Unlocking Learning Lingo: Understanding Instructional Content Components


Digital pedagogy
Instructional design

Aligning your solution vocabulary with pedagogical terminology helps ensure that your materials are relevant and accessible for educators.

What makes a lesson plan a lesson plan? How is a collection of lessons different from a curriculum? When is a classroom experience project-based learning? K12 education uses quite a bit of jargon and knowing that each of these evokes unique meaning for educators is essential. Always make sure your marketing of your content matches the meaning expected by your audience. In this post, I hope to illustrate the important differences in these terms and why that matters to educators.


A curriculum is more than a collection of lessons. It’s a comprehensive mapping of content knowledge, skills, abilities, and understanding to be achieved across a recognized set of standards over a given length of time, often an 18- or 36-week period.

What educators and administrators expect from a curriculum:

  • Comprehensive daily instructional content for a specific subject area and grade level
  • Incorporates relevant supporting research
  • Scope and sequence illustrating alignment of each unit and lesson to state standards
  • Provides strategies for differentiation to support learners of all abilities
  • Training and support during initial implementation
  • Contains all corresponding units, lessons, resources, and materials, both educator-facing and student-facing often online and in print.

A big mistake that I see happen too often in the industry is advertising something as a curriculum only to see educators and administrators dismiss it because it lacks the essential components.


Units are composed of multiple lessons, connected by a common concept or topic. Units are strategically designed to introduce connected skills or knowledge for a specified length of time, typically over multiple weeks. Typically, a curriculum is composed of multiple units, and educators map out the sequence and duration of each unit on a curriculum map or calendar at the beginning of the school year. Often, educators organize their instruction by unit in a learning management system (LMS).

Educators expect a unit to:

  • Be aligned and organized within a larger curriculum
  • Span between 5-10 class periods
  • Summarize the alignment to standards of content knowledge, skills, abilities covered
  • Contain all necessary professional learning materials for the educator
  • Include pre- and post-assessments and suggestions for formative assessment
  • Have all corresponding lesson plans and materials


A lesson plan is the granularity that educators often think about their instruction. A lesson plan describes the learning objectives, academic standards being introduced or practiced, and the instructional activities that introduce a concept or develop, practice, or apply new skills. It includes the preparation and materials necessary, and links to the presentation materials, media, and sometimes vocabulary. It outlines the use of pedagogy and which assessment formats should be used at different points in time.

Educators rely on lesson plans to:

  • Be standards-aligned with specific learner outcomes
  • Take 30-50 minutes to experience (approximately the length of a class period)
  • Include preparation guide, vocabulary terms, and media for teaching the lesson
  • Contain instructions for running the included activities

Quite regularly, a common mistake I see is conflating lessons and activities. They are not the same. While learners may explore and practice concepts and skills as part of a lesson or activity, lessons are generally delivered or designed by an educator and are directly tied to specific learning standards or outcomes.


Activities, on their own, are the smallest part of a larger learning experience. Activities can be a time to reflect or independently explore an interest, or an opportunity to practice a past or present skill. Generally speaking, activities are learner-driven as the individual explores or applies an idea, skill, or concept. Completing an assignment, reading a book, participating in a group discussion, or building an artifact are all examples of activities.

What an educator expects from an activity:

  • Step-by-step student instructions
  • 15-30 minutes long
  • Supporting handouts, resources, or files

Bee Unit Example

When discussing instructional content components, it’s helpful to see how each relates to the others. For this example, I found The Bee Cause Project: 6 Week Bee Unit on the Open Educational Resources Commons. Existing within a third grade curriculum, this six-week unit is one of several that the teacher would use throughout the school year. The interdisciplinary unit is aligned to English language arts and science standards. Additionally, it includes an optional annotated reading list resource for students to explore relevant concepts in greater depth.

In total, the Bee Cause Unit has 13 daily lesson plans. Each of the lesson plans lists the specific standards and learner outcomes, instructions for the educator, and any supplemental links or resources, and assessment options. In addition to the 13 full lesson plans, there are 17 independent activities that are sequential within the unit, but not a part of a full lesson plan.

Making effective instructional content

When it comes time to consider developing, refreshing, or expanding your instructional content, give us a call. All of the Learning Experience Designers like me are former classroom educators and have spent countless hours developing activities, lessons, and units for our own classrooms, and now, for our clients. Our approach combines proven best practices based on both research and experience. Let us demonstrate how we can enhance and improve real-world instructional experiences for your learners. Contact us today to learn more.