How To Create Stacked Lesson Plans To Reinforce Concepts

As an educator, your goal is to teach students core concepts that they use throughout their time in school and in their lives. Everything including civics, biology, writing, and math can be used throughout life, and you have the ability to lay a strong foundation for these subjects.

However, it’s easy to get frustrated as a teacher developing lesson plans. How do you know that your students aren’t immediately forgetting the material after the test? How can your students further apply basic concepts in more advanced settings?

The answer lies in stacked lesson plans, or the process of building on basic ideas and applying them to more advanced topics. Follow this guide to develop stacked plans in your classroom.

Try Backward Lesson Planning

If you want to create lessons that build on each other, you may need to rethink how you create classroom plans in the first place. Backward lesson planning is a growing trend where teachers evaluate what needs to be assessed before they move forward with the lesson development.

“Given the multitude of daily challenges they face, it’s easy for new teachers to fall into poor unit- or lesson-planning habits,” says Jay McTighe, coauthor of “Understanding by Design.” “These often include racing for maximum textbook coverage, setting up a series of haphazard activities, focusing on multiple-choice ‘test prep,’ or failing to help students apply or contextualize their learning.”

Backward lesson planning is a three step process. It incorporates the immediate material students need to know, but also big picture concepts. Educational consultant Annette Romano breaks down the three steps that educators can follow when developing backward lesson plans:

  1. Identify the learning standards that you are trying to achieve with the lesson.
  2. Identify the core concepts and enduring understandings that come with the state or federal standards.
  3. Create activities and lessons around these big picture ideas and core standards.

Teachers often build lesson plans based on what other teachers do or on activities they want to try. While following others is a good way to get inspiration, your lessons might not reinforce the material in the ways you expect.

“If it turns out that those favorite lessons don’t really align with any standards, you might be able to revise them so they do,” says Cult of Pedagogy’s Jennifer Gonzalez. “Some activities have value because they help us get to know each other better, they help students develop social-emotional skills, or they simply offer a bit of fun. But if a lesson doesn’t do any of these things, if it’s disguised as learning but is doing little more than keeping students busy, it’s time for it to go.”

Backward lesson planning allows you to start at the end to ensure every student walks away with both the core concepts and long-term connections to the material.

Teacher and two young students use laptop computer in class; stacked lesson plans concept

Let Students Showcase Their Prior Knowledge

As you create your activities, look for ways to showcase what they already know. This is a good way to build confidence ahead of the new material because students will feel like they are already familiar with what they are about to learn. Prior knowledge evaluation also helps students learn how the previous lesson will apply to the next.

“The only resources that learners have for approaching a new challenge is what they already know and are already interested in,” says Jeffery D. Wilhelm, co-author of “Planning Powerful Instruction.” “The only way to build new interests and capacities is by activating and building on students’ prior interests and background knowledge before instruction.”

Everyone has prior knowledge. Your students may have read about a subject in an earlier class or they were exposed to an idea through the media. The goal of prior knowledge activities is to remind students that they already know a little about what they are going to learn.

“When we talk about prior or previous knowledge, we refer to all of the experiences readers have had throughout their lives, including information they have learned elsewhere,” writes Eileen Bailey at ThoughtCo. “This knowledge is used to bring the written word to life and to make it more relevant in the reader’s mind.”

There are multiple ways to evaluate prior knowledge. This can be through formal assessments or casual discussions and brainstorming sessions to see what students associate with certain ideas.

“Prior knowledge assessment should be low stakes, and…should not be graded,” says Ben Crockett, at the Durrington Research School in the UK. Some educators think prior knowledge evaluation should be anonymous to lower the stakes for students even more. This also helps teachers evaluate the class as a whole, rather than what some students know over others.

smiling child doing math homework; stacked lesson plans concept

Practice Conceptual Thinking

The main benefit of using prior knowledge is to introduce additional ideas that apply to what students already know. This is how your stacked lesson plan can move from core competency evaluation to big-picture conceptual thinking.

“We can’t ‘turn off’ prior knowledge, so we’re better off making it work for us, not against us,” writes Pepy Meli, education consultant and head of research at 100mentors. “Prompt the students to express ideas connected to central concepts and make them realize the source of these ideas, whether it is another subject or a real-life example.”

Conceptual thinking is a habit kids can practice. It lets them build connections between what they learn and other aspects of life, which will make the material more engaging.

Educator Carla Marschall, co-author of “WorldWise Learning,” writes that during lesson planning, teachers can ask three questions in order to promote conceptual thinking:

  • What core concepts are the basis of this lesson? (For example: learning about the human body means learning about systems and processes.)
  • What connections can students make from one concept to another?
  • What opportunities for application are available to students? How can they see these concepts in action?

Conceptual thinking can be applied to almost any classroom or grade level. However, it helps to see this process in action when you are first using it.

“If I’m asking about a novel they’re reading, I don’t ask about the plot but rather prompt them to make connections, explain themes, or make comparisons to another book,” says middle school teacher Kasey Short. “This approach reduces the opportunity for dishonesty and gives students a chance to demonstrate what they have learned.”

This is how you can take a basic core competency (like learning action verbs) and find ways to challenge students to dig deeper into the concept.

Tap Into Real-World Problems

Another way to build stacked lesson plans is to challenge students to solve real-world problems. Some educators ask students to focus on a single real-world experience throughout the year and then assign lessons related to it.

“Give students the opportunity to apply their classroom knowledge to a real-world problem,” says education writer Janelle Cox. She recommends asking students to look at state or federal issues or simple school issues. For example, students can take on clean energy usage in America or develop a project around placing healthier foods in the school’s vending machines.

Real-world connections turn concepts into applications while allowing students to focus on something they are passionate about. Real-world application ends the question: “why are we learning this?”

Younger students need connections to the world they know. This makes them feel secure and comfortable in the material. Older students want a sense of purpose and to feel like they are learning something they will use. In both cases, the phrase “because it’s on the exam” won’t get you very far.

“Too often, traditional learning never ventures beyond the realm of the purely academic,” according to K-12 software provider PowerSchool. “Project-based learning connects students to the world beyond the classroom and prepares them to accept and meet challenges in the real world in a way that mirrors what professionals do every day.”

As you create stacked lesson plans, consider how real-world application of the concepts can align with what your students are learning.

teacher speaking to student, some have their hands raised; stacked lesson plans concept

Use Scaffolding Models

Once you can connect your stacked lesson plan to prior learning and real-world ideas, you can move forward with the day-to-day activities. Scaffolding models help educators demonstrate tasks so students can try out different skills themselves.

“Scaffolding teaching gives students the support they need by breaking learning into achievable sizes while they progress toward understanding and independence,” writes Rebekah Sager at We Are Teachers. “In other words, it’s like when a house is being built. The crew uses scaffolding to help support the structure as it’s being built. The stronger the house is, the less it needs the scaffolding to hold it up.”

There are many ways to build scaffolding into your project. Chris Drew, The Helpful Professor, lists some methods to break down a lesson into chunks, which include:

  • A roadmap with step-by-step guidelines to complete it.
  • Cover up parts of the project until students are ready for it.
  • Create learning stations where students only work on one aspect at a time.
  • Set up checkpoints where you check that each student has completed a certain part before moving on to the next one.

One of the best examples of lesson plan breakdowns can be found in essay writing. Teachers will often work with students to develop a thesis statement before approaching any other part of the paper. The students can then move on to creating introductory paragraphs before they start conducting research for the body of the article. The student masters one chunk before moving on to the next.

“Eventually, students should be able to demonstrate a solid understanding of the lesson, while you jump in and offer support as needed,” writes Maria Kampen at Prodigy Education. “This is one of the trickier parts of scaffolding — let go too soon and students might struggle more than they need to, but continue modeling too long and risk students getting bored.”

With too much scaffolding, you may find that your advanced students want to push ahead. However, it’s important to make sure each student feels comfortable with the material learned before building on another concept.

Develop Multiple Projects Through the Year

Once you have your first stacked lesson plan, you can make adjustments to the process for future projects. By allowing students to take on several large-scale projects throughout the year, they can see how one idea ties to another. They can also see how a basic concept is setting the groundwork for more advanced ideas. You are bringing students into the learning process and helping them form connections.

Test out a few of these ideas and see how they improve your lesson plans.

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