A Rubric for Lesson Plans

I’m starting to see a lot of different teachers teach. Yesterday I got to see 13 different teachers teach, in 10-15 minute snapshots, in their classrooms while I observed their students. Reflecting on teaching through the lens of student behavior, learning, and active engagement is quite interesting. The goal of this wasn’t to draw any conclusion about the teachers as professionals, but instead to see how different“teacher moves” seemed to facilitate different student behaviors.

I’m becoming fascinated by the mechanics of effective instruction. What makes good teachers so good? What can we learn from them that we can then share with others interested in improvement? What is the essential skill set that creates the type of results we have grown accustomed to from good teachers?

I’ve had several opportunities to engage this idea through the lens “blended learning” (enhancing/augmenting instructional and assessment techniques with the strategic use of technology). Based on what technology is available, some teachers are doing some pretty effective blending with some Plicker cards and an iPad camera. Others are able to create vibrant online launch pads for their classrooms so that students could stay home a day or two per week and still be full members of the classroom community.

But a good teacher move is a good teacher move. The forces and resources that lead to technology integration in any classroom are highly localized, but effective instruction is, in many ways, global. Most students don’t learn well sitting still in the same chair for long stretches. Most students don’t learn well when they are never given a chance to demonstrate new learning. Most students don’t learn well in isolation. (Notice all these pseudo-generalizations said “most.”)

So, if we can pseudo-generalize the things we know don’t work, we should be able to reasonably pseudo-generalize the things that do… right?

So, that leads us to an essential question: To maximize the chance of producing effective learning, what must a lesson have? Or do? Or avoid?

Imagine that I’m giving you the opportunity to create a rubric to score a lesson. (In my mind, I imagine the moment when the lesson falls apart or it becomes apparent that the kids didn’t learn. Was it because the lesson was poorly-designed? Or because of some outside factor?)

Pause here for a moment…

Resist the temptation to think that I am trying to define some cookie-cutter-type template that all lessons will originate from. (Like, “all lessons must start with a review time, then all lessons must have 10 minutes of teacher-led direct instruction, then…”) That’s not what I’m doing. “A good lesson” is going to look any of a countless variety of ways.

But the fact remains, “good” lessons exist. And they differ from “lousy” lessons.

But what makes them different? What do “good” lessons have/do/avoid, that “lousy” lessons don’t?

I tossed out an idea to the blended learning PLC that I lead (which included a #flipclass MS math teacher, a HS social studies teacher, an instructional coach at a special education school for students who have a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities, and a HS Spanish teacher who does blended learning coaching half time).

What are the instructional “musts” that we can agree on? I challenged them to create four “musts”. In order to have the highest chance of creating good learning, a lesson “must” ______________________.

What would you say? There’s a comments section you can use, if you’d like. I’m interested in your thoughts.

(Next post, I will share the answers produced by the PLC. But I’ll wait until then. I want to give you think time first…)

One thought on “A Rubric for Lesson Plans

  1. Andrew, your prompt here, is not an easy one to answer. Occam’s Razor may not apply in education. Complex problems may not always let themselves to simple solutions. It’s good of you to ask though.

    Here’s a couple of thoughts:

    If you look across the various popular models in education and lesson planning over the last 40 years, you’re likely to find that the major components are the same for each model. If you look at the work of Hunter, Brophy, Archer, Caulkins, Rosenshine, and dozens of others you will see the same key pieces show up over and over. They each just have a slightly different twist or tweak in the verbiage. Here are the big pieces you find almost universally. Anticipatory set (engage the learner and activate prior knowledge), Demonstration/modeling/think-aloud (that’s the actual new study you’re teaching), guided practice (with frequent, specific, actionable feedback), independent practice (again with lots of useful feedback), wrap-up (summarize the learning outcomes and prime for the next lesson), and finally an assessment (summative or formative). These basic components are nearly universally accepted in various forms and are work in direct instruction, inquiry instruction, and almost every other lesson design in between.

    The question then is, if these things work, how do we make them work for our students. Well, the devil is in the details. Once you have a good lesson design, it has to be implemented well. You also need to consider the ancillary “conditions” for success in any context. It’s often asked, “Is it the quality of the weapon, or the skill of the marksman?” Dr. James Kaufman of U.Va. will tell you it’s both, plus the height of the castle walls, the direction of the wind, the mobility of the target and the context of the battle.

    If you look at the most recent research on instructional effectiveness much of it boils down to the fit between the learner characteristics (prerequisite skills, cognition, motivation, etc.), the instructional method, and the learning objective. For example, Universal Design for Learning attempts to use accessible “smart from the start” lesson design to circumvent problems typically associated with lack of prerequisite skills, physical or cognitive limitations, behavioral characteristics, and so on, thereby enabling access to learning for everyone. Research on engagement strategies and opportunities to respond (OTRs) has shown that effective teaching requires students to do something, say something, or write something approximately every 30 seconds (>2 OTRs per minute). OTRs gets at the instructional method. Provide a variety of methods for students to engage in the learning, use those methods with a high degree of frequency, and ensure all students are engaged, and you are more likely to have an effective lesson. When it comes to the learning objective it’s important to have a clear, specific learning objective. This sounds obvious, but in reality is very difficult. I work with teachers all the time that have a clear idea of what they want students to learn but have a very tough time communicated those ideas simply, clearly, and in a sequence that is conducive to long term knowledge development.

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