Using AI to Plan High-Quality Units of Instruction

After many years of both guiding and observing educators, I have concluded that good teaching is more likely to occur when teachers plan units that are well organized into sequences of high-quality lessons. The best units of study often have a variety of different lesson types, purposes, and goals. For example, some lessons initiate a unit and set the stage for new learning—they build curiosity, diagnose prior learning, and create interest in the topic. Other lessons help students develop a knowledge base and an understanding of key ideas while also enabling them to practice and improve critical skills. Learning exercises give students a chance to work independently and interdependently in order to apply and extend what they have learned. And conclusions give students the time and feedback they need to successfully complete and share their work, which allows teachers to assess results. 

Along the way, unit activities are designed to engage students, make learning relevant and interesting, foster curiosity, use formative assessments, and increase the chances for every student to be successful and achieve at high levels. 

The Four-Phase Unit of Study

The organization of unit lessons and activities into the four types (phases) described above greatly improves the odds of successful teaching and learning. Figure one, below, provides a more detailed description and outline of these four phases and the types of activities that might be included in each one:


Phase 1: Set the Stage (Initiate Learning Experiences)

  • Create student interest and curiosity in new learning.
  • Explore the meaningful goals, questions, and challenges that make up the new learning.
  • Provide an understanding of the context surrounding new learning.
  • Examine major tasks and activities that will be undertaken along with expected outcomes and assessments.
  • Activate prior knowledge and skills to build on already-developed learning.

Phase 2: Build the Foundation (Learn Content and Practice Skills)

  • Continue to build, sustain, and maintain curiosity and interest in learning.
  • Actively research, read, evaluate, and process information and ideas from multiple sources, including a textbook.
  • Learn how to take notes and develop connections and relationships through sequencing and concept formation.
  • Demonstrate knowledge and understanding by having students summarize new learning and explain key ideas in their own words.
  • Analyze and interpret information and data.
  • Create persuasive arguments.
  • Write, reflect, and discuss in order to develop coherent thoughts, share ideas, and build listening and speaking skills.
  • Practice complex and creative problem solving.
  • Work alone, in pairs, and in small groups to build and grow foundational knowledge and skills.

Phase 3: Apply and Deepen Learning (Work Independently and Interdependently)

  • Independently apply already-developed skills in order to explain ideas and show reasoning, conduct research, build and test concepts and theories, create interpretations, conduct analyses, think creatively, and solve authentic problems.
  • Learn independently or interdependently, often with limited support or guidance from a teacher.
  • Deepen understanding of key concepts and ideas that they have learned.
  • Choose an interest and develop and deepen learning in an area of interest over time.

Phase 4: Closure (Complete, Share, and Assess Learning)

  • Complete a product or products.
  • Demonstrate and explain what they have learned, make presentations, share their work with others.
  • Continue learning, digging deeper into the topic and questions by learning from others and developing greater understanding and better use of skills.


Planning Instruction Using the Four Phases

For many teachers, planning high-quality units of instruction using a detailed system like the four-phase unit model is often a laborious, difficult, time-consuming task. During my own teaching career, I remember how hard and long I labored to create good units and their lessons built around key goals, interesting activities, and key resources. But, fortunately, today it has become much easier to organize and plan high-quality units due to new technology tools available. Chat GPT, Bard and other artificial intelligence (AI) tools have radically altered the way we can plan high-quality units and their lessons. 

How can we use AI to facilitate the development of units/lessons built around these four phases?

Here is a sample set of AI directions for this purpose: 

You are a friendly instructional coach helping [grade level, content area] teachers plan a unit of study on the topic of [_____.] Use a four-phase framework to plan a unit of study that sets the stage for learning, builds understanding and practices critical skills, applies and deepens previous learning, and shares and assesses results. More specifically: 

First, plan a set of activities that set the stage for new learning. These activities should:
Develop curiosity and interest in the topic under study
Introduce the key ideas to be taught in the unit
Enable a teacher to diagnose prior relevant learning, introduce essential questions about the topic to be studied
Share the learning and work outcomes of the unit
Introduce how students will be assessed

Second, plan a set of activities that:
Builds understanding and key content learning
Practices key skills such as how to build understanding, conduct research, communicate effectively, think clearly, and collaborate with others

Third, plan a set of activities that applies and deepens learning and that:
Helps students improve and complete their work
Promotes independent learning
Fosters interdependent learning

Finally, plan a set of activities in which students:
Share the results of their work
Are assessed to determine their learning and the success of their work


Sample Activities from One Unit of Study Created by Chat GPT

I have tried developing units of study using this prompt with a variety of topics, subject areas, and grade levels, and have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the resulting unit frameworks. Here are some of the sample activities developed by Chat GPT for a middle school social studies unit on the American Revolution:


Stage 1: Set the Stage for New Learning

KWL Chart: Begin by having students complete a KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I Learned) chart about the American Revolution. This will help the teacher diagnose prior knowledge and generate questions for further exploration.

Essential Questions: Introduce essential questions that foster curiosity, such as “What were the main causes of the American Revolution?” and “How did the American Revolution impact the world?” Encourage students to brainstorm answers in small groups.

Stage 2: Building Understanding and Key Learnings

Interactive Timeline: Create an interactive class timeline of key events leading to the American Revolution. Each student can research and contribute one event, promoting research and collaboration.

Primary Source Analysis: Have students analyze primary sources, such as letters, diaries, or images from the era. This helps them think critically and gain a deeper understanding of the time period.

Stage 3: Completing Work and Promoting Independent Learning

Project-Based Learning: Encourage students to work on a culminating project, such as creating a multimedia presentation, writing a historical fiction story, or making a documentary about the American Revolution. This promotes independent learning and creativity.

Interactive Online Resources: Provide students with access to online resources and databases, allowing them to explore the topic further on their own. Encourage them to take initiative in their research.

Stage 4: Sharing Results and Assessment

Project Presentations: Have students present their projects to the class, sharing their findings, analysis, and insights. This allows them to share their learning and improve their presentation skills.

Peer Evaluation: Encourage peer evaluations of projects and presentations, where students assess each other’s work based on criteria established in the rubric. This promotes accountability and collaboration.

Constructive feedback is another critical aspect of student growth. 

Obviously, this unit still needs a lot of work to prepare for actual teaching. But Chat GPT does provide a very useful initial framework for a quality unit, and many resources for and elaborations on the suggested activities can be found using search engines and other resources, such as the teacher’s guide for a US History textbook, to fill in the blanks.


Try This Yourself

You don’t have to take my word for any of this; you can try it yourself. Use the sample AI set of general directions for developing a sample unit cited above, or modify the directions to make them your own, in order to develop a unit framework. See if planning a unit with AI’s help provides you with a framework that helps you to better organize units of study, creates a unit with more meaningful activities, and improves student outcomes.

If you would like more in-depth information about this four-phase model of unit teaching and learning and related activities, read my book Teaching for Lifelong Learning: How to Prepare Students for a Changing World (Solution Tree Press, 2021). If you have comments or suggestions about this process or get good results, please share your comments and/or results with others or share them with me directly through my website,

Some Final Thoughts

AI is a new, powerful, and helpful tool that can be used to improve the quality of units and lesson activities, increase the success of students, improve student understanding and skill development, and better prepare students for a lifetime of learning.


Elliott Seif is the author of Teaching for Lifelong Learning: How to Prepare Students for a Changing World.

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