Planning a unit of work

The first time I tried to explain my thinking process for planning to a trainee I found it rather difficult. I mumbled something about starting at the end and working towards that end goal – which I suppose is what we all do – but somewhere along the way what I wanted the children to know, to understand and to be able to do got lost in the plethora of activities I planned. For me, teaching was always about the doing.

That changed with the NC 2014, which I have only recently stopped referring to as the ‘new curriculum’. At first I was adamant that this was a private school education being pushed onto working class children and it just wouldn’t work but then a realisation dawned on me. Many of the children I have the pleasure of teaching have a knowledge deficit – that is they don’t have a wider knowledge of the world outside their immediate surroundings. By concentrating most of my energy on making the learning ‘engaging’ I was further compounding that problem. My thinking shifted and I began to view knowledge and experiences as they great leveller in education.

Fast forward a few years and I’m a total convert – knowledge is king, knowledge is all. Nowadays, I spend my planning time researching to develop my subject knowledge.


It is essential that the teacher has excellent subject knowledge (and I’m acknowledging the elephant in the room in that primary teachers have to be a Jack of all trades) if lessons are to be the best they can.

I’ve spent the last few days (?? not sure exactly how many as time is meaningless currently) obsessively reading and researching a new topic on North America.

Whilst I enjoy a lot of American culture, I had a very poor knowledge of American history and geography. I’d obviously heard of big cities like New York, Chicago, even Seattle but had very little idea where they were. What I knew of history came mostly from films like Gangs of New York, but I’ve always tried to keep our American cousins at bay across the Atlantic.

I think it’s partly because I’m worried that here in the UK we might lose our identity and one day soon we’ll all start saying things like a-loo-min-um and or-eg-uh-no. The children I teach already say things like ‘candy’ and ‘trash can’. I had a guided reading group a few years ago that didn’t know what a lorry was and when I showed them a picture one child said, “Oh you mean truck?” *sad face*

I also have to admit that the Americans I’ve met (only a few to be honest) have been somewhat overpowering and boisterous, but through my research I’ve come to realise that Americans can’t help being so enthusiastic about everything it’s in their DNA. “Go west, young man!” – that Manifest Destiny – the idea that they are superior and have the divine right to conquer all (of course the fact that white Americans are descended from Europeans – particularly the British with their track record of imperialism has not escaped me).

Ok, I’m exaggerating now and apologies to any Americans – if indeed you are still reading! The point is by researching North America I’ve come to understand more about the world as it is now. And that’s what we want for our children isn’t it – to be engaged, enthused, educated? At the end of a lesson I want the children I teach to carry on thinking about it – like a good film or book when it’s finished.

Mary Myatt says that the curriculum must be ‘high challenge, low threat’ and I absolutely agree. If our lessons don’t challenge the children’s thinking, don’t stretch their imaginations we are wasting our time.

“Memory is the residue of the thought” – Daniel Willingham.

Children will only think about something if they’re challenged. If we dumb down the curriculum because ‘they’re only children’ we are doing them a disservice. Obviously, I’m not expecting Reception children to be taught the theory of relativity (although I do have to try and briefly explain it to my Y3/4 class when we learn about Einstein – the scientist our class is named after) but even very young children have tremendous capacity to learn – just look at how much they learn in their first two years of life!

Human beings are curious by nature. Let’s stimulate that curiosity and encourage a desire to want to find out more. Increasing our knowledge is fun – when we know stuff, we can make connections with other stuff we learn. I’ve experienced it, that buzz when the children are hanging off you every word because they really want to know what happened to Doggerland.

So nowadays, when I’m planning a unit of work, I think about what I want the children to know, to understand, to be able to do at the end of the unit and that’s my focus. The ‘activities’ bit comes afterwards almost as an afterthought – a way of the children demonstrating what they’ve learnt – although by far the best way is to just talk to them!

I’ve really enjoyed planning this topic and am really pleased with the unit I’ve put together. You’re welcome to access it here. I will be adding the KO, recommended book list and quizzes soonish.

Just for the record, I have nothing but respect for America and its people. I might even visit one day (maybe drive Route 66) if I can just manage that flight!

P.S. if you’re wondering why there is not a huge amount of reference to the plight of Native Americans it’s because I plan to do an English topic alongside this where we’ll explore that in more detail.

I’m planning to teach Lesson 2 during Black History month.

The printable maps come from this useful website:




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