Unit & Lesson Design

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

The scale of the unit allows educators to ask essential questions across learning activities 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.

In our design of lessons and units, we aim to integrate a range of best practices in pedagogy.

Image source: adapted from Cope & Kalantzis (2020), https://newlearningonline.com/learning-by-design/pedagogy

Many different knowledge processes are involved in learning.

Specific teaching and learning methods can be woven into the design of a lesson and unit to build on and support these knowledge processes.

more information on the eight knowledge processes and the Learning by Design approach:

“Pedagogy is a range of different ‘things you do to know’, a repertoire of learning activity types, including activity types that have their genesis variously in didactic and authentic pedagogy. (...) [W]hen connected into a more balanced pedagogy, the constituent components are extended and deepened. We also want to move to a place beyond the pedagogy wars, with their often not- so-thinly veiled accusations. Our suggestion to teachers whose practices by and large fall into one tradition or the other, is to extend your repertoire— which many excellent teachers, in any event, instinctively do anyway.”

Cope & Kalantzis (2015), p. 14


  • the known – learners reflect on their own familiar experiences, interests and perspectives.

  • the new – learners observe or take part in something that is unfamiliar; they are immersed in new situations or contents.

Because human behavior is at the center of all of our lives and everyday experience, many opportunities exist to let students bring this everyday understanding into the classroom when exploring a particular set of behaviors. For example, through reflection and discussion questions:

  • Think of a situation when you felt treated unfairly. How did it make you feel? How did you behave?

  • Do you think all humans care about fairness? Why, or why not?

  • Might humans have different views about what is fair in a particular situation? Why, or why not?

Through the methods and insights of behavioral science, many opportunities also exist that allow students to experience new aspects of human behavior in the classroom. Content anchors such as classroom games, computer simulations, behavioral experiments and observations across species, development or cultures, archeological findings, and even exploring what their mind does in the moment.

Texts, images, videos, or social media content can also serve to expose students to particular aspects of what humans do.

Community science investigations can also help students observe and explore the behaviors of people in their communities, including their needs, interests, values, and goals.


  • by naming – learners acquire new concepts and/or extend, deepen, and enrich their prior understanding of known concepts, by exploring examples and attributes and constructing definitions.

  • by theory – learners make generalisations by connecting concepts in relationships

Even though human behavior is at the center of all of our lives and everyday experience, we might not have a very well developed and deep understanding about what human behavior actually is (and what it is not), how it is caused, why it varies among humans, or how we can change it towards what we actually care about. In order to reflect on human behavior, students need to gain an understanding of core concepts, such as:

  • What is human behavior? What are some examples, and non-examples, of human behavior? What characterizes human behavior?

  • What is sustainability?

  • What is evolution? What is cultural evolution?

  • What is well-being?

  • What is fairness?

  • What are human values?

Furthermore, students need to gain an understanding about how concepts relate to each other, such as:

  • How does human behavior impact sustainable development?

    • How does our human sense of fairness impact sustainable development?

  • How do our behaviors impact the cultural evolution of our species?

  • What conditions allow and hinder humans to cooperate towards common goals?

  • How does our evolutionary past impact our behaviors today?

  • How does our experience and learning impact our behaviors today?

Concept-based curriculum (Erickson et al., 2017) and teaching for conceptual understanding (Stern et al., 2017) are approaches to designing curricula, units, lessons and assessments that help achieve deeper and transferable understanding of concepts and general principles of a theme in students, where specific subject content and facts serve as a means to achieve such deeper understanding, rather than an end in itself.

Concept-based unit design and Teaching for conceptual understanding provide us with well founded and popular frameworks for doing this conceptual clarification for education. 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.

The Learning Transfer Mental Model from Education to save the world, which highlights how we can guide students to acquire, connect, and transfer their growing understandings of concepts and conceptual relationships.


  • functionally – learners analyse logical connections, cause and effect, structure and function.

  • critically – learners evaluate their own and other people’s perspectives, interests and motives.

The ability of students to analyze and reflect on the causes and consequences of human behavior, the functions that particular behaviors have for humans in relation to their goals and values and in the context of their particular environment, is one of the core learning aims of Global ESD.

Analyzing causes and consequences of human behavior is also a core aim of the behavioral sciences. Our collection of teaching tools reflect some of the tools and methods that scientists use for this analysis and that students can equally use when analyzing human behaviors across contexts.

  • Tinbergen’s questions: a set of four broad questions that can help to map out the space of different causes that we need to explore in order to understand why humans behave the way they do in a particular situation

  • Causal mapping: a simple tool to let students collect, visualize, discuss, analyze, and reflect the different causal relationships and complex interactions between human behaviors and the environment

  • Payoff matrix: a simple tool to let students reflect on the beliefs, feelings, and goals underlying human motivations to behave in a certain way in a certain situation, and the emergent short-term and long-term outcomes their behaviors might create for themselves and others

Reflection prompts during and at the end of lessons encourage learners to make connections between the aspects of human behavior that have been explored, and the real world, including their own and other people's goals and values.


  • appropriately – learners apply new learning to real world situations and test their validity.

  • creatively – learners make an intervention in the world which is innovative and creative, or transfer their learning to a different context

Students’ ability to apply new learning appropriately to new contexts is one of the core aims of education in general, and is represented by one of our overarching design principles - Teach for Transfer.

We want students to be able to apply the conceptual understandings that they develop around the nature of human behavior to situations in their everyday life, and to real-world problems of sustainable development.

Teaching tools like analogy maps can help students in reflecting on the transfer of general principles and processes across a wide range of contexts and domains.

Finally, we want students to use their understanding of human behavior to identify and develop interventions and solutions to real-world problems.

For example:

  • Students create a poster or presentation highlighting the relationship between social inequality and human well-being, based on their understanding of human behavior

  • Students discuss and create a campaign at their school to prevent people from joining extremist groups after exploring the stories about people joining and then leaving extremist movements

  • Students create and document a process in their next project group work that assures that all members of the group feel treated fairly and that everyone’s strengths, interests, needs and constraints are taken into account, after they explore the origins and variations in our human sense of fairness.

  • Students design and carry out a Community Science project to find out what goals and values the people at their school have, what the meaning and purpose of school is for them and how they imagine their ideal school after they have learned how important shared goals and values are for successful cooperation and for the well-being of everyone in a community.

Through the interplay of all these knowledge and learning processes, learners increasingly acquire a deeper, networked and applicable understanding of human behavior, as well as skills and methods to understand, reflect and shape human behavior - especially their own. In this way, learners ultimately experience a transformation of their own consciousness as a human and their relatinoship to the world around them.

"[T]ransformative learning involves a deep structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and permanently alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-location: our relationships with other humans and with the natural world."

Morrell & O’Connor (2002), p. xvii

"We would argue that there is a major difference between behavioral science (...) and every other area of scientific progress. (...) Most people who make daily use of the technologies that have so changed the world in the past century, need not understand the science that led to and underpins the efficacy of their computers, cell phones, televisions, automobiles, air conditioners, and so on. (...)

The situation is a little different when it comes to the behavioral sciences (...). [T]ranslating the advances in scientific understanding of human development into comparable improvements in human well‐being requires that we get most people in society to understand – at least in rough outline – what humans need to thrive.”

Biglan et al. (2015), p. 537, 538

"Imagine if we could teach young people to become mindful of the ways that symbols can dominate our interpretations of experience and can become unhelpful. They might then learn to use symbols like tools, and “put them down” when no longer useful. They might become less caught up in self-criticism, materialism and prejudice. Could they pass these lessons on to their children? Or imagine if all young people learned to judge their behavior in terms of how it served their values, and especially how it helped them build connection and love. Or imagine young people who understood that they are not fixed, and the future is not fixed, and they can improve themselves and this world. What might they teach their children?”

Ciarrochi & Hayes (2018), p. 121

Lesson design

Teaching Human Behavior - A Guide to Lesson Material Development and Evaluation.pdf

The document on the left gives an overview about our approach to lesson and unit design.

Under Classroom materials, you find introductory information and exemplary lesson materials by themes.

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

If you are interested to take part in the development or evaluation of lesson materials - please contact us!

References and resources on pedagogy

The Research Underpinnings of Learning That Transfers (LTT)Learning by Design

Teaching for conceptual understanding and transfer of learning:

Concept-based curriculum and instruction:

  • Erickson, H. L., Lanning, L. A., & French, R. (2017). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2nd ed.). Corwin.

Biglan, A., Zettle, R. D., Hayes, S. C., & Holmes, D. B. (2016). The Future of the Human Sciences and Society. In R. D. Zettle, S. C. Hayes, D. Barnes‐Holmes, & A. Biglan (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Contextual Behavioral Science (pp. 531–540). Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118489857.ch26

Ciarrochi, J. & Hayes, L. (2018). Shaping DNA (Discoverer, Noticer, and Advisor): A Contextual Behavioral Science Approach to Youth Intervention. In: Wilson, D.S. & Hayes, S.C. Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science (pp. 107-124). Context Press.

Morrell, A., & O’Connor, M. (2002). Introduction. In O’Sullivan, E., Morrell, A., & O’Connor, M. (2002). Expanding the Boundaries of Transformative Learning Essays on Theory and Praxis. (E. O’Sullivan, A. Morrell, & M. O’Connor, Eds.). New York: Palgrave.