The Core
Written by Jim Knight.

Much has been written about the importance of planning your lessons to ensure that you focus on important content, or what Wiggins and McTighe have referred to as “enduring understanding.” Understanding by Design, the Thinking Classroom, or Curriculum Mapping are useful tools that many are using in schools. Another helpful tool is a manual I created for Content Planning, which you can download for free at the Big Four Ning.

Careful planning, or effective curriculum development, is of course a part of being prepared to teach. While any class has the potential for surprises, moments of creative innovation, discovery, or the simple joy of muddling through, an effective class also has a clear plan, perhaps laid out in guiding questions and a learning map.  Again, see the Content Planning guide for more on this.

The plan is just the notes on the page, not the music.  Without a plan, there’s no music.  But too much emphasis on the plan can get in the way of authentically responding to the teachable moment.  If we are more concerned about covering the material than we are about students learning, we may be letting our kids down.

One way to ensure that what matters most actually happens in your class is to identify the core idea for each lesson.  This is a simple idea: The core is the main thing you want to occur in your class. Not the content to be learned, but the experience, memory, or emotion you want to create for your students in a given lesson. The core may be expressed as a single word, a few words, or a sentence. Regardless of how it is stated, the core expresses your goal for each day with each group of students.

In most cases, the core captures something highly positive that you hope will happen in class. Thus, the core might capture something profound, energizing, or inspirational.  Examples of a core include:

• love of learning

• inspired to imagine a possible self

• touched by the beauty of the poem

• respect for each other, themselves, the world

• metaphor is a different way talking

• science is amazing

Often an expression of the core of a lesson begins with the statement:  “I want my students to …” For example, I want my students to …

• know that words are power

• leave today’s class believing they can draw and excited about their chance to do so

• experience the mutually humanizing power of dialogue

• know that there are many ways to solve a problem

• feel empathy for someone who is different from them

• know that I care about them

One final idea related to core: Write each core statement on an index card along with the date and hour or class for which you wrote the core idea if you wrote more than one each day. Then, from time to time, look back and review all of your statements to see what your focus has been.  Usually, this experience is remarkably affirming, but sometimes it reminds us, like watching footage of ourselves teaching, that we need to make adjustments.  Either way, focusing on the core, and reminding yourself of the core, will benefit you and your students.


  1. Helen Barrier

    The idea of adding emotion to instruction and to include it in dialogue with students has been overlooked with emphasis on only teaching the standards. We as educators are so much more capable than that; it’s why we entered the field to begin with. This is a powerful reminder to not loose ourselves in the content but to be radical when planning the “big ideas” of our course & delivering instruction. Building relationships with our students and colleagues is the most impactful thing we can do, so make a plan!

    • Jim Knight

      Hi Helen, I think your comment about relationships is right on, and you’re right emotional connection is a big part of that.

  2. Maria F.

    At long last you have expressed what so many teachers, Content Enhancement theorists and authors like McTighe and Wiggins have been attempting to communicate through pages and pages of work. You sum it up in the beautiful sentence “Not the content to be learned, but the the experience, memory, or emotion you want to create for your students…” When I read some responses from CE teachers through emails (mine included) I often think we get bogged down by so much jargon and content! The core is missing. We miss the point sometimes – become lesson writers extraordinaire without real consideration of what it is we wish to share with students. Perhaps we need to share more of those profound core moments that result from the well crafted and planned lesson. What students get left with are crafted scripts with no role to play. Or to use your analogy, a score with no instrument available to actually play music! So yes, carefully, beautifully written plans are essential. A focus on the core keeps the music at its centre. Poetry of the experience, the moment. I like your idea of writing core statements on index cards. This has been an interesting post, Jim. One that I think I will bring up in my next content enhancement presentation to teachers.

    • Jim Knight

      Hi Maria, I love your comments. I feel like you understood exactly what I was suggesting. Please keep us up to date on your progress and what happens in your content enhancement sessions.

  3. Jeffrey R.

    It is with great interest that I read this idea and think about flipping a three sided coin; one side the Unit Organizer – dedicated to content and the understanding of this units critical work, another side – the Standards and their push toward giant strides in achievement and toward the all important assessments, and the third side – The Core, as described here, trying to address the dynamics of and the importance of maintaining the pleasure of learning. As the “Radical Learner/Teacher” processes the blend of the three sides of this coin there is the overwhelming acknowledgment that choices must be made. The idea that we can do it all is somehow lost in the confluence of this great river of knowledge rushing toward that grandiose lake called life.

    The question before many of us is “How then do we as leaders in the quest for expanding the forces of knowledge, maintain our own radical learning and at the same time guide others to seek the balance of the three sided coin?” It may be The Core itself provides us the direction we seek to assure the we not only acknowledge but accentuate the strategic importance of such a profound concept.

    • Jim Knight

      HI Jeff, I’m thinking we have to do it all. I’ve always liked the buddhist notion of the Bodhisattva (also made famous by Steely Dan), some one who lives in two worlds and goes back and forth between them. I think as leaders, we need to do that too. We can be radical learners, and we can work in public schools and meet community demands too.

  4. Sue Woodruff

    Hi Jim: I love this post, and I’m going to provide it as a link to the FUSION teachers I’m working with this year. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. What is it that makes a classroom lesson seem so engaging and exciting even if we are talking about an adolescent reading class? In some rooms, with some teachers, the period flies by. It seems effortless…magical. As I talk with these teachers and reflect with them, I am finding that they have put a lot of work into thinking and planning what they want to happen. I love the idea of adding this core idea every day. It seems to me that this is another paradox of teaching, though. The more effort a teacher makes preparing, thinking, planning, and knowing his/her students, the more effortless the actual implementation of the lesson looks to a bystander or observer. I think that might be why we sometimes assume that some people are “born teachers.” It takes a lot of work to make something as complex as good teaching and learning look effortless.

    Thanks for the great post. I love your blog.

    • Jim Knight

      Thanks so much Sue. I have been thinking a lot about this idea, so I really appreciate your comments. In rush to make sure we hit all the standards, I wonder if we are missing what really matters?

  5. Jennifer Sikes

    Absolutely what I’ve been trying to put my finger on for some teachers. They know what their students should learn, but fail to plan for the experience or even envision their lessons as experiences. I’ll use some of this in my upcoming newsletter if that is okay?

    • Jim Knight

      Hi Jennifer, please feel free use this and spread the word!!


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