Three Questions to ask when Planning Lessons: Why? How? What? By Michael Fletcher

The purpose of the classroom is to facilitate learning. Therefore, an effective classroom is one in which learning can be demonstrated to have taken place. Following many years of well-intentioned ‘learner centred education’, I advocate a movement towards ‘learning centred education’, which reinstates quality learning at the very core of the educational endeavour. Few would argue against the fact that there are three crucial elements to a successful lesson: a meaningful curriculum presenting powerful, pertinent knowledge, appropriate pedagogy designed to meet the needs of students, and exact assessment which provides data as regards how well students have understood the content of the lesson. One way to ensure that our lessons contain these three essentials is to ask ourselves the following questions at the planning stage.

Why did you choose to teach the content that you are teaching? 

Paraphrasing Sam Strickland (2020), “curriculum is king.” Pedagogy, student engagement, resources, task types, or the charisma of the teacher all fade into insignificance if the content being presented is irrelevant or mismatched to the students’ needs. If the quality of learning that takes place in a classroom is our primary evaluative tool of the effectiveness of a lesson, a class can be simultaneously engaging, enjoyable, fun, and valueless. Therefore, extensive thought must be given to the purpose of presenting target information in order to ensure precious class time is utilised in the most appropriate manner. How does the learning objective of this lesson complement the overarching educational goals that you seek to achieve? Why are you teaching this topic at this time? What do you want students to learn during this lesson? What do you know about your students’ prior knowledge which indicates that this is a good time to cover this content? Has previous formative assessment data been scrutinised in order to identify weaknesses that must be addressed? Such questions facilitate responsive teaching (Fletcher-Wood, 2018) at the macro level, enabling us to teach the information and skills that students demonstrate a need for rather than the next topic on a generic list. To paraphrase Mark McCourt (2019), the key to successful education is to establish what students need to know, then find out what they do not currently know of that corpus of knowledge, before finally teaching them that which they do not yet know. This seemingly simple formula is not always followed. We cannot present information to students that they do not yet have the vocabulary or background knowledge to meaningfully access. This creates undesirable difficulty, which can result in disengagement and eventually learned helplessness. Therefore, our choice of topic in a lesson must be informed by our understanding of students’ current abilities and needs. Otherwise, we embark upon a frustratingly futile endeavour.

Often, decisions regarding curriculum are made at the beginning of the year when schemes of work are produced, long before the day of the lesson. Schemes of work provide useful indicators of the general direction that learning should take. But in order to optimise the learning that takes place in the classroom, teachers must be clear about the role that each lesson plays in the realisation of their overarching objectives. Each class’s needs are distinct. Each class has their own strengths and areas for improvement. Each class moves at their own unique pace. Therefore, when planning a lesson, reflect upon why you have chosen to teach a particular topic at this exact time. If the reason is not obviously apparent, consider whether there might be more appropriate content to present at that moment.

How are you going to teach this content?

This question relates to pedagogy, which means the method employed to teach. As an advocate of ‘learning centred education’, I believe that the way that we teach should be guided by that which we suppose will result in the greatest quantity of knowledge being transferred. As I have indicated in previous articles, I accept Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s (2006) definition of learning as a change in long term memory. In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in cognitive architecture amongst education professionals, which offers clear perspectives on the organisation of the human mind and how to best facilitate learning. One accessible document that draws clear connections between cognitive architecture and classroom practice is Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Ten Principles of Instruction’ (2012). These principles are useful guidelines for designing lessons that take into consideration the insights of cognitive science.

When we design tasks, we must also carefully consider the expected learning outcomes. How is this task going to facilitate achievement of the lesson’s learning objectives? What will students be thinking about as they complete this task, being as ‘memory is the residue of thought (Willingham, 2008)’? Does the task balance accessibility and engagement with desirable difficulty, appropriately challenging students to further their knowledge? A task must be engaging, as if students do not engage with the task, it will serve no purpose. However, the objective of a task is to facilitate learning, not to be irresistible to students. This is particularly important when considering the use of games in the classroom. A well-designed game can entrance students, skilfully engaging them with the target knowledge, sometimes without them even knowing that they are learning. Such a game serves its purpose, as in order to win, understanding of the lesson topic must be demonstrated. However, a game that does not necessitate consideration of the target knowledge cannot be said to be serving the purpose of enhancing learning. Therefore, we must consider whether it has a place in a ‘learning centred’ classroom.

Every teacher has a repertoire of tasks that has been built up during the course of their careers. In order to be reflective practitioners, we must evaluate the effectiveness of these tasks. We should begin to assess the efficacy of these tasks by gathering tangible evidence for their positive impact upon learning. We should move away from teaching in a certain manner because that is the way we are familiar with, and instead carefully consider the most effective means of instruction. We must not be afraid to try new approaches or to implement ideas that are shared with us by colleagues. This necessitates courage and resilience, as when we step outside of our comfort zones, we will inevitably face confusion and uneasiness. Yet, in time, we may also discover new, more successful approaches to learning, which will ultimately benefit our students.

What did the students learn from this lesson, and how do you know?

This question relates to assessment. An effective lesson must contain an inbuilt mechanism for indicating what was learnt. Assessment will always be approximate, as the invisible nature of learning means that it is impossible to access the entirety of student learning. However, general trends can be established, which should then feed into the ‘why’ for future lessons.

This process of basing future learning upon assessment data has been variously called Embedded Formative Assessment (Wiliam, 2011), Responsive Teaching  (Fletcher-Wood, 2018), or Data-Driven Instruction (Bambrick Santoyo, 2019). The data gathered in the classroom does not always have to be numerical or recorded, although the more thorough and reliable the information weaned from students, the more accurate our understanding of student needs will be. Assessment of student ability can be as simple as noticing the perplexed look on a student’s face or recognising the slow pace of progress that students are making on a worksheet. Such information can inform us that students have not fully grasped the content that has been presented, which may lead us to reteach the same material in a future lesson.

However, more formal apparatus for measuring student learning should be employed frequently. This enables the teacher to better understand how well students are progressing with a particular topic. Such assessment does not always have to be a replica of a formal exam. Low stakes quizzes are useful to check for understanding of key concepts, and particularly lend themselves to the retrieval of key vocabulary or assessing student understanding of grammatical points. Quiz style starter activities designed to assess how well students can recall the content of the previous lesson are also valuable. Key questions posed at the end of the class to assess whether the majority of students have grasped the central aspects of the lesson, or well-designed exit cards which provide an insight into students’ comprehension.  Hinge questions are also a valuable form of assessment. In a high-quality lesson, the teacher will have established key information that the students must understand, which is often information that is required for the next phase of the lesson. To move on without ensuring that students have grasped these key concepts would be akin to building a house upon unstable foundations: unadvisable. Therefore, a hinge question checks students’ understanding of the key points of a lesson in an entirely unambiguous manner. A hinge question should be asked to all students, not just those who put up their hands. It is often a multiple-choice question that students can answer in their books or on a mini whiteboard, which allows the teacher to quickly check if the majority of students have an accurate understanding of the lesson’s content. The word ‘hinge’ is employed in the sense of a pivot. Should students not respond correctly to this question, the teacher changes direction, returning to the previously presented content to cement student comprehension. If students answer the question correctly, the door to the next phase of the lesson is opened.

Excellent lessons generate reliable data as regards what students learnt in it. This is distinct to how the teacher feels the lesson went. If we are endeavouring to move towards learning centred education, we must ensure our planning is guided by both informal and formal assessment data. Without reliable information as regards how well students have understood the content of the lesson, we are (with the best intentions) fumbling in the dark, unaware both as regards how comprehensive students’ knowledge is and how effective our instruction has been. Therefore, assessment is an integral aspect of a well-designed lesson, and we must consider carefully how we will know whether our students have learnt that which we intended them to learn.

References

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2019). Driven by Data 2.0: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Fletcher-Wood, H. (2018). Responsive Teaching: Cognitive Science and Formative Assessment in Practice (1st ed.). Routledge.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist41(2), 75–86.

McCourt, M. (2019). Teaching for Mastery. John Catt Educational.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, Spring 2012.

Strickland, S. (2020). Education Exposed: Leading a school in a time of uncertainty. John Catt Education.
 Wiliam, S. L. D. (2011). Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms.  Learning Sciences International.

Willingham, D. (2008). What Will Improve a Student’s Memory? American Educator, Winter 2008 – 2009.

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