Teaching is an unusual profession in so much as you need to be both the architect of the learning and its builder. Architects start with a vision or concept of what a house or building should be whereas builders start with the foundations and build upwards from this solid ground.
I started this set of blog posts with Lesson Planning: To Plan or Not to Plan looking at the need to planning learning flows and series of lessons rather than individual ones. It is that theme I wish to build on here.
Lesson planning and lesson plans shouldn’t be confused. The first is the learning design process the latter is the learning product that will be delivered in the classroom. The two are clearly related but planning starts with the end point whereas plans end at the starting point.
I’m beginning to wonder whether we all too often design learning as builders, from the bottom up, rather than as architects.
Lesson planning needs to start with the big idea, the key concept or the major works that you want to expose your students to? What would you consider as excellence from your students and how could they evidence this for you?
Whilst it is not possible to live life backwards there would be certain advantages in being able to look back from the end point of a journey before planning your route. You can see the smoother paths, more reasonable terrain and also look to dodge as many pitfalls, cul-de-sacs and brick walls that will needlessly disrupt the journey with no positive impact or outcome for the traveller.
Planning a child’s education is potentially one of those times when you want to plan backwards. Lesson planning should start with the end point and then determine the paths to be taken to reach it. I’m wondering whether we actually do the opposite more often than not.
In seeking to develop students in your subject what would you expect her or him to know or be able to do and how would you seek to evidence this level of competence?
So What’s In Your Curriculum?
If you are not clear about this then lessons are likely to be meandering wanderings to nowhere in particular and everywhere in general. You simply don’t have time for these aimless journeys. The potential content and habits of mind in every subject area are so vast there are hard choices to be made – these can be made either explicitly or haphazardly. Starting with then end in mind is key to making good decisions about what should be in your subject’s curriculum, schemes of learning and ultimately your lesson plans.
In short, what is “the best that has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold) in your particular subject or discipline that is worthy of passing onto the next generation. Determining the cultural capital we wish to share with the next generation is always a challenge. Cultural capital is not fixed and we all tend to have our own views on what constitutes the best. It might be a bit of a challenge in Science of Mathematics but by the time you hit Art or Literature you could spend ages actually debating what the best is and never actually agree.
As the national curriculum becomes slimmed down, not available in your subject or no longer compulsory what would you identify as the core concepts, big ideas and best works that constitute your subject and would withstand the passage of time as well as the inevitable changes to the national curriculum or examination syllabi.
You cannot teach everything, so teach what is central and important not what is superfluous and peripheral.
The Big Ideas
The following is taken from the Principles and Big Ideas of Science Education edited by Wynne Harlen. It identifies big ideas of science (though seems a bit light on Chemistry to me) and the big ideas about science. Both are important – factual & conceptual knowledge pertinent to Science and the scientific way of thinking or habits of mind that scientists have.
Understanding the Big Ideas of a subject, planning from them and then teaching towards them is critical.
Take number 4 as an example.
Many people complain that we are running out of energy and I’ve heard reporters on news programmes stating as much. From a scientist’s point of view this type of comment breaks a fundamental law of Science, energy cannot be created or destroyed though it can change from one form to another. This gives a different perspective to our current problems as we have enough energy, in fact as much as we have always had, it’s just not in a particularly useful form at the moment. This reframes the issue from a scientist’s perspective. Students’ knowledge about energy, energy changes and the energy we use in our daily lives needs to be leading them towards fundamentally understanding the law of conservation of energy. If the components of this conceptual framework are the starting point of our planning and the end point of our teaching what are the bits in the middle?
What are the big ideas of and about your subject that students should learn?
A Planning Framework
I’m just playing around with a few ideas as a potential planning framework but I wonder what you think about the stages below?
The Best That Has ….
I’m going to take Particle Theory as my example as it is a key scientific concept which every student should know.
Defining Excellence ….
“Lingard (2007) and his team observed 1,000 classroom lessons and noted the low levels of intellectual demand, and there are many observational studies that highlight the overpowering presence of teachers talking and students sitting passively waiting … teachers must have the mind frame to foster intellectual demand, challenge, and learning, because these are the powerful predictors of interest, engagement, and higher level and conceptual thinking that make students want to reinvest in learning.”
Hattie (2012), Visible Learning for Teachers, p. 35
Please note the underlining above is mine. This is all about challenging students and making sure they know what is expected of them. It needs to sit at the beginning of the planning process so we ensure that we build excellence not mediocrity into our expectations of students.
For example, I would consider any Year 7 student who could explain the difference in properties between a solid, liquid and gas in terms of the size, proximity, movement and attraction between the particles in the three states of matter as a sign of excellence. Even better if they could then hypothesise about why substances have different melting and boiling points.
At this stage consideration needs to be given as to how students can evidence this excellence. What is most appropriate in your subject and in this particular instance? I often say to young teachers starting out “you have pictures in your head about your subject. How will you help students develop these pictures in theirs?”
We have mental models and conceptual frameworks of how our own subjects actually work. For this topic I would want students to evidence their learning through a series of annotated diagrams and written descriptions of the three states of matter.
Learning Structure ….
To structure the learning I would rely on the SOLO Taxonomy. Whilst I’ve heard some people knocking the SOLO Taxonomy, on occasion, I’ve not yet heard anyone offer a better way of structuring the learning.
There are other taxonomies – use what you feel is best but an idiosyncratic “I think this” type of approach doesn’t often stand up to scrutiny or allow a structured discussion to take place with a colleague.
Learning Sequence (Learning Structure in brackets) ….
- List the three states of matter and the processes of changing state (Multistructural)
- Compare and contrast the physical properties of the three states of matter (Relational)
- Describe the size, proximity, movement of and relative attraction between the particles in the three states of matter (Multistructural)
- Explain the different physical properties of the three states of matter based on the size, proximity, movement of and relative attraction between the particles (Relational)
- Hypothesise about why substances have different melting and boiling points (Extended Abstract)
The beauty of planning schemes of learning in this way is that syllabi may come and go and so may the National Curriculum but the scheme of learning is still good Science and remains in place. The learning is now planned, will be retained as the core learning expected by the teacher and the fun part of deciding a delivery strategy can begin.
I would suggest that one of the biggest reasons for poor lessons and a lack of progress is that the teacher hasn’t planned the learning and instead has planned activities. The learning becomes haphazard, disconnected or missing even if the students are still looking busy.
If you start at the end, should you end at the start.
Next week’s blog post with the anyway up lesson planning and lesson plan page?
Hattie, J (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. London: Routledge
Principles & Ideas of Science Education (2010). Edited by Wynne Harlen, Gosport: Ashford Colour Press Ltd
Robinson, M (2013) Trivium 21c Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past, Independent Thinking Press