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The 4 Non-Negotiables of Lesson Planning

In his article, 6 Common Mistakes in Writing Lesson Plans, Dr. Bob Kizlik remarks that, “Being able to develop an effective lesson plan format is a core skill for all who teach.” I agree with this statement, but would go on to say that skilled instructional design is something that separates great teachers from those who are, well, not so great. In my work with teachers and instructional design, I find that we too often miss the forest for the paperwork – turning the valuable process of actually thinking through a lesson into merely filling in the blanks of a template. While templates can be useful, if we really want to hone in on the essential elements of good planning, we – teachers, professors, administrators – need to focus less on the formatting and more on the short list of “non-negotiables” within lesson design.

Non-negotiable #1 Clear Learning Targets

How do you get where you are going if you are unsure about the destination? How can you move students to meet the instructional goal if you do not really understand what it means? Often, when we look at standards (Common Core or otherwise), we tend to zoom in on the content – the “what” or the “noun” to be taught. Ok, so the standard says “draw angles of a specified measure using a protractor.” Angles, protractor, got it. Well, what about the level of thinking and doing around that content? What should students be able to do with angles and protractors? This would be the “how” or the VERBS in the standard. At the end of instruction – if students have met the standard – they should be able to “use” and “draw”. It sounds simple, but just thinking about the level of thinking/doing (verbs) in relation to the content (nouns) can make a huge difference in the way we think about learning targets – particularly if we throw in helpful cognitive frameworks like Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (RBT) and/or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK).

Non-negotiable #2 Task Analysis

Ok, so we have clear learning targets. We know the instructional destination – but that is only the end point. How do we know where to start? What are the milestones along the way? How do we know that students are progressing toward the goal(s)? In order to answer these questions, we have to do some level of task analysis. Now, I know that my first exposure to task analysis was a lengthy process that, though valuable to me as an aspiring teacher, was not very practical in the day-to-day grind of actually teaching. I am not suggesting that we all need to do that level of task analysis for every learning target. But, when I talk to teachers about their lesson planning, I want to see or hear some evidence that they have mapped the learning process backwards from that end target or goal, and thought through how they would determine the milestones and path for students to get there.

Non-negotiable #3 Aligned Assessments

So, clear learning targets: check. Task analysis – done. I have the destination defined and learning path mapped. Now, how do I know where students are on that map at any given point in the process? I need to plan and align assessments. Assessments – not tests. Well, not necessarily tests. My pre-assessment (to figure out where students are starting) might be very informal – a KWL for instance. My formative assessment might be drawing angles on individual dry erase boards and holding them up when prompted. My summative assessment might actually be a paper and pencil – yes – test. The point is, I have mapped several different types of assessments or progress checks that guide the learning AND my teaching throughout the process.

Non-negotiable #4 Congruent Activities & Resources

This non-negotiable is last because, not only should the other three be done before selecting lesson activities and resources, but also because – if the other three are already in place – this one should be really easy. By “congruent” I mean that the activities and resources are an exact match to the learning targets and task analysis, and are completely in line with the assessments. Many textbooks and publishing companies trumpet that their materials are “highly correlated” to standards. Correlated is not congruent. Correlated often means they include the content (nouns). Many are not congruent to the thinking and doing (verbs) required of students. When I look at instructional plans or talk to teachers about their lessons, I want to see stuff – tasks, activities, tools, resources – that is thoughtfully matched to the other three non-negotiables. And this congruent ‘stuff’ doesn’t have to be designed by the teacher – by all means, please allow Google to be your teaching assistant. Just beware that what is found online is likely only correlated to what you plan to teach. Using ‘stuff’ that is not congruent can waste precious learning time. So, those cool activities and useful handouts will probably need to be tweaked to make them congruent. The sage advice, “adapt don’t adopt,” certainly applies here.

So that’s it – 4 non-negotiables of instructional design. They are not new. They do not require a template or any technology. They do not require loads of extra time. What they do require is a commitment to thoughtful design – which in my mind is what makes teachers true artisans.

***A shout out to Mike Rutherford’s Artisan Teacher program, which includes lots more advice on these topics, among other essential teaching practices.

-Dr. Rachel Porter, Executive Director 

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The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning expands and supports high quality teaching and effective, supportive leadership. QTL Processes bring together technology, teamwork, student data and research-based instruction to create more engaging lesson design for greater student achievement.

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