The Anxiety of Open-Ended Lesson Planning

November 22, 2013

It’s been about three years since I started weaning myself (and my students) off textbook-dependent geometry lesson planning and toward something better. I’ll admit the lesson planning is more time-consuming (especially at the beginning), but most of the time expenditures are one-time expenses. Once you find your favorite resources, you bookmark them and there they are.

As we pushed away from the textbook, I noticed two things: First, the course became more enjoyable for the students. This had a lot to do with the fact that the classwork took on a noticeably different feel. Like getting a new pair of shoes, the old calluses and weak spots aren’t being irritated (at least not as quickly). Out went the book definitions and “guided practice” problems and in came an exploration though an inductively-reasoned course with more open-ended problems (fewer of them) that seemed to reward students effort more authentically than the constant stream of “1-23 (odds).”

The second thing that I noticed, though, was that I had less of a script already provided. The textbook takes a lot of the guesswork out of sequencing questions and content. When the textbook goes, all that opens up and it fundamentally changes lesson planning. The lesson becomes more of a performance. There’s an order. There’s info that you keep hidden and reveal only when the class is ready. Indeed, to evoke the imagery of Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) it should follow a similar model to that of a play or movie.

But, see… here’s the thing about the “performance” of the lesson plan. The students have a role to play as well… and they haven’t read your script… and they outnumber you… and there is a ton of diversity among them. So, when you unleash your lesson plan upon them, you have a somewhat limited ability to control where they are going to take it.

Therein lies the anxiety.

If a student puts together a fantastic technique filled with wonderful logical reasoning that arrives at an incorrect answer, you have to handle that on the fly. It helps to be prepared for it and to anticipate it, but the first time you run a problem at a class, anticipating everything a class of students might do with a problem can be a tall order.


The candy pieces made a grid. The rectangles were congruent. Let's start there.

The candy pieces made a grid. The rectangles were congruent. Let’s start there.

The Hershey Bar Problem was unleashed for the first time to a group of students. Our department has agreed to have that problem be a common problem among all three geometry teachers and to have the other two teachers observe the delivery and student responses (I love this model, by the way).

The students did a lot of the things we were expecting. But, we also watched as the students took this in a directions that we never saw coming. The student began using the smaller Hershey rectangles as a unit of measure. One of the perplexing qualities of this problem is that the triangles are not similar or congruent. Well, the rectangles are both. So, as we watched, we weren’t sure what conclusions could be drawn, what questions the students might ask, or how strongly the class might gravitate toward this visually satisfying method.

We didn’t want to stop her. We weren’t sure if we could encourage her to continue. We just had to wait and watch. That causes anxiety. It feels like you aren’t in real control of the lesson.

Adding an auxiliary line changes the look of the problem, "How were we supposed to know to do that!"

Adding an auxiliary line changes the look of the problem, “How were we supposed to know to do that!”

In the end, most of what we anticipated ended up happening. The team trying to estimate rectangle grid areas ended up seeking a different method for lack of precision and everything got to where it was supposed to. The experience is valuable. But the anxiety is real.

This student was trying to make sense of the perimeters and areas

This student was trying to make sense of the perimeters and areas

And I suspect that the anxiety has a lot to do with why the textbooks continue to stay close at hand. When the structure leaves, the curriculum opens up. When the curriculum opens up, the task of planning and instructing becomes more stressful and (for a short time) more time-consuming.

If you are reading this and on the cusp of trying to move away from your textbook, please know that this is the right move. Your book is holding you and your students back. You can do this. I won’t say that there is less stress, but with more authentic lessons, there’s more authentic learning.

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One comment

  1. I have the same problem teaching chemistry. Especially when I see all of the cool stuff that students can discover on their own, but there’s a (very real!) chance they could actually mix bad things together.

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