Oct 31 2006

How To Create Slam Dunk Digital Lessons (SDLs)

Here's how to create Slam Dunk Digital Lessons that make learning activities more valuable.

Nothing But Net
Here's how to create Slam Dunk Digital Lessons that make learning activities more valuable.

THE SECRET TO EFFECTIVE use of digital resources is good lesson design. Teachers often find these resources overwhelming or unreliable until they view the power of Slam Dunk Digital Lessons (SDLs) to structure learning activities in ways that make them efficient, reliable and worthwhile.

This article describes SDLs and explains how teachers can build their own SDLs to match local or state curriculum goals. Slam Dunk Digital Lessons are becoming popular in places ranging from New Zealand and Australia to Canada and the United States as more teachers recognize their value in translating digital resources into powerful classroom allies.

For example, teachers in the Canyon Independent School District in Canyon, Texas, have built dozens of SDLs and found them well-received by students. Judy Glueck, a former eighth-grade science teacher at Canyon Junior High School, had this to say following a Slam Dunk Lesson: “The Slam Dunk Lesson spiraled my pre-Advanced Placement science class to a new height regarding higher-level thinking. The students enjoyed the additional challenge the activity provided, and it became apparent that combining the science content with technology became a highly effective motivational tool. Taking Bloom’s Taxonomy into consideration, students went from analysis to synthesis in the lesson.” Glueck added that after this lesson, the students came in every day and asked if they were going to do another thinking lesson on the computer.  


When the Internet first came to K-12 schools in the early 1990s, many pioneers were ready to jump on board to test its possibilities. There were joyous surfing expeditions and a lot of talk about transforming classrooms. Early adopters enthusiastically embraced the possibilities of networked digital resources and involved their students in a wide range of activities, from WebQuests and multimedia contests to building virtual museums.

While pioneers were quick to embrace the new technologies, researchers have identified a different group of educators — late adopters — who remained a challenge in many schools (Internet Use by Teachers by Henry Becker, 1999). SDLs were designed to provide a practical approach to classroom use of Internet resources that would appeal to all teachers, but would especially address the concerns of these reluctant educators in order to win them over so they could make effective use of the new tools.

Corporate studies, such as Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Technology Products to Mainstream Customers by Geoffrey Moore (1991 and 2002), have suggested that late adopters in business approach new technologies with different issues and needs than early adopters.

Late adopters in schools are usually very serious about their bottom line — student learning and test scores — so they are reluctant to use anything that seems frivolous, peripheral, unreliable or time-consuming. They also tend to prefer structure, order and predictability. The SDL concept was invented to appeal to these late adopters by addressing their chief concerns.


One of the best ways to appreciate this lesson-building strategy is to view sample lessons online. A list of districts and lessons can be found at http://questioning.org/slamdunk.html.

Here are some key components of Slam Dunk Lessons:

SDLs employ scaffolding. To deliver efficiency and keep students on task, the activities in an SDL are heavily structured. Scaffolding offers at least eight characteristics designed to promote learning:

• Provides clear directions
• Clarifies purpose
• Keeps students on task
• Offers assessment to clarify expectations
• Points students to worthy sources
• Reduces uncertainty, surprise and disappointment
• Delivers efficiency
• Creates momentum

For a complete description of these characteristics, go to “Scaffolding for Success” at www.fno.org/dec99/scaffold.html.

SDLs focus on standards. Each Slam Dunk Digital Lesson is tied to state curriculum standards in two ways. First, the lesson designer identifies the curriculum content to address. The focus may be storms, for example. Next, the teacher selects the thinking skills that deserve attention. Most state standards require students to engage in analysis, interpretation, evaluation or synthesis. An SDL should require original thought at a challenging level.

SDLs prepare students for tough tests. Each SDL includes developmentally appropriate but difficult assessment activities. The designer may incorporate items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress requiring that a student construct an answer to an item rather than relying on a multiple-choice format. To this end, they may use the NAEP Questions Tool at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/itmrls/.

SDLs can be used repeatedly. Once constructed and tested, an SDL can be posted on the Web and used over and over again by teachers around the world.

SDLs are user-friendly. They are easy for teachers and students to use. SDLs are jokingly called “Teflon lessons” to capture the idea of no stick and no burn. Directions are clear, simple and easy to follow, and tasks are laid out in pathways that leave little room for error.

Of course, this benefit is one that should drop away as students become increasingly independent learners. SDLs help students internalize the thinking skills needed to operate independently.


Slam Dunk Digital Lessons fall into two categories: a Six Step Lesson and a NoTime Lesson.

A Six Step Lesson offers six Web pages or six Microsoft PowerPoint slides to structure a 30- to 40-minute learning experience. It may take several hours to build, but the lesson can be posted online and shared globally.

The NoTime Lesson is usually crafted on a single page and is designed to fit into a teacher’s busy schedule, since it takes very little time to build one. For instance, it requires just 10 minutes on a Tuesday night to create a lesson to use on Wednesday morning.

One example of a Six Step Lesson is “Which Hurricane?” It is one of the first SDLs ever constructed and was designed to introduce fifth-grade students to the worst features of hurricanes.

“Which Hurricane?” (http://questioning.org/module2/storm1.html) is a good example of a Six Step Lesson, offering one page for each key element:

Page 1: The Essential Question and Learning Task
Page 2: The Information Source
Page 3: The Student Activity
Page 4: The Assessment Activity
Page 5: Enrichment Activities
Page 6: Teacher Support Materials

In this lesson, students gather information about hurricanes to determine which one would best qualify as the storm of the (previous) century.


In contrast to the Six Step model, a NoTime Lesson is much simpler and easier to put together. It usually involves just one page on a word processor and a few paragraphs of instructions.

While there are several varieties, each NoTime Lesson points to a chunk of information available online and asks students to wrestle with one or more challenging thinking tasks.

Here are three NoTime Lessons:

• Visual NoTime Lessons include a photo, painting, ad, video clip, drawing, map or chart.
• Numerical NoTime Lessons consist of a database with information about weather, crime, traffic or some scientific phenomenon.
• Text NoTime Lessons include a news story, editorial, poem, short story, essay or ad.

Other types of NoTime SDLs are described in “The NoTime Slam Dunk Digital Lesson” at http://questioning.org/jan06/notime.html.

An example of a Visual NoTime Lesson involves using a painting. For example, an English teacher who has led her class through the study of several novels that deal with relationships between groups of men and groups of women, such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, may wish to extend and deepen the students’ appreciation of those relationships by asking them to interpret the work of Australian painter Joanna Lefroy Capelle, who shows women and girls in one of her paintings titled The Christening.

A NoTime SDL using this painting consists of this word processing file:

Go to http://members.iinet.net.au/~coakeley/capelle/index.html.

Click on the painting The Christening to enlarge it.

1. Figure out what is going on in the painting: What is the story? Have one member of your group act as scribe to keep track of the questions explored by your group.

Continue to interpret the painting until instructed to move on to the next task.

2. What are the traits of a good title? Make a list of traits and then brainstorm 12 to 15 possible titles before picking the best one.

Once you have a good understanding of the painting, select a new title that captures the key story behind it. Be prepared to share your favorite title with the group and to explain why you chose it.


These steps are involved in creating a NoTime Slam Dunk Lesson (SDL):

• Identify the curriculum content and state curriculum goals that are worthy of attention.
• Find high-quality digital content: image, numerical data or text.
• Write a one-page lesson directing students to a source and outlining expectations for a challenging thinking task using National Assessment of Educational Progress items as a guide from the NAEP Questions Tool at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/itmrls/.

These steps are involved in creating the more complicated Six Page SDL:

• Download a Microsoft PowerPoint template from http://questioning.org/module3/slamdunk6.ppt.
• Start by filling out page six, identifying the curriculum content and skills you hope to address with your lesson.
• Find a great Web site that has rich information resources to match your lesson focus outlined on page six. Describe that site on page two without providing a URL or hot link.
• Identify an essential question that could be explored using the site you listed on page two and place it on page one. Consider items like those listed at the NAEP Questions Tool mentioned in the NoTime SDL plan above.
• Outline the learning steps you want the students to follow once they visit the site and place these instructions on page three.
• Formulate a brief but telling assessment activity and place it on page four.
• Provide enrichment activities on page five.

Jamie McKenzie is editor of From Now On — The Educational Technology Journal. He has been a middle school teacher; an assistant principal; an elementary principal; a director of libraries, media and technology; an assistant superintendent; and the superintendent of two districts.