Does planning need an update?


“…to be educated is to be ever open to the call of what it is to be deeply human, and heeding the call to walk with others in life’s ventures.”
~Dr Ted Aoki

When I was in teacher training, we were asked to make elaborately detailed unit and lesson plans. To be honest, I never used said unit plans. The lesson plans were useful, in so far as they prompted me to think through the flow of a class in advance. This was helpful, for a while. In my first year of teaching, when I had 5 preps, lesson planning went out the window. I didn’t show up to class unprepared, but the detailed, step by step, static lesson plan became unrealistic.  I quickly realized that to survive and thrive, I had to become more responsive and make decisions mid-stream. “Nope! That plan for a jigsaw is not working!” “Three quarters of the class is struggling with a certain type of problem, press pause and try something else.”

I felt a bit betrayed, as no one had mentioned that I might have to be responsive to the humans who sat in front of me every day (although, it does seem rather obvious to me now). The tool I was given was: plan, plan, and plan some more. Create year plans, create unit plans, and then finally, create lesson plans! Somehow extensive planning did not create the classroom of my dreams.

Does more content equal more learning?

Never mind that one year, I didn’t even get to the Fungi unit in Biology 11. Instead, we had decided to build a model rainforest in our classroom and it took longer than expected (you know those types of projects!).  At year-end, the science department-head heard that my class had not covered the Fungi unit and let me know that this was unacceptable. As she explained it, Fungi was on the departmental final exam (the same one given each year) and it was required content for Bio 11.

Obviously, my “haphazard” planning strategies had failed me. At the time, I felt a fair amount of guilt, but I also felt conflicted. The rainforest project felt worthwhile. The students worked together as a class, everyone participated, and the process was filled with laughter.

What matters or what works?

As I moved on in my teaching career, I eventually became a super-planner. Teaching content heavy courses, such as Bio 12 and APBio, caused me to plan the year out, in detail, day by day. And I never deviated from this plan. I did my photocopying in August and had the unit packets lined up and ready to go in my cupboard. I did this because it worked. The advance planning allowed me to efficiently cover the curriculum and get students well prepared for a high stakes final exam.  Planning was an effective tool for scaling the brick-like wall of content, each brick a unit of content, immutable in arrangement. Planning was a tool that ensured that I never left any bricks out (as with the Fungi unit).

Every once in a while, a situation would arise that reminded me of what really mattered, and I would feel conflicted again. Except this time, my hyper-focus on the content-wall that caused me to ignore the ideals and values that had brought me to education in the first place.  Students didn’t have time to develop deep understanding of biology or to discover their passions, and I didn’t have time to get to know them, as people. Regardless, the planning worked, so I carried on.

Trapped in a living contradiction

At the time, I felt trapped in a space between what worked and what mattered. The over-the-top advance planning worked as students were well prepared for that exam. But, I was trading in my idealism for efficiency, and my idealism began to give way to cynicism and doubt.

Does planning need an update?

Now, years later, does it seem we are trapped in the same living contradiction? On the one hand, we talk of inquiry and personal learning, and on the other, we create year plans, lesson plans, and curriculum checklists. We want to move forward but we also want to drag the tools of the past with us. We talk of beliefs and values as vital to change, but make little space for inner reflection and dialogue and the shine from our busy badges blinds us to everything, except what is deemed urgent. Have we mentally dismantled the content-wall for ourselves? Or, do we continue to tinker deferentially in its shadows?  Until we topple the wall and free the bricks, can students authentically construct their own unique understandings? Have we moved into the uncomfortable tension between curriculum as prescribed and curriculum as lived, and acknowledged that despite our plans, students often take away learning that is vastly different from our plans? We talk of creating student agency and empowerment, but, as Will Richardson reminds us “students already have complete control over their learning. Our hubris is to think they don’t.”

Will the tools used in the past to scale the content-wall, still serve us in this new landscape? Is planning something we can do for children but without out them? Or, do we need to harness our finite energies and lean into the messiness of planning, emergent and responsive, in concert with students?

When we reach for yet another tool or template can they quickly become a panacea for real change? Do we mistakenly hope the tools and templates will do the heavy lifting of change for us, as our energies continue to be consumed by doing what works? How do create the space and time to clarify for ourselves what matters?

Does planning need an update?