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Lesson Planning - Both the Destination and the Journey Matter


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Lesson Planning: Both the Destination and the Journey Matter

I first encountered Grant Wiggins' Understanding by Design shortly after its publication in 1998. I remember feeling an instant connection to the idea that we should set worthy goals for learning in our classes, that we should choose what mattered most, what was most relevant from among all the content in our textbooks.  It was a liberating idea.  Wiggins' idea that we should design units and lessons with the end in mind also rang true for me - and explained a great deal about why some of my lessons worked well while others did not. What follows here is my way of applying Wiggins' wisdom to my own work.

Essential Questions

Every summer as I am looking ahead to a new school year, I ask myself what I want students to take from my class?  How do I hope they will think about the world at the end of my class?  What skills matter in my discipline?


I usually end up with answers that are a version of the following:

  • As I examine this phenomenon, is there a pattern at work?  Do I recognize it?  Have I seen it before? What does the pattern tell me to expect? Can I find ways to represent it?  What use might my representation serve? Are there limits to my representation/ model or is it true for all time?  How do I know?

  • How do I approach problems?  How do other people approach problems?  What do other problem solvers do when they get stuck?  How might their strategies help me?


These kinds of open-ended questions that might be answered multiple ways and that go to what I believe are the fundamental ideas behind the mathematics I teach are called essential questions.  They help me to frame my lessons so that I am purposefully guiding students towards something and not simply covering the next section in my book.  Because I also believe deeply that my students should learn some things very well, my essential questions help me (and my colleagues) to choose from a vast array of possible content. In fact, one curriculum map for precalculus that I observed on the web was four pages long, and each page had three columns! That's a lot of material.  


If it helps to have a different lens, imagine yourself as a young Spanish teacher.  If the question that guides your class is "How do I help my students learn to communicate with other Spanish speaking peoples?" that will guide much of what you do and what you don't do - what you emphasize and what you don't.  Listening and speaking will be important in your class.  Understanding cultural norms will be important.  Having access to such supporting materials as TV shows in Spanish (representing many parts of the Spanish-speaking world), Spanish language periodicals, etc. will be important.  Less important to you will be certain literary terms (such as simile and metaphor), scientific terms, etc. especially in the early years. This is not to say that learning is unimportant; it simply is less helpful developing your students' mastery of the skills you believe are most important.


There is a great book on framing essential questions called (unsurprisingly) Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.  (I linked you to the Amazon page to learn more.) Some examples from various disciplines taken from the book are:


  • How do the arts shape as well as reflect a culture? (Art)

  • Is there such a thing as a "just" war? (History)

  • How strong is the scientific evidence? (Science)


Questions such as "Who is the main character in the story?" or "How did you get that answer?" which have a single, correct answer are not examples of essential questions. If you'd like to read more, I found the following resources helpful:

Planning the Route: Making Connections

Once I either know or have built a foundation with my students, it is time for me to plan how to move on to the topic itself.  As I develop my plan, I try always to connect whatever I am doing back to what they have done before or to things they like and enjoy.  The more connections we can create in our classes, the more deeply our students will process the material at hand and be able to retrieve it.


These connections are important because our brains do not function like computers.  There is no file entitled "Functions in Precalculus" or "Using the Imperfect Tense in Spanish".  What we have seen through fMRI imaging is that many parts of the brain fire at once when we ask our brain to recall or work with a particular piece of information, leading experts to believe that our brains store information in a series of connections located throughout our brains. So, when I ask my brain to recall my first telephone number (325-4480), it recalls a series of interrelated memories - Fairview5-4480 (the way I actually remembered the number as a small child), images of the house we lived in, its address (190 Metropolitan Avenue), my 5th birthday party with my friend Eleanor, our landlady Lena who terrified me, and so many more details. Experience tells us that the more connections we can help students to make with material, the better they will know it and be able to use it.  So, we have to deliberately plan ways (particularly when we are beginning to teach) to help students connect to the material at hand.  It is important to remember that we do not have to do all this work ourselves.  We can ask students to write sentences using vocabulary words and make them into a video with their friends.  We can have them blog or Tweet about their reactions to a work of literature, an event in history, a film, etc.  We DO, however, have to help them understand the importance of making these connections.




Planning the Route: How?

Once I decide where I want to go with a class, I turn my attention to how I am going to get to my destination.  Having taught for a long time, I know I have many options from which to choose.  I can lecture; I can create an experience that will help students to discover some aspect of the concept; I can give them a problem that will require them to learn it on their own - with or without help from peers. I can assign reading or research.  I can show them a video (or make one myself).  If I want to help them develop a skill, I can create a project that provides them with an opportunity to develop and use it. In short, I have many, many options, and sometimes choosing among them is not easy.  Today, experience guides my choices. My internal monologue usually runs something like "This approach usually works well for this skill or concept."  As a new teacher, you might want to ask your department chair or mentor for advice.  You can always email us here as well.

Planning the Route:

What's Needed?

Whenever I am about to leave on a trip, I always make lists of what I should do before leaving and what I should bring with me.  If it is a long drive, I usually have the car checked and the oil changed.  I also stock up on drinks and snacks for the road, music, etc. I check out the route on MapQuest or my GPS so I know basically where I am heading and what I might encounter along the way.  I pack clothes and toiletries.  Lesson planning is a similar experience.  Once I have a sense of how I'd like to frame the lesson, I ask myself what students will need in order to meet my goals for them.


Specifically, I ask:

  • What do they need to know/be able to do before we begin?  

  • What knowledge, skills and content are essential?

  • What knowledge, skills and content would be helpful?

  • What assumptions am I making about what they are able to do?

  • How accurate are those?

  • How can I find out?

  • How can I help them to bridge any gaps that exist?

  • How can I help them form connections between what I want them to learn and what they already know?


My answers to these questions form the beginning of my lesson plan. When I was starting out as a teacher, I often asked these questions of other teachers in my department because they had many answers that I did not have as a new teacher.  I have also found that my creativity can be immensely helpful in creating connections between what students know and what I am trying to teach.  


There are many ways to do this - particularly today.  Max's English teacher, to help them understand how to read the graphic novel they were about to study, asked them to watch the following TED talk by a former professor of hers at Dartmouth College.  She also assigned them several questions to help them reflect upon the video and take from it the ideas she needed them to have in preparation for class the following day.  I happen to know that she also began class by referring back to the video and by having students share their responses to the reflection questions.  


Sometimes teachers provide students with an experience to help prepare them for the work and conversations ahead - a walk in the woods before reading Robert Frost or Bill Bryson or before beginning a discussion of habitat in biology class.  Perhaps they ask them to toss a ball around outside on a windy day before beginning a unit on vectors in either math or physics class.  Most of the time, these experiences are most useful to students when teachers also provide some guides as to what students should look for or take from the experience.  Such framing questions - "Observe the path on which you are walking closely.  What details, specifically, do you observe? What words would you use to describe it? Or ... what happens to the ball when you throw it?  Can you adjust your throw so that the ball goes where you want it to?  What adjustments did you try?  Which was the most successful? - help students to take the appropriate and important background information from the experience and prepare a place in their minds to which they can attach new information.

Planning the Route: Collecting Evidence

When I am driving along an unfamiliar road heading to a new location, I always check for roadsigns to make sure that I have not lost my way, missed a turn, etc.  I know that I do this because of the many times (in the days before the GPS) when I was daydreaming while driving, missed a turn, and ended up miles from where I intended to be.  The habit of checking has become ingrained, and it has informed my teaching in helpful ways.  If I didn't check to see if students understood the lesson correctly or took from it the important information, I wouldn't know and I wouldn't be able to adjust my teaching until much later in the learning cycle.  Over the years, I have found it more effective and efficient to check all along the way.


In the classroom, such checks are called Formative Assessments - and they are one of the most important tools in our toolkit.  The kind of formative assessment I use depends upon what I am trying to do, what skills or knowledge I hope my students will take from the lesson. Some days I ask questions; some days I give them a problem to do on their own.  Sometimes I walk around to see what they have done; other times I use polling software to collect their responses or mini whiteboards which they can hold up to show me their work. When all responses are correct, I move on.  When they are not, I reteach or ask other students to reteach the lesson using different words and different examples.  Sometimes a student's wrong answer reveals a misunderstanding - which is so helpful to catch early in the process and which allows me to correct (or to have a peer explain) how best to think about the concept at hand. The form of these assessments will vary be subject, by class size and by the age and personality of the students in the class. Not every method works for every class - unfortunately.


Formative Assessment Ideas:

  • Quick polls - students use polling software and a mobile device to respond to a question.

  • Exit tickets - students have to answer a question or reflect upon what they have learned before they leave class.

  • Mini white boards - students hold up their answer/work for the teacher to check.

  • Cold calling - asking questions of students even when they have not raised their hands to volunteer an answer.

  • Working at the boards.

  • Journals, social media or collaboration software - students write and share a reflection on their takeways from class.


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