News, Teaching Stories

Thinking outside the box when designing a unit

Last July, I had the pleasure of presenting at the BILT conference ‘Tales from the digital classroom’1. It was a great event with some fantastic presentations and a broad range of talks. Following my talk loads of people (actually just one) asked me to write a bit more about my Rubik’s cube analogy. So here goes.

When planning our teaching it’s a little bit like solving a Rubik’s cube – something that I have tried many times but never mastered (and I refuse to go on line and find out the algorithm for the final steps – I would rather not know). This point is important. To me a Rubik’s cube is too complex to perfectly solve. But I can solve a face.

Now I think that face – the one I can solve – is very much like planning for teaching. When I sit down to plan my teaching I imagine what the students need to know – and I map it out. Week by week. I consider the interconnectivity. What needs to come before and what needs to go later. How ideas are developed. And it is really tricky to get everything planned out – but with enough writing and re-writing I end up with a well organised unit. And I feel good about myself. I’ve nailed the first side.

But then I try and tackle the other sides of the cube; I think about other things. Maybe I think about the skills I want my students to learn, like drawing, or communication, or critical thinking, or persuasive argument, or researching, or referencing, or note taking, or pragmatic design thinking or programming.

Maybe I think about what I want my students to take with them when they’ve finished the unit – some items to add to their portfolio that they can take to interview. Maybe I think about employability skills more generally.

Or maybe I think about the pedagogy of the unit. I ask ‘how can I use the theory of authentic learning in this unit to help students structure their learning in an authentic way’2. Or maybe I think about the unit in terms of communities of practice3 and I ask how can this unit help students become a greater part of the community. What language do they need to learn. What cultural norms should we discuss. What approaches and methodologies are required.

Planning for these things is a bit more complicated. But, like a Rubik’s cube, with enough patience and perseverance you can maybe make some sense of these items. They might not be perfect. But you can at least align the four edges around the face you have solved to each match one colour (I am told this is the second step in solving a Rubik’s cube and is the extent of my achievement). Maybe with a few turns and twists you can get quite close to a solved cube. Or moving beyond my analogy with some effort you can construct maybe not the perfect plan for each of these dimensions but something that makes sense and actually helps supporting the learning of the knowledge.

But whenever I take on a Rubik’s cube there is always a face – the bottom face – which is completely unsolved. Not only is it unsolved but I haven’t even considered it in my attempt to solve the top face whilst also simultaneously solving the side face.

I am sure for all of us the same is also true for planning of our teaching. There is the explicit plan which covers the knowledge. There are the side faces – where we think about it – but don’t necessarily have a written plan. Maybe we have implicitly considered these dimensions.

Then there are the dimensions we haven’t considered at all. Not explicitly or implicitly.

It’s harder to list these, and for everyone of us it will be different. Some of the below (which is by no means an exhaustive list) may be the focus of your unit – or at least something you consider – but others may be things we haven’t stopped to consider. The hidden, unplanned face, could include:

  • What students have learnt before
  • What students will do later
  • Student wellbeing
  • Politics and ethics
  • EDI
  • Black Lives Matter
  • The Sustainable Development Goals

As I said, the list is far from exhaustive – and I am sure I have many unknown unknowns. But by exposing them and starting to bring them into my planning I am able to create a rich, multi dimensional, maybe even life changing, unit on concrete!

So this summer when planning your unit can I suggest you look at the many dimensions of your unit and maybe even start by solving a different face to the question of knowledge – and plan your unit first around this different dimension5.

And I still cannot solve a Rubik’s cube – but this summer I will continue to try.

James Norman


Note 1 – You can watch all the presentations from Tales from the digital classroom here (University of Bristol access may be required)

Note 2 – For more on Authentic Learning I would highly recommend the paper by Marilyn M. Lombardi on ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ (Educase 2007) which is very accessible and practical. I have also written about it as part of my ‘office’ project here –

Note 3 – For more on Communities of Practice see Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008) – I also wrote a quite OTT blog post about this here –

Note 5 – I have included an example of my own unit plan which you can see here –

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