On Lesson Plans and Lesson Planning

CC BY Brian Swartz, Flickr
As someone who studies teacher curriculum adaptation, Chris Lusto's post last summer, "Lessons for Other People," did a lot to get me thinking. Despite their imperfections, curriculum materials have a durability, scalability, and portability that many educational tools or innovations can only wish for. So why not try to preserve and share the evolution of curriculum materials as teachers make them less imperfect, using some kind of revision tracking system?

It turns out that this wasn't exactly a new idea (see here, for example) and there are probably sensible reasons we don't have such repositories yet. Dan Meyer gave us one big reason: Teachers don't seem to be keen on using off-the-shelf plans, especially when the signal-to-noise ratio ("just right" lessons to "ugh, move along" lessons) is frustratingly poor. There are also technical hurdles involved. We would need to get past (way, way past) discussions of JSON vs. TOML and other forms of engineering-speak. I see promise in things like Mike Caulfield's Wikity project, but then again, I'm geeky enough to run my own Mediawiki installation.

There are certainly new angles to explore on the repository front, but for them to be useful we need to get a better handle on what exactly we're putting in them. As far as I know, there isn't much in the research literature about teacher lesson planning. When I worked with preservice teachers, I taught them to use a lesson plan template to detail the objectives and activities of a lesson. But as a teacher myself, I'm not sure I ever filled out a multi-page template with a lot of details. There's a good reason for that, and it's not laziness — the context, purpose, and needs were quite different as a full-time teacher than for someone who is just beginning to learn to teach.

Especially useful to me in thinking about the difference in the purpose of lesson plans is the distinction of plans vs. planning, which Dan Meyer highlighted with a quote from Dwight Eisenhower:

This compliments my own thinking about design work in education: You must accept that much of the positive outcome can lie in engaging in the design process rather than in the thing or product that is ultimately designed. In other words, it's like the quote attributed to Bruce Joyce: We reinvent the wheel not because we need the wheels, but because we need the inventors. For some, this feels inefficient and wasteful, but I say you ignore it at your peril.

Types of Lesson Plans

So what are some different types of lesson plans? I've thought of three:

Lesson Plans as Scripts

Scripts and scripted lessons are loaded terms in education and the connotation is generally negative. I don't think it has to be negative, even though it certainly can be. When I say script, I'm thinking about a detailed, step-by-step description of what should be happening in a classroom, by whom, and at what times, similar to how the script of a play, TV show, or movie describes who is involved in a given scene, the actions they should take, and what they're expected to say. Just as scripted TV differs in quality, scripted lessons can vary in quality also, and they have the potential to be very good.

The most scripted lesson plans I wrote as a teacher were those for substitute teachers. If I had to be away from my students but I still wanted quality work to be done while I was gone, the best I could do was write a very detailed lesson script and hope the substitute could make their way through it.

Lesson Plans as Ideas or Reminders

When teachers plan for themselves, in the context of teaching a thousand lessons a year, many rely on a sparse set of reminders that aren't intended for use by any other teacher. Because of this, we shouldn't be quick to judge the quality of a lesson by this kind of lesson plan. Just because a lesson plan says no more than "Section 4.5, swap out baseball task for the closer, assign evens" does not mean the lesson will be good or bad. There's not enough there to judge, because the lesson wasn't designed for judging.

In conversations around lesson plans last summer, I saw teachers saying they wanted ideas more than scripts. I think part of this is because lesson plans in the form of ideas and reminders are what most teachers use most of the time, and therefore it feels familiar and flexible. I do wonder, though, how well this would really work in practice. The intent of one teacher's notes may or may not be understood by another teacher, and a repository full of lesson ideas might suffer the same low-signal, high-noise problem we have now.

Lesson Plans as Stories

I think there's a third kind of lesson plan, one that puts the planning at the forefront and the plan in the background. These lessons are written so that the reader can think along with the writer and learn from their decisions, rather than follow their instructions. These lessons take the form of a teaching case study or reflection, rather than a script or set of reminders.

Learning to teach through case studies was described by Shulman (1986), so it's far from a new idea. Shulman proposed case knowledge as a form of teacher knowledge, and he proposed (and later led research on) the development of prototype cases designed for teacher learning. Still, it doesn't seem to be the kind of lesson plan you're likely to find in current repositories. Thankfully, I know of two examples in math ed: The lesson descriptions from Jennifer Wilson and Jaime Duncan.

Take for example this lesson from Jennifer on coordinate geometry. It reads like a story: "I found a task, it relates to a standard, here's what I think students will do, here's some of the work they actually did, and here are some things that did and did not go as planned along the way." Jennifer's post is way more than just an idea, and has the detail of the script without any of the "Step 1, do this, Step 2, do that" feeling. Importantly, the students are not left to the imagination. They are seen, heard, and described. I see a lot of similar qualities from Jamie's posts, such as this lesson on fractions in first grade.

Pros and Cons

Here's a quick recap of what I see in these three kinds of plans:

Lessons as: Pros Cons Effort to Implement
Scripts Detailed; Greater chance of implementation as intended Feels restrictive; context-unaware Lower
Ideas Short; A seed from which other ideas can grow; adaptable Interpretations vary widely; Quality difficult to judge; Still requires a lot of planning and decision-making Higher
Stories Experience a lesson second-hand; think along with lesson designer Stories can be long, complex, and inconsistent in form Between Low and High

I think lesson plans as stories have real promise as a shareable unit of teaching. They focus more on planning and reflection, and they may help teachers who use them plan and reflect on their own lessons. However, it feels to me that the stories could benefit from some structure and common elements. After all, there's been way too much good work in the field of mathematics teaching to think everyone writing a lesson story should start from scratch and make up everything as they go along. A free-for-all approach doesn't help the writer or the reader. In my next post, I'll lay out a plan for telling a lesson story that I think has some structure without feeling too much like a template.