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April 1, 2015
Vol. 57
No. 4

Writing a Master Plan

Pressures to cover content and engage students can sabotage the best laid curricular plans. Here's how to put your lesson plans back on track with long-term goals.

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"When I began teaching," recalls chemistry education specialist Amy Fowler Murphy, "the focus of my lesson and unit planning was pacing. I wanted to make sure I 'covered' all of the content in the chemistry textbook within the time allotted by the school calendar. Of course, that never happened."
When it comes to planning instruction, teachers have to balance the endless amounts of content introduced in phonebook-thick textbooks, high-stakes tests, and a proliferation of standards. Meanwhile, a room full of students is ready to check out if the learning isn't engaging. These pressures make it easy to lose sight of long-term learning goals, and that throws a major wrench in successful plans. To help teachers prioritize what they do day-to-day, teaching experts have identified common planning pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Establish an End Game

"In high school planning, usually the first thought is, what's the content and how am I going to cover it?" notes author Grant Wiggins. Planning, he claims, shouldn't be about what book you are reading, but "how students are different when they're finished reading it."
Sharing a clear learning target with students reframes learning around outcomes, not coverage. Learning goals should spell out what students will understand at the end of a lesson or unit, says Posie Wood, director of academics at LearnZillion, a company that works with teachers to design and distribute standards-aligned lesson plans.
For example, chimes in LearnZillion math content expert Belinda Thompson, "Adding fractions isn't a learning goal. Getting students to 'understand that to add fractions, we need to add same-size pieces' makes it clear that you want students to understand why fractions need common denominators."
To get out from under the burden of coverage, Wiggins and Jay McTighe, coauthors of Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: How do I refine my units to enhance student learning? (ASCD, 2015), suggest planning backwards from the performance goals that describe what you want students to do with their learning.
"Just like a coach plans with the game in mind, teach individual skills and knowledge with the performance in mind, not as ends in themselves," McTighe explains.
Now with the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative at the University of Montevallo, Murphy followed that logic when she shifted her planning to focus on the big, relevant ideas her students needed to learn to improve their scientific literacy.

Avoid Cotton Candy Curriculum

You've got your goal in mind, now how will you teach it? Kendra Hearn, chair of Secondary Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, relates that the pressure of designing differentiated, engaging instruction for 20 or more students can lead many preservice teachers to fall into the "fun trap." This means the planning is guided by activities that look cool but don't necessarily align with learning goals—and that could lead to superficial outcomes. "It's possible to build a model of a working roller coaster but not learn any physics," quips Wiggins.
"The potential problem with activity-oriented lesson planning is that the activity becomes the end in itself, as opposed to a means to something greater," explains McTighe. "Activity-oriented lessons can be fun in the short run, but they're cotton candy. They don't have any deep nourishment."
The solution? Plan activities last. After establishing a clear lesson or unit goal, 4th grade teacher Annie Huynh at Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia first plans her assessments (or how students will demonstrate knowledge toward that goal), and then plans the activities that will prepare students for those assessments. For Hearn's preservice teachers, this can be a big shift. "In the past, the activity might've been planned first, and it would be happenstance whether you got to the target or not."
Activities should be a series of steps, says Susquehanna University education professor Anne Reeves, that lead students on a pathway of being introduced to an objective, then practicing it, and finally, being able to perform the objective and explain what they are doing.
To sort the fluff from the real stuff, Wiggins says students should always be able to answer three questions about an activity: What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What's it helping them learn?







Resist Information Overload

Wood and colleagues underscore the need to be clear about where you're going before you start going there. "We as educators have a tendency to dive into planning instructional actions (things like how to group the students, the activity logistics, or materials we might need)." The wealth of free online lesson planning resources can become tempting distractions as teachers sit down to design learning. Before getting pulled in a million digital directions, Wood and colleagues suggest deeply studying your content and what you want students to get out of it. This hones a teacher's skill at thoughtfully and strategically navigating the vast landscape of teaching resources, they say.
Another technology—digital planning software, with standards preloaded—can make it too easy to associate a lesson or unit with too many objectives. If you have 40 objectives for a two-week unit, you're probably not addressing all of them, and you're losing clarity of focus, says McTighe. When planning on digital or even pen-and-paper platforms, only identify the new standards that you are going to teach and explicitly assess, as opposed to every bit of knowledge that could be useful to your students during a unit.

Plan Out Loud

"You can't be 100 percent sure your plan is going to work, but there are key ways to lower the risk for failure," Wiggins acknowledges. One way is to anticipate where students could get confused. Wiggins recommends getting out of your own head and thinking, What is the lesson asking the students to do and are they prepared to do it? Where will they need more instruction or perhaps guidance in the form of a handout? "Anticipate the rough spots. It's like planning a wedding or any complicated event," Wiggins adds.
"Sometimes an activity or problem or approach looks familiar and we think we know how it will play out in the classroom," Wood and colleagues note. They recommend always working completely through a task before using it with students as a way to not only check that it aligns with learning goals, but to also forecast sticking points.
"We might think that it's not possible to know what students will do before we ask them to do it. But, we do have some idea based on our experience with the grade level, or if students have been in a colleague's class in a previous year," says LearnZillion literacy expert Lisa Bernstein. Predict student responses—both correct and incorrect—and keep those in mind as students are working.
While anticipating student responses, Bernstein also recommends preparing questions in advance. "This is a helpful step to guard against thinking the lesson was a success because all the students can 'do' something correctly," she explains. She and her colleagues recommend checking for understanding with "why" and "what if" higher-order questions.
Thompson explains, "For example, with students learning to add fractions, you might ask a simple question like, 'Why do we need to rewrite the fractions with common denominators?' Many students will say something like, 'Because otherwise we would get the wrong answer' when we want to hear them say 'Because we need to make same-size pieces so that we know what the pieces are called when they are combined.'"
"As a teacher, you have to learn to make quick adjustments based on feedback from students," says Wiggins. "To learn to do that, you have to be crystal clear about what you should be seeing from students," he explains. Working through your plans, especially with colleagues, will help crystallize a picture of student performance and prepare you for in-the-moment refinements.

Ditch the Daily Focus

The problems of disconnected, coverage-oriented planning may be exacerbated by its most typical incarnation: the daily lesson plan. Although the Internet abounds with search-and-share lesson plans, some educators suggest shifting away from deifying this daily document. In Wiggins and McTighe's Understanding by Design® method, for example, the unit is the smallest level of curriculum planning. McTighe says that's because, too often, teachers plan individual lessons that focus on discrete objectives that don't cohere or meet the unit's end goal. Planning backwards, on the other hand, keeps the focus on the longer-term outcomes that should guide individual lessons.
"When I was in the classroom, I was making very few daily lesson plans," recalls author and instructional coach Mike Fisher. Instead, Fisher made sure he had a really strong curriculum map that included anchor points to guide weekly instructional goals. Fisher now works with districts to help teachers in grade-level, disciplinary, or even vertical teams identify important learning goals and map a route for all students to achieve them.
Fisher asks, If your map reflects good conversations with colleagues and is a living document that you are constantly improving, why would you need to lesson plan on top of that? Teachers collaborate to design common formative assessments that give them ongoing feedback toward performance anchors. Instead of a daily plan, you might say by Thursday, we expect students to be at this point in the unit, offers Fisher. Proficiency and mastery matter on an anchor-to-anchor basis, but not on a day-to-day basis, he clarifies. "I'm not saying 'stop planning.' I'm saying, 'stop planning for the isolated moment.'"
Moving away from the potential myopia of daily plans requires schools to shift from isolated teacher planning to collaborative, integrative teams. It also begs principals to question the merit in requiring teachers to submit daily plans. Instead, look for a coherent unit plan with rich, well-aligned assessment tasks built into it.
"Demanding daily lesson plans has the potential to reinforce the 'twin sins' of coverage-oriented and activity-oriented lessons," says McTighe. In other words, don't "fixat[e] on covering discrete objectives day-to-day without clarity about the long-term ends, and without flexibility to adjust one's teaching when the results call for it."


Survey Says

According to educators, creating a lesson plan that meets the needs of all diverse learners can be the most difficult aspect of the planning process.

What is the most challenging aspect of lesson or unit planning?

52%:  Differentiating instruction

14%:  Engagement

13%:  Managing time

10%:  Designing appropriate assessments

7%:  Aligning activities with learning objectives

4%:  Content coverage

A total of 538 readers responded to this question that appeared in an ASCD SmartBrief ED Pulse online poll on February 5, 2015.

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