Does planning need an update?

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“…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?

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What story of learning are we telling the learners in our care?

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‘There’s a difference between doing things right & doing the right thing.’
                                                                                       ~Peter Druker

Reflecting back on teaching Biology 12, I spent a lot of time improving the tests I was creating.  I linked the learning outcomes to each test question, I created detailed test outlines, I did intense review sessions, and I simplified test instructions.

In my mind I had nailed test creation!

And in fact, I was improving the tests I gave.  But was I changing the story of learning for the learners in my care? Was I telling a new and updated story?  What did using tests, as the sole way to reveal student learning, say about what I believed about learning?

As I look back now, I see that although I was improving a practice, I wasn’t necessarily changing or examining the beliefs that underpinned the practice. I recognize now that the real change I was after didn’t reside in the updating of tests. Rather, the real work resided in me understanding and exploring my beliefs about learning. The work lay in reflecting on and examining my practices, and teasing out what story of learning I was telling the learners as a result of these practices.

I was doing things right but I wasn’t necessarily doing the right thing.

“An important leverage point for transforming education is changing mindsets that gave rise to the system in the first place.”
                                                                                                                     ~Todd Rose

Imagine you are in a dimly lit room trying to read a fascinating story. Every time you get to the best parts of the book the lights go out completely. Finally, someone enters the room and hands you a nimble and unobtrusive clip-on reading light. You snap the handy light on to your book and presto! You are reading the story effortlessly! 

Then, your handy light goes out. Another person enters and offers you a massive, bright, free-standing spotlight. They turn the light on and you are immediately blinded. You squint as you try to read the next couple of words but it is near impossible. All you can do is to remove yourself from the glare of the light and huddle in the corner with your back to the light. There you try to get a few more pages in.  

As we navigate the myriad of educational initiatives out there, which initiatives will be like the nimble and adaptable snap on light, and reveal the story of learning for our learners? Which initiatives and practices will be like the blinding spotlight, and act to overpower the story of learning?

Sometimes it seems that “the light” becomes more important than the story. How might we create environments where “the story” is at the center?

Before we even consider which initiatives to undertake, we might want to determine what story of learning are we currently telling the learners in our care. Will Richardson challenges us to do a story audit to reveal the story we are telling learners. He suggests going out in to the hall and walking into your classroom. What do the posters on the classroom door say about learning? Then, walk into the room and look around. What does the arrangement of the furniture and presentation setup say about the story of learning? Sit down in at desk or table, look around. What story of learning is being told from this perspective? Continue on through the day from the learners’ perspective.

What story of learning are you telling the learners in your care?
How will you tell the story of learning to the learners in your care?

Resource Roundup

A collection of belief sets complied by the ILT in SD23

8 Cultural Forces That Define Our Classrooms based on the book Cultural Forces by Ron Ritchart