I am always surprised by how much time teachers spend (especially those who are less experienced) planning lessons that often do not 'work' as they had hoped. Of course, there are sometimes issues which are hard to foresee, but often the failure of a lesson is the result of poor design.
There are a number of factors that contribute to poor lesson design. We may feel as though we need to 'engage' the students with fun activities, or make the lesson more interesting (inspiring?) by showing them something that is 'off-piste' but that they (or is it we?) find interesting. Perhaps we want them to work in groups, or have a class discussion, because it will make some particularly dry content a bit more interesting? Perhaps we have taught a topic one way for the last few years, and want to try a different approach this year because, well, we want to try something new.
We might have more practical concerns , for example having too much content to cover in too little time, or we are worried about student behaviour and want to keep the students occupied with something that they can do. Perhaps we are being observed, and we want to create a lesson that will impress particular observer preferences, or show 'excellent progress' every 20 minutes.
I have done all of these, many times. Why do they contribute to poor lesson design? There is nothing wrong with experimentation and making mistakes, but everything we do in the classroom should be designed with a clear focus on what will help students achieve their desired outcomes. Stephen Covey says in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (p98):
“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”
“We are quick to say what things we like to teach, what activities we will do, and what resources we will use; but without clarifying the desired results of our teaching, how will we distinguish merely interesting learning from effective learning? How will we meet content standards or arrive at hard-won student understandings unless we think through what those goals imply for the learners’ activities?”
1. Identify desired results – what should students be able to do?
2. Determine evidence – what will we accept as evidence of student understanding?
3. Plan learning experiences – what instructional activities are most appropriate?
In Visible Learning for teachers, Hattie gives the evidence that backwards design leads to better outcomes for students. He describes the process simply as (p119):
“Moving from the outcomes (success criteria) back to the learning intentions, then to the resources and activities needed to attain the success criteria.”
Over the last 10 years I have learned that a clear focus on objectives is essential for effective learning. Everything that happens between the start of a lesson and the end, the explanations, the questions, the assessment, should be designed in order to ensure that students leave the classroom understanding the thing that they were there to understand, and that you as a teacher try find out (as well as possible) to what extent this has happened for every student.
This may sound robotic and soulless, but this is not necessarily the case; I would like to think my lessons are filled with enjoyment and inquiry; students come to my lessons knowing that they will work hard, be challenged. They know what they are there to learn – and what success looks like. As they become more successful, they begin to trust that I know what I am doing, and that I will help them achieve their desired outcomes. We have a clear understanding of our destination.