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Lesson Planning with Purpose: Five Approaches to Curriculum Design

reviewed by Cherice Montgomery - April 01, 2021

coverTitle: Lesson Planning with Purpose: Five Approaches to Curriculum Design
Author(s): Christy McConnell, Bradley Conrad, & P. Bruce Uhrmacher
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807763993, Pages: 208, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

Teaching in the 21st century is a complex, unpredictable task (Kereluik et al., 2013; McDonald, 1992). Rapidly shifting political, economic, and cultural pressures force teachers to continuously adapt while simultaneously responding to students’ changing individual needs (Parsons et al., 2018). This requires thousands of decisions per day, with teachers selecting from more than 205 trillion instructional combinations to meet diverse learners’ needs (Jackson, 1990; Koedinger et al., 2013). No wonder decision-fatigued educators anxiously seek research-based “best practices” and “effective teaching” techniques to simplify their work!  

In Lesson Planning with Purpose: Five Approaches to Curriculum Design, McConnell, Conrad, and Uhrmacher encourage teachers to embrace this instructional complexity by expanding their curricular repertoire rather than narrowing it to a single effective approach (p. 13). The authors assert that because “teaching is never a neutral act,” lesson plans have tangible political, social, and emotional consequences (p. 8). Thus, selecting curricular approaches to achieve a lesson’s instructional aims requires adequate information and entails professional perception and artistic sensitivity.  

The book contains eight chapters and five appendices. The first two chapters contextualize the book with a rationale for purposeful, perceptive teaching (p. 6). The remaining chapters introduce a palette of five different approaches for artfully designing meaningful learning experiences “from the inside out” (p. 4). Throughout the book, teachers are challenged to experiment with these research-based approaches to lesson planning: (1) behaviorist, (2) constructivist, (3) aesthetic, (4) ecological, and (5) integrated social-emotional. A summary chapter reprises the book’s central tenets and reframes teaching’s uncomfortable uncertainties as rich and exciting opportunities for learning that also expand curricular creativity, “pedagogical autonomy,” and professional identity (p. xii). Brief chapter summaries appear below, followed by an overall evaluation of the book.

Chapter 1 affirms the complexity of teaching, noting that it involves a continuous negotiation of meaning between teachers, students, and content. As a result, lesson plans are likely to have very different effects depending on where, and with whom, they are implemented. The authors emphasize that because teaching occurs in such varied instructional contexts, no single approach to lesson planning can consistently meet the diverse learners’ needs. Instead, planning approaches must be flexible, amenable to improvisation, and intentionally selected based on students’ needs. Accordingly, readers are encouraged to notice gaps between the intended, enacted, and learned curriculum, and to critically consider how their teaching methods influence their lessons’ meaning and impact on students.   

In the following chapter, the authors contest the prevailing paradigms of “best practices” and “effective teaching,” insisting that such practices disregard diverse learners’ unique, individual needs and erroneously reduce teaching to a mechanical endeavor (p. 13). They propose “perceptive teaching” as a more powerful alternative. Perceptive teachers approach their work from a place of self-awareness, personal authenticity, humility, and vulnerability (p. 13). This relational stance enables teachers to validate learners’ diverse personal experiences in culturally responsive ways that provide multiple pathways to learning. The resulting democratic classroom culture affords learners more equitable access to personal growth.

In Chapter 3, a behaviorist approach to lesson planning defines learning as an observable behavioral change in response to an environmental stimulus. Learning objectives based on this philosophy, known as ABCD objectives, typically contain four components: audience, behavior, conditions, and degree. The resultant lesson plans tend to follow an instructional sequence that includes an anticipatory set, direct instruction, modeling, checking for understanding, guided practice, and independent practice (Hunter, 1983). The authors note that this approach’s sequential, step-by-step nature works well for teaching discrete skills that require repetitive practice. However, they caution that the model’s narrow focus may preclude “serendipitous” learning.


In Chapter 4, by contrast, constructivists view learning as a creative process from which meaning emerges as learners interact with their environment. Learners combine their pre-existing knowledge and experiences with new information to construct understanding, and then organize and store their learning in mental filing cabinets known as “schemas” (p. 38). Lesson plans based on this approach use shared experiences and multimodal instructional strategies to contextualize content. Students are given the freedom to explore personal interests as they grapple with and represent content in multiple ways. The authors note that although this approach’s exploratory nature engages students, it is often criticized as being inefficient, time-consuming, and lacking adequate breadth.

In Chapter 5, the authors contrast an anaesthetic’s numbing effects with an aesthetic approach to planning’s invigorating effects (p. 49). The aesthetic approach views learning as an act of sensory perception that energizes students, elicits new insights, and culminates in creative self-expression.  Accordingly, aesthetically oriented teachers use multisensory input to create emotionally meaningful moments that foster personal connections and engagement with academic content. In learning communities that support risk-taking and imagination, these moments evoke personal attachment and lateral, conceptual associations that are stored as episodic memories.

Chapter 6 posits that learning is motivated by personal relevance and caring interrelationships.  Therefore, the ecological approach to lesson planning prioritizes experiential learning with a strong focus on dissolving barriers between academic content and students’ lives outside of school. Experience-based objectives are often collaboratively developed by teachers and students, and aim to explore authentic problems and take social action. Other important goals of the approach include increasing personal self-knowledge, facilitating social transformation, and improving global sustainability.

Chapter 7 asserts that “all learning is inherently social and emotional, whether we attend to those qualities of the learning experience or not” (p. 95). Among the chapter’s strengths are its strong, research-based rationale for incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools and its four-step model for integrating SEL competencies into lessons with rigorous academic content. The chapter also identifies seven criteria for selecting compatible pedagogical practices to support the approach.

Chapter 8 addresses how to blend approaches based on contextual factors, how to integrate individual lessons into a unit plan, and how to use the templates provided in the appendices as guides for thinking through the planning process. The book concludes by summarizing its aims and restating justifications for purposeful planning and perceptive teaching.

Despite its compact size, the book is incredibly comprehensive, and its depth and breadth make it well worth the price ($29.95 as of this writing). The book is extremely well-structured and embodies the purposeful planning the authors advocate. Each chapter’s Learning Aims section makes extremely valuable contributions by explaining how the educational theories that underlie each curricular approach influence the types of instruction each theory can effectively accomplish. The Critiques and Considerations section, which identifies typical arguments against each pedagogical approach, is also notable. This unusual strategy adds to the book’s balance and objectivity while supporting instructional decision-making skill development. The book also devotes equal time, attention, and status to each pedagogical approach it addresses without implying that one is better, or more progressive, than another—a noteworthy strength. Moreover, unlike other books in this genre, this book underscores that both theory and practice mutually inform pedagogical decision-making in interdependent ways.  

The authors’ academic expertise is also evident in the book’s strong theoretical underpinnings, which cross numerous disciplinary boundaries. The writers’ K–16 experience also enables them to speak with clarity and authority about varied subject areas and contexts throughout the book (including urban, alternative, and special education settings). Two minor adjustments would further strengthen this phenomenal resource. The first is deepening the discussion of place-based learning in Chapter 6 as a tool for validating and legitimizing alternative ways of knowing in schools, especially among students of Indigenous backgrounds (Deloria & Wildcat, 2001; Pugh et al., 2019; Thomas & Knowles, 2010).  Secondly, defining social-emotional learning more explicitly and referencing the strong overlaps between SEL and 21st century skills more purposefully would make Chapter 7 even more effective. These minor issues do not overshadow the clear and accessible explanations of the various planning processes (especially in Chapters 2, 3, and 7). Although new teachers may find navigating so many diverse curricular approaches overwhelming at times, the detailed templates and sample lesson plans in each chapter support them in successfully translating the book’s research-based frameworks into practice across different grade levels and subject areas.

The book’s technical features are particularly outstanding and add to its utility. For instance, the Approach at a Glance charts visually and succinctly summarize each approach. Other figures (e.g., pp. 3, 15, 65, 98, 105, and 109) are such fantastic planning resources that hopefully subsequent editions will include a separate listing of them. The authors have also invested tremendous effort in providing a separate and comprehensive appendix for each pedagogical approach. Even the reference list is well worth mining as a stand-alone resource—particularly on the topic of social and emotional learning.

Lesson Planning with Purpose: Five Approaches to Curriculum Design reminds readers that curriculum is only as useful as the actual effect it has on students. The work makes a strong case for the idea that when teaching is contextualized, connected, and culturally responsive, “every day has the potential to be transformative” (p. xv). The book’s solid theoretical underpinnings make it ideal for educators who employ an eclectic approach to teaching yet find themselves lacking a unified theory to justify their choices. Its unique, think-aloud approach also offers abundant practical guidance in lesson planning for classroom practitioners. Experienced teachers and methods professors will find the book invaluable, and its impact will ripple through the perspectives, practices, and lesson plans of all those who read it.


Deloria, V., Deloria Jr, V., & Wildcat, D. (2001). Power and place: Indian education in America. Fulcrum Publishing.


Hunter, M. (1983).  Mastery teaching. TIP Publications.


Jackson, P. W. (1990). Life in classrooms. Teachers College Press.


Kereluik, K., Mishra, P., Fahnoe, C., & Terry, L. (2013). What knowledge is of most worth: Teacher knowledge for 21st century learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 29(4), 127–140.


Koedinger, K. R., Booth, J. L., & Klahr, D. (2013). Instructional complexity and the science to constrain it. Science, 342(6161), 935–937. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1238056

McConnell, C., Conrad, B., & Uhrmacher, P. B. (2020).  Lesson planning with purpose: Five approaches to curriculum design. Teachers College Press.


McDonald, J. P. (1992). Uncertainty in teaching. In Teaching: Making sense of an uncertain craft (pp. 1–19). Teachers College Press.


Parsons, S. A., Vaughn, M., Scales, R. Q., Gallagher, M. A., Parsons, A. W., Davis, S. G., Pierczynski, M., & Allen, M. (2018). Teachers’ instructional adaptations: A research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 88(2), 205–242. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654317743198

Pugh, P., McGinty, M., & Bang, M. (2019). Relational epistemologies in land-based learning environments: Reasoning about ecological systems and spatial indexing in motion. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 14(2), 425–448. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-019-09922-1

Thomas, S., & Knowles, J. G. (2010). Through the camera lens: Students focused on place in schools.  In

Huber-Warring, T. (Ed.). Storied inquiries in international landscapes: An anthology of educational research (pp. 17–25). IAP.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 01, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23654, Date Accessed: 4/22/2021 12:21:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Cherice Montgomery
    Brigham Young University
    E-mail Author
    CHERICE MONTGOMERY, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Spanish pedagogy at Brigham Young University, where she currently coordinates the Spanish Teaching Major Program. Her research explores the potential of design-based pedagogies, 21st century skills, and immersive learning environments for affecting change in world language education. Her recent publications address curricular design, student engagement, and language development in contexts such as project based language learning (PBLL), foreign language student residences (FLSR), and online Playable Case Study simulations (PCS).
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