In honor of the October, 2016 issue of Educational Leadership (Powerful Lesson Planning), I present you this blog! ASCD has terrific material that many times gets dismissed because it is poorly implemented and/or arrogantly scoffed as too formulaic. Read this issue before or after this blog! WWW.ASCD.ORG You will know my attitude about how and why lesson planning forms the basis of any content Methods course!
Meet Keith, a very bright pre-service, undergraduate French Teacher Education student! His mastery of the French language is superb! When he arrives in my Methods of Second Language Instruction class, it’s clear that his understanding of teaching is limited by what I have termed FTS: French Teacher Syndrome. FTS is that subtle attitude that learning French is for the intellectually superior, and it permeates every decision made during instructional planning. Learning French is merely when the teacher blesses the students with the right vocabulary and understanding of grammar rules to justify a “native-like” translation in speaking, listening, reading and writing. In clinging to this traditional approach to language learning, Keith struggled to understand and apply the most current and comprehensive theories and practices of Second Language Acquisition.
Meet Kristen, an enthusiastic young lady with a limited mastery of Spanish. She, too, is in my undergraduate Methods class. My first impressions are that developmentally, she may not be able to handle the abstraction of the theory in this class, but she will be able to overcome it when she has the opportunity to put principles into practice, such as her practicum in the Methods class or her student teaching. She is idealistic and loves to have fun with children. Her lack of metacognitive ability/understanding (the ability to understand the process of understanding) made it difficult for Kristen to plan anything but “fun” activities and tests for her students during Student Teaching.
Meet Kathy, an accomplished public school Spanish teacher with 5 years of experience who was required to take my Graduate Methods class in order to prove she is making progress toward official teacher certification. Of course, her youth and experience communicate that she knows it all, and her Spanish is only fair. The graduate class has as its focus the teaching of reading comprehension and writing skills in a second language. Kathy is grateful to be taking the class, as she is going to be teaching “upper levels” in the coming year. For several years, veteran teachers and her colleagues have been telling her, “The 6-point lesson plan is passé. Just make sure you follow the book and get through it by the end of the year.” She doesn’t feel the need to hear about how to design a “lesson,” because all she has to do is “cover the material.”
What do these three have in common? They all three scoffed at the 6-point lesson plan when I addressed it in class. None of them accepted that the 6-point plan was based on Ausubelian Theories of schema development or of Gagné’s teaching principles based on neurological models of memory. They all said it was outdated. Even when we discussed newer approaches to lesson planning such as backward design or cognitive mapping strategies, they ignored the similarities (the rich research base and professional standards) and ridiculed the need for such anal planning. Kathy said her supervisor just wanted to see the topics she was “covering” as her lesson plan.
I truly prefer Wiggins/McTighe’s Understanding by Design (UbD), a very comprehensive approach to plan the most effective instruction taking into consideration the most important variables in the process. I have friends and colleagues that say UbD is too dependent on the “public school” mentality. In my experience, however, many educators who criticize research-based lesson plan paradigms are simply compensating for the fact that they do not have formal training in the actual psychology, pedagogy and other research-based bodies of knowledge on which most instructional planning is based. Sometimes, I encounter teachers (old or young) who are not cognitively capable of comprehending the abstractions necessary to plan satisfactory lessons. Just to be sure we are on the same page, then, I’d like here to elaborate on the 6-point plan, saving UbD for later posts, LOL.
OBJECTIVE: Every lesson plan should have a clearly stated objective that is behavioral in nature (say, write, design, list, compare, analyze, etc.) and not just “know” or “understand” the material. The objective should reflect in some way big or small the overall goals for the students, keeping in mind what it looks like for a student to be academically literate or competent in the content area.
STEP ONE: Focus and Review- The teacher helps students recall any background they may need or were studying that is necessary for students to have success in accomplishing the new objective. This includes personal experiences and schema and anything that will help students succeed.
STEP TWO: Statement of the Objective- Students’ attention is drawn to the objective that is stated for them clearly in behavioral standards.
STEP THREE: Presentation of the “Stimulus,” any new information and skills needed to accomplish the objective. (This can be done in many ways, “fun,” logically, video, examples, hands-on, etc.)
STEP FOUR: Guided Practice- Students watch modeling of new behavior and practice the objective with teacher feedback.
STEP FIVE: Independent practice- Students attempt the objective on their own.
STEP SIX: Relevant assessment/Closure- Teacher asks the students to demonstrate mastery of the objective, and teacher frames the new knowledge with applications to and from other knowledge and skills from students’ background.
Back to the “story”… What else do these three Methods students have in common? During my observation of Student Teaching, all three of them designed lessons that flopped miserably. These lessons completely confused the students because the teachers didn’t understand what the objective was nor how to get students metacognitively from point A to Z.
For example, Keith wanted to teach a group of 3rd graders the colors. These students had never had French instruction except the day before, 25 minutes with him, the typical “Bon jour” and “Je m’appelle X.” Keith’s VERY first question to the students in French, during the “focus and review” stage, was, “What color is this?” Case in point: he was “teaching by assessing” instead of considering what input the kids needed before they were able to communicate (describe orally) using the colors.
Kristen wanted the students to be able to describe 6 different animals- their color, the number of “feet” or paws they have, and the patterns (e.g., striped, spotted, multicolored, etc.). She brought out the stuffed toy animals and asked in Spanish, “What animal do I have here.” Again, these 3rd grade students, like Keith’s, had had 25 minutes experience with Spanish before that. There was no consideration of background knowledge, etc. Although the objective was clear, the path to learning was ill-considered.
Kathy had just finished hearing me lecture about how teaching reading comprehension strategies is NOT asking comprehension questions, but finding meaningful, developmentally appropriate ways to use a reading passage as a way to promote language acquisition while at the same time teaching enjoyable techniques in meaning reconstruction. In fact, as a class, we even experienced the creative and meaningful exercises suggested here using the very academic articles for which the Methods students were responsible, as a “meta-lesson” in how to teach reading comprehension. When it was her turn to do the same with a literary passage, she handed it to the class, told them to read it and then asked them to answer comprehension questions. No objective for understanding the passage! No understanding of what it will take for us to successfully understand the passage! No activation of background knowledge (schema) that might help the readers to reconstruct the meaning! No regard for “guided” practice! Half of us (the class) did not even know Spanish, and another did not even know the author or the historical context in which the passage was written, ALL of which would have helped us reconstruct the meaning with more success and more language acquisition than getting 5 of the 10 questions correct on the post-test by recognizing foreign words and patterns that are similar between question and answer.
My point? With the simplest of lesson plan formats, I was trying to help pre- and in-service teachers realize that to follow a developmentally and professionally appropriate objective through to students’ successful accomplishment is QUITE complex and requires a great deal of thought and practice. Teachers whose lessons fail almost always lack two things: a clear objective and poor planning (a lesson plan that moves students intentionally and consciously through the 6 stages of learning as represented in a 6-point lesson plan, for example).
UPDATE: I would love to say I have “followed up” with these pre- and in-service teachers to see if they have seen the light. Only one of them is still in the teaching profession as far as I know. I do know this! All three of these teachers, although frustrated at the beginning improved their ability to take their students on what I call a “planned metacognitive journey.” Whether it’s a 6-point plan, a 4-point plan, backward design, etc., these teachers learned that having and making a plan does NOT stifle creativity (one of the main criticism of planning rubrics)! Assessment is a complex part of a lesson but not an actual complete teaching strategy. Having a plan always reaches more students than not and helps students accomplish more substantive and professionally based objectives rather than just “having fun.”
Content versus Pedagogy- There is a fine balance between content expertise and pedagogical expertise. Too much of one and/or not enough of another encourages bad choices in instructional planning and delivery. Teachers may seek to entertain the students with a “hip” activity to the detriment of learning the content and objectives assumed by the curriculum. Or, teachers might think their knowledge base of the content is presumably larger than the students’, that students naturally want to know more from such a teacher, and that all the teachers have to do is tell their students what they know or what the students “need to know.” Or, on the other hand, teachers may be excellent, natural motivators of people, but their content expertise is so superficial, students and teachers alike cannot focus on “big picture” goals and objectives. This does not even consider how ignorant administrators could be of the content area teaching methods and/or the content itself! (I once conducted an entire lesson criticizing the principal’s clothing choice while he was observing me. He complemented me on how much the students were enjoying my lesson!) This dichotomy surfaces all too often in the Second Language Teaching field. When the standards for World Language Instruction has as its base that the teacher is one of the primary sources of comprehensible linguistic input as students acquire language in a natural manner, like they acquired their first, it behooves the administration to know how to distinguish a language instructor with native or near-native proficiency and one without! This is very similar to the “nice” Math teacher that reads the textbook to the class and cannot clarify any student confusion beyond a Google search or a YouTube video suggestion. Another example is a native speaker that speaks the language well, but has not learned how to design professionally appropriate instruction.
The role of assessment in the instructional planning and delivery process- It seem SO simple! If you plan your instruction with a CLEAR objective and deliver that instruction with proper planning, the “independent practice” part of the plan should look just like the “assessment!” But, students and parents say all too often, “Mr. Jones just made us memorize a bunch of words for Biology and told us stories about when he worked in a pathology lab. But THEN, his tests asked us to write an essay comparing and contrasting plant cells and animal cells, making sure we used at least 10 of our words. He didn’t even give us a word bank.” This is a clear example of when instruction happens without having (and without the student’s knowing) the objective for learning. But, it also demonstrates how “the teacher didn’t teach us the same way she tested us.”
Teachers usually depend on teaching the same way they learned and/or were taught- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this underlying issue. I once taught a college course in an Education Department called Content Area Reading Instruction. Although it was a two-hour course, I put my heart and soul into teaching it. Many students deplored it, as it was a bit of an overlap from their Methods Course. What fascinated me was that all the Biology Education students stormed my office hours, hungry to learn more, asking for more techniques and examples of how to teach content area literacy. What I discovered from them is that the Biology Methods Teacher’s approach to Biology instruction was to make sure everyone knew how to classify living things: species, family, genus, etc. It was merely a rehash of how the Field of Biology is organized, not a way to TEACH Biology or promote Biology literacy in young adults. Knowing the Methods teacher well, I know confidently two things. First, she believed that this WAS learning to teach Biology and second, she, herself, had fallen in love with Biology because she so easily succeeded at it from her High School teacher, who taught with the same approach. For these students in my Content Area Reading Instruction, they were inspired to create lessons that helped students read and write Biology better. Keith learned French from a teacher suffering from FTS (see above), and Kathy learned Spanish in College from traditional grammar/translation professors, but only minored in Spanish. Their lessons reflected the traditional “information-dump-from-the-one-who-knows-better” philosophy. Kristen learned Spanish by having a Latino boyfriend. She just wanted to “chat” and have fun. All three ended up “teaching” as they were taught and the way they “learned.” To have learning like they did has left them struggling to make the paradigm shifts necessary to deliver state-of-the-art instruction. Many if not most teachers in most disciplines are affected by this same phenomenon.
The attitudes of teachers and supervisors toward planning effective instruction, OR “How many excuses can you have for not planning effectively?”- Many teachers have Kathy’s attitude toward planning elaborately. They complain about many things:
-Planning takes all the creativity out of teaching: NON-SENSE! With a clear objective, teachers can be as creative as they wish!
-Planning takes too much time: CORRECT, as teachers begin to learn to do it well! Then, when they understand the metacognitive component of planning and creating PROPERLY DESIGNED objectives, the planning time (learning curve) becomes shorter and shorter. Are teachers willing to put in that time? Are supervisors prepared to give “extra” time and resources to help teachers plan pedagogically, developmentally and professionally appropriate lessons? Are supervisors capable of equipping their teachers to do so? I know of many schools where supervisors, department heads, principals, etc. do not have the expertise to help teachers plan more effective instruction. They have their own set of excuses for why teachers are not effective.
-We don’t need to plan because the textbook has done that for us. All we have to do is cover the material. HOGWASH! ALL capable, honest educators know that proper planning is required to help students master material at more than a discreet point level like merely passing a standardized test. This requires taking the textbook material and giving students real-life goals and objectives with which students can relate.
The list of excuses could go on and on, but the trend is there. The single mitigating factor that is present in all these excuses is the ignorance behind proper planning- its origins, its purpose, the research base, the supervisory expertise for improving instructional planning which includes providing teachers models and options for improvement, and more.
Some teachers have an innate understanding of the teaching/learning process that translates to successful lessons. My 6-year-old niece, one day while I was babysitting, wanted to play “school.” She set up a “classroom” and delivered a lesson that truly followed the six-point lesson plan beautifully. Many teachers can deliver this sort of lesson when the material is quite familiar or when the students actually request such a lesson. The stages of learning naturally fall into place. I would, however, warn, as I do often in this blog, that perhaps the objective inherent in the “unplanned” lesson does not align necessarily with the overall professional objectives in the field or the school or what is best for the students. It is quite possible to deliver a well-constructed lesson with a success that does not match the “exit” criteria assumed by the course, unit, etc.
Many very sharp curriculum generalists and specialists exist to coach teachers through this resistance. In my experience, a successful paradigm shift (for a teacher, department and/or school) requires several things. First, teachers must be equipped with substantive training. Second, they must be given the freedom to risk and fail in developing more effective instruction. Third, teachers need time and resources to build effective lessons and units. Fourth, teachers need humility! (For more on the courage and vulnerability to face our shortcomings, please see my daughter’s blog wordsofhopeblog.com.) Fifth, outside feedback, including that from other teachers, administrators, students and parents, is necessary for in-service teachers to continue sharpening their teaching skills.
Old habits die hard. Teachers insist and assume that their teaching is purposeful and effective. When I observe teachers, a portion of my attention is always noting if and how students are aware of WHAT they are doing and WHY? This allows me to experience the lesson in a way that I can sift through the assumptions that teachers make and compare those with what the students actually believe the purpose of the lesson/activity to be. The contrast, when extreme, is so apparent to the students and usually invisible to the teachers. With proper planning, a few seconds of remarks in each transition may be the only thing necessary to bring more students on board, improving on-task behavior, etc.
We are our best and our worst critic. While we teachers can see when students don’t learn, we can look back at the executed plan to see how WE can improve OURSELVES, or we can sit back and complain how the students and parents are to blame. While both may be true, we cannot control the latter until we clean up the former. Students who drift in a lesson or unit because we are not clear with our follow-through of a clear, professionally and developmentally appropriate objective will not achieve high standards without a fight. The confusion drives them to criticize the teacher to other students and to their parents. The parents become defensive, balancing the need for their student to survive in the class and for their student NOT to become discouraged by such poor quality instruction. The resulting “guessing game” makes the teacher out to be the typical “witch” who lords the grade over the students’ heads. THIS is not quality or effective instruction. In fact, in a subsequent blog, I hope to equate this sort of behavior to academic BULLYING!
The amount of research that has been invested into effective instruction is broad and deep. Each strand of Educational research is like the spoke of a wheel. We know how to keep students on task more. We know how to increase retention. We know how to reach more students more effectively than ever before. We know how to link teaching, learning and assessment in the most effective ways. We have National Standards that are based on scientific research in each content area. We have psychometrics that help us group student appropriately or that help us provide remedial or differentiated education, and much more. We have bodies of research conveniently packaged and amazingly articulated to the professional world, researchers like Charlotte Danielson, Carol Dweck, Understanding by Design, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Harvey Silver (my personal hero) and more. And what is the hub of this wheel of so many spokes? What is it that allows each spoke to work together, that synthesizes every type of psycho-educational research? Into what does each spoke insert itself to become the best possible instructional delivery? The teacher’s lesson plan, of course! Every type of research, if it cannot be placed in the structure of a well-designed lesson plan, is useless to teachers and students alike. If we do not consider first what the research says about effective instruction and second how teachers incorporate such findings into a real-life, well-constructed lesson plan, then teachers will simply rely on methods of teaching and learning that will waste student and family home time. Great teaching ought to be done primarily in school. Fair teaching relies on many assumptions of how students learn using potentially useless strategies with “practice” happening at home. In my experience, personally and professionally, this sort of homework many times is where teachers unconsciously rely on students and parents to LEARN/TEACH the material at home respectively, fearing that if they do not, the students’ grade will suffer. In my professional work, I have seen teachers have fun with students, test them inappropriately on the ACTUAL material, and students and parents scurrying to personal OUTSIDE tutors, afraid to tell the teacher or administration that their child is seeing a tutor. Parents and students fear backlash if the teacher discovers they are using a tutor to survive the tests, and the teacher naively concludes, then, that the student was ill-prepared by the former teacher or that the student is just not “capable” of understanding the material. Or worse, when the tutor is the one to teach the material for success on the inappropriate test, teachers begin to believe their instructional methods and strategies are working just fine. This conclusion brings up more issues than it settles! I feel so strongly that the lesson plan is the most crucial component, holding the rest of effective instruction together. Hopefully, in this blog, we can begin a professional conversation about how to resolve such issues.
PS: I have just finished reading Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Understanding and Independence for All Learners, by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison. I truly don’t believe teachers can benefit from the ideas in this book if they haven’t mastered the art of planning. Teachers must consider “thinking” at every moment of instruction, and making it visible blends assessment, feedback, and developmentally appropriate instructional strategies into effective, memorable lessons. I highly recommend the book AND the accompanying video.