Unit & Lesson Design

With the focus provided by our design principles, content anchors, and teaching tools, we develop teaching materials and units around concepts, overarching understandings, essential questions about the nature of human behavior, evolution and sustainability, as well skills that we aim to cultivate in students and teachers.

We use the frameworks and tools provided by the Concept-based teaching approach (Erickson, Lanning, & French, 2017; Stern, Ferraro, & Mohnkern, 2017), a well founded and popular framework for designing lessons and units to achieve deeper understanding beyond mere coverage of topics and facts.

The scale of the unit allows educators to ask essential questions across learning actitivies and content, thus fostering networked learning in students. Furthermore, unit design can take advantage of the freedom and flexibility that is often afforded by grade-level curriculum standards in order to sequence content within one school year in a manner that best sparks student interest and achieves understanding.

Especially the evolution, behavior and sustainability sciences are characterized by richness and overlaps in concepts, principles and applied methods and skills. Transfer of overarching principles is what characterizes these fields, enables their inter- and transdisciplinary work and discourse, and enables these fields to explore and address complex problems of human behavior and society. This richness in concepts and principles provides opportunities for achieving the competency aims within Education for Sustainable Development, and related interdisciplinary teaching aims.

Currently, we are focusing on guidance and supports for:

  • Secondary-level biology units on human evolution
  • Secondary-level interdisciplinary units on sustainability science

We aim to support educators using many different approaches and perspectives in education, however, we have found the concept-based teaching approach particularly helpful for clarifying and connecting the interdiscplinary content of Global ESD.

Learn more about the basics of conceptual understanding from expert educator Julie Stern in the videos below. In these videos, Julie describes teaching for conceptual understanding of relationships between human actions and the environment. The Global ESD concept extends this foundation by focusing on understanding the complex causes and consequences of human behavior itself.

Overarching understandings, essential questions and skills


Students will understand that . . .

U1. Our everyday behaviors and experiences have many causes, some of which go all the way back to their evolutionary origins.

U2. Humans have been shaped by natural selection and cultural evolution to have an elaborated capacity to cooperate beyond kin.

U3. Our everyday behaviors can have many consequences, some of which may be intended or unintended, and some of which may expand into scales of distant time or space in the future.

U4. The evolution of human behavior is relevant to the sustainability dilemmas of today.

Addressed misconceptions

M1. Phenomena in biology and society are predominantly caused by the intentions of single agents.

M2. Evolutionary theory implies that selfish behavior is always adaptive.

M3. Today’s sustainability problems tell us that humans are intrinsically worse than other species at sharing resources and using them sustainably.

Essential Questions

Q1. What are the causes and consequences of an observed behavior?

Q2. What are important conditions for humans to cooperate towards common goals?

Q3. What is the relationship between human behavior and human evolution?

Q4. What is the relationship between human behavior and sustainability?

Q5. What is the relationship between human evolution, behavior, and sustainability?


S1. Students will be able to use Tinbergen’s questions as a tool to explore complex causality in human behavioral ecology.

S2. Students will be able to construct causal maps to represent causal relationships between conditions, behaviors and other factors in the development of populations and social-ecological systems.

S3. Students will be able to represent the possible motivations and outcomes (costs and benefits) of people’s behaviors, and, with the help of payoff matrices or other tools, identify the scale of social interactions and possible social dilemmas in a population.

S4. Students will be able to compare generalized principles across content (e.g. models, experiments, species, real world sustainability issues) with the help of analogy maps.

Lesson design

Under Classroom materials, you find introductory information and exemplary lesson materials by themes. These lesson materials were designed within our design concept, including the use of teaching tools to cultivate skills, and asking of essential questions to achieve deeper understandings.

If you are interested to use our materials in your classroom, we would be happy to hear from you about your aims or experiences!

References and resources

  • Erickson, H. L., Lanning, L. A., & French, R. (2017). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2nd ed.). Corwin.
  • Stern, J., Ferraro, K., & Mohnkern, J. (2017). Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary. Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning. Corwin.
  • Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
  • Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2004). The Understanding by Design Professional Development Workbook. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/103056.aspx

Concept-based teaching:

Understanding by Design (UbD):