As I work with schools in designing and developing personalized learning models for students and teachers, I’m starting to realize that the lesson plan is on the verge of transitioning to a slow uncomfortable death.
A traditional lesson plan includes an objective, time and materials required, anticipatory set/warm up/drill, procedures (direct instruction/guided and independent practice), assessment, and closure. This is what I learned in my teacher preparation program, what I had to have available upon request as a teacher, and what was given to me as a school administrator during classroom observations. But the truth is, as a teacher, no one ever looked at my lesson plans; they watched my classroom. They saw how the students responded and my role in guiding their learning. As an administrator, I observed students and teachers, not pieces of paper. I only looked at the written lesson plan when the implementation went awry. One can write a beautiful lesson plan yet teach terribly. I am much more interested in the learning and teaching than the composed and indented.
The disconnect between a lesson plan and true learning has become even more glaring as I partner with schools diving deep into personalized learning. In exploring personalized instruction models, the concept of a lesson plan has begun to make even less sense for several reasons.
First, the idea of a fixed amount of time for every student to be able to learn the same thing – if we admit it – is absurd. Even 20 years ago, my high school realized that each student would need to adjust the amount of time spent learning different concepts. We had an eighth period, a time when we could choose where we needed focus and spend more time. When time is fixed, we vary (and often shortchange) the learning. A lesson plan by definition is time bound.
Next, a lesson plan is prepared by a teacher to fit a class of students. There is one objective, the same objective for each student. What if a student understands that already? What if a student is missing a critical prerequisite skill? Traditional lesson plan frameworks do not integrate the different roles of a teacher – coaching, facilitating, guiding, and giving feedback versus content delivery.
With traditional lesson plans, reflection and iteration are not inherent to the process. I never revisited my lesson plans from the previous year. I returned to previous lesson ideas, but each year (or each period really) was a new iteration because I was teaching a new set of students. I tweaked, revised, improved, bombed, bounced back. The nature of teaching and learning is reflective, and that level of metacognitive insight isn’t captured on a written lesson plan.
The term lesson plan suggests that the focus is on what is being taught rather than how students learn. As I work with schools designing personalized instruction models, I’ve shifted to using the term learning guide. As we plan instruction using learning guides, we consider each student’s level of readiness and prior understanding. We outline a set of available learning experiences rather than a set of procedures. This allows for a much more natural incorporation of UDL principles (multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement). Whenever I tried to incorporate UDL or culturally responsive teaching strategies into a typical lesson plan format, I felt like I was perpetuating the blue box standard (the callout typically seen at the bottom or to the side of textbook pages, e.g., where you would find the information about Crispus Attucks in the unit on the Revolutionary War).
Yesterday, I caught the middle of an interview on NPR. Thomas Ricks, discussing leadership and preparation in the military, explained, “Training is for the knowing. Education is for the unknowing.” The application of information learned during training makes sense when you can follow a set of prescribed procedures. What do you do when you are going into a situation that is unscripted? Of course this is akin to Helmuth von Moltke’s, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Education, true learning, is learning how to handle the unknowns. Focusing on educator training and neglecting educator education leaves us ill-equipped when faced with the unavoidable unknowns of helping children achieve their full potential.
Given that I’m struggling with the term lesson, you might have guessed that I’m debating the term lessoncast. I still believe that the media format we created is an incredibly powerful resource for improving teaching practice. Now I’m wondering if the root “lesson” effectively captures what I believe a lessoncast can demonstrate. Any suggestions?