conclusion that brings closure to the quest, reminds the learners about what they've learned, and perhaps encourages them to extend the experience into other domains.

But the most valuable information on this approach is found in the hundreds of lesson examples that teachers have created and posted on the Web. A good place to start your examination of the best of these is at the Webquest Portal at http://webquest.org/; click on Top in the left-side menu. These are the lesson plans that have been judged best by a panel of experts. A good way to begin is to browse through those in your field. It may not be obvious at first, but all of these share a common set of elements.

To see how this approach is applied by educators, take a look at a lesson design page from the Natrona County, Wyoming school district at http://ncsdweb.ncsd.k12.wy.us/dherman/lesley/week2/lesson_design.html.


Next time someone tells you that computers and the Internet have made all of the old methods obsolete, send them off to see how some very creative teachers have melded tradition and technology.

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