Monday, November 26, 2012

Planning for Learning: A How-To

Bored Woman Studying
Middle school teachers have a special job.

I've discussed some of this in earlier posts. We have to wade through all of the middle school stuff and somehow facilitate 30 twelve year-olds in learning a new and specific concept or idea every day. In my 12 years teaching and observing (formally and informally) middle school teachers, here are four things I've learned.

1. Start with an OBJECTIVE!
I can't stress this one enough. While I like to allow for differences in style, objective-based planning is the only way to plan. You start with an objective - a measurable learning outcome that students need to know or be able to do by the end of the class. For newer teachers, this changes what can sometimes feel like the need to fill time into the need to have students learn within a limited time

Let's take as an example:
Students will be able to describe motion of particles in three phases of matter.

   -Specific? Yes.
   -Kid friendly? Yup.
   -Measureable? Sure.

Ok, we're ready to get to work.

2. Plan for Mastery
Now, the challenge is set. You, the teacher, have 45 (or 47, 50, 60, etc.) minutes to have every student meet your objective. In our example, this means you have 45 minutes for your students to learn and demonstrate a mastery of particle motion in three phases of matter. 

How in the world will you do it? If you're asking yourself this question, you're off to a great start. You've successfully changed your focus from filling time to using time. Answering this question is the reason you get a paycheck - this is your job. You are an expert in getting kids to learn. Not only that, but you need to continue to get better at it.

This step involves...
  • Planning Activities
  • Preparing Materials
  • Preplanning Questions (yes, preplanning) 

    and synthesizing everything into a smooth, focused lesson!

This is not to say that you need to do it alone! Hopefully, you have a strong, collaborative staff to help you. Discussing lessons with peers, asking others for feedback, and reflection (alone and in groups) are powerful tools that will foster improved teaching and learning.

3. Frame the Learning
The importance of framing is never better demonstrated than when seen from the student perspective. (Newer teachers, I urge you to seek out peers who excel at this and watch them in action)! This is an extremely powerful learning tool. Framing of learning involves explicitly communicating to students what they need to know or be able to do by the end of class.
In addition, it may involve...
-Explaining how you're going to help them get there. 
-Activating prior knowledge.
-Asking a question to help students begin to explore the topic.

In our example, this could be as simple as saying, "Please take a look at your objective. Today, by the end of class, you need to be able to describe how particles move in three different phases of matter. Are there any questions of what is expected of you by the end of class today?"

To me, this is so important that I use anywhere from 1-5 of my 45 minutes covering it each day. It may not sound like much, but 5 minutes is 11% of the time students have in class.
It's worth it - every day.

4. Summarize the Learning
Ok, you've set an objective, framed learning for students, and planned and implemented a lesson for mastery. 
DO NOT let the lesson simply end with the bell - end the lesson purposefully by summarizing the learning with which students should be walking away!

Like framing, the power and importance of a good summary is most easily visible from the student perspective. Opening and closing the learning both work to focus students on the objective, and are well worth the time they require.


This blog post is by no means  meant to be comprehensive. The art of teaching takes years to develop, but I am a strong believer in the four ideas presented above. After observing them in action and consistently utilizing them myself, I feel safe telling you that they  
improve student learning.
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  1. Great post! Short and sweet - and so true!