The Power of Intellectual Prep

August 23, 2022

A great lesson plan is a great place to start. But to be ready for all of the real-time decisions you are going to make in the course of a lesson, we swear by the process of intellectual preparation.


What is Intellectual Preparation?

Graphic showing how Knowledge of the Content Plus Knowledge of Students come together so teachers can ensure all student can access the content

Intellectual preparation starts with internalizing the content of a unit. When you internalize your content, you take the time to deeply understand what it is you will be teaching and make decisions about how your students will interact with the material. In Teacher Tools, we lay out the steps for internalizing an ELA unit or a math unit.

For an ELA teacher, this involves reading the texts within the unit, identifying what makes the text complex, and considering how knowledge is built over the course of the unit. In math, this involves considering the content and strategies at the heart of the unit, the essential understandings, and how they connect to the skills and concepts students will build.

Once you’ve surveyed the arc of the unit, you can dig into internalizing the lessons within the unit. Again, Teachers Tools offers a process for an ELA lesson and a math lesson.

Throughout these processes, you may already be thinking about how your students will interact with the unit content. You may begin to consider what kind of adaptations or additions you might make to ensure that all of your students are able to access the content.

This focus on your students’ needs is the critical component of intellectual preparation. Ultimately you are working to create a clear vision of where you want students to get by the end of the unit, and how each lesson will bring them closer to that goal. Additionally, you want to think about how you will build background knowledge, make connections to individual students’ lived experiences, and identify opportunities to layer in content for your students.


Why Should I Intellectually Prepare a Unit or a Lesson?

Now that you know what it is, you might be wondering why you should be intellectually preparing your units and lessons. 

Amidst all of the other items on your teacher to-do list, intellectual preparation might sound like something you simply can’t afford to schedule in. But we hope that by working with the Fishtank unit and lesson plans, you have freed up the time you usually spend designing or searching out instructional materials.

Rather than simply deploying these lessons as-is, your deeper engagement with the unit and lesson content can help ensure the lessons truly meet the needs of your students—accounting for their strengths, natural curiosities, and areas for growth.

Intellectual preparation enables you to develop a clear understanding of where your students are going before they get started. With this end goal in mind, you can see how each individual lesson draws students closer to that ultimate goal and you can make adjustments based on your students’ unique needs. With an understanding of how skills will be built, you can create a plan for how you will monitor student progress over the course of the unit.

Intellectual preparation helps you make important decisions about pacing and adapting at the unit level. For example, you may realize that all students do not have the background knowledge or foundational skills necessary to dive into a certain topic on the first day of the unit. This isn’t a problem if you have internalized the unit! You will already know what is covered within the unit and where you have time to add review or additional knowledge-building content.

Intellectual preparation at the lesson level can help you make decisions about lesson structures, strategies for engagement, and ways you’ll harness students’ ideas and contributions within the lesson. With a deep knowledge of the lesson content, you can be ready for anything that arises during a lesson and make real-time decisions that serve your students well.


Make Intellectual Preparation Work for You with Unit Launches 

While our Teacher Tools provide guidance on the general process for internalization, we wanted to create an easier way for you to meaningfully engage with content before teaching it. 

Our Unit Launches (available to Fishtank Plus users), not only guide you through the process, but push you further to assess how you, your students, and the content will interact throughout the unit. This sets you up to engage all students in material reflecting their experiences and needs. Ultimately, the Unit Launches help you get students from where they are now to proficiency in unit concepts by the end.

Within each ELA Unit Launch, you can access guided reflection questions that prompt you to consider what makes the text complex, what supports students may need, and how students will see themselves reflected. There are also opportunities to plan additional activities or layer in additional texts to build background knowledge and ensure that students can make meaningful connections to the unit. Finally, you are guided through internalizing the Essential Questions that ground the unit goals, examining the key reading and writing standards, and unpacking the unit assessments to ensure student adeptness.

“To think from the beginning, about not only what makes the text complex, but to also think about your position as a teacher in that. It is really helpful to have the reflection questions built into that to really think about yourself, your students, and your content and how those three things are going to engage throughout the unit.”

-Carinne Gale, 7th Grade ELA teacher at Beginning With Children Charter School

Within each Math Unit Launch, you can access guidance on understanding the unit standards and how they build upon previous learning and set the foundation for future learning. You are prompted to examine the language of key standards and make connections to aligned assessment problems. This builds your understanding of what the content looks like in practice and why skills are taught in that particular way. Finally, you are guided through a deep dive into the unit’s Big Ideas and are prompted to create a plan for supporting all students in reaching those goals throughout each individual lesson.

“Since using Fishtank as a curriculum, I have more confidence because I now understand HOW the math I teach works. I no longer teach tricks, but instead focus on the concepts and WHY math makes sense”

-5th Grade Math teacher in Arlington, Washington


Ready to get started with Unit Launches? Upgrade to Fishtank Plus today and see how intellectual preparation can impact your instruction.


Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.


Related Blog Posts

Drive Student Success by Building Your Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Discover how Fishtank can help you build your pedagogical content knowledge and its importance for driving student success. 

Balancing Teacher Autonomy and Support

Learn how to take advantage of Fishtank's adaptable curriculum through strong instructional support and opportunities for individual choice. 

Request a Demo

See all of the features of Fishtank in action and begin the conversation about adoption.

Learn more about Fishtank Learning School Adoption.

Contact Information

School Information

What courses are you interested in?



Are you interested in onboarding professional learning for your teachers and instructional leaders?



Any other information you would like to provide about your school?

Stay Up to Date

Stay Up to Date

Register for a free Fishtank account and stay up to date with the latest resources and guidance to be your most effective in the classroom.