Friday, September 23, 2011

Rethinking Learning with A Child-Centered Lesson Plan

Editor’s note:  After reading How Andgragogy Might Look in the Classroom on the Mystified Mom blog, I asked if she could pull out the parts regarding lesson plans so that people could get a better idea of what a learner-centered lesson plan would look like. 

Guest Post by Mystified Mom

People often claim that learner-centered methods are not practical for mass delivery systems due to the fact that standards have to be met. As a veteran educator, I have not found this to be true. To follow are the eight parts of a lesson plan and my comments about what could be added to gear them toward how students learn best. 

The header typically include the teachers name, grade level, topic, and time allotment. This is all standard information. The one piece of information that can be rethought is the time allotment. Unless things have changed, the typical time allotment for a lesson is 30 minutes to an hour. Every now and then, I will see lessons that take longer or will span the course of a few days. Students and teachers should allot more time to do lessons. 

A lot of high schools have gone to block scheduling to give students more time in a class. That means that they do not have every subject every day. Why can't that be done in elementary schools? Why can't teachers spend half the day doing nothing but math or English or Social Studies? I bet that would give teachers a lot more options for making lessons come alive. It would also give more opportunity for teachers to coach and work one on one with individual students. In the period of an hour, it is very difficult to get around to each student and give each student help.

People learn best when they are given the opportunity to completely immerse themselves in a topic. Schools do not allow for that level of immersion. As soon as a kid gets involved in an activity, it is time to put it up. Rethinking the class day so that each day is devoted to a particular subject would make more sense. It would allow for more continuity. If a teacher wants to spend a week doing an art project, put it all in one day so that a child has more time to follow his/her muse. I remember being in high school art class and getting frustrated because I would have an inspiration and would try to get it done but it was inevitable that the bell would ring before I could finish it. That required me to put it up and try to pick up the muse later. That is difficult to do. 

Materials Needed
The second part is materials needed. That is pretty simple. It is good to have the necessary resources available before teaching a lesson. However, if you wanted to focus more on the students, you could have an open ended component where students select their own materials. Instead of using the fancy math manipulatives, make an allowance for them to use manipulatives that are ordinary items such as pencils or crayons. Give them the opportunity to find ordinary materials that can be used to further the lesson objectives.

Lesson Objectives
The next section is the objective section. I have added an element in italics to demonstrate how the current elements could be added to in order to take the learner into account.

  • Which standards the lesson meets
  • How this lesson will help the child outside of the academic environment
  • Long-term objectives (How this fits into the larger lesson.)
  • Short-term (lesson) objectives: Specific outcomes that are usually phrased as "the student will be able to"

I propose an extra element to these objectives. If the intent of schools is to prepare kids for life or adulthood, then I think kids should be told how these skills are going to help them outside of the classroom and in the real world. It would be rather simple to add an element that requires the teacher to identify how a specific objective will help a child in life right now or even later in life. Kids should be treated as though they are citizens right now.

The next section is procedures, which spells out how the teacher plans to go about delivering the lesson. In the procedure section, most places recommend that teachers start out with an attention getter to introduce the lesson. What better attention getter than to tell students how this knowledge is going to help them be a part of the world. No, people don't want kids to think outside of the classroom. Another tidbit is that the attention getter should activate prior knowledge. What if the kid does not have prior knowledge because he has forgotten it?

The procedures section typically involves spelling out how the goals of the lesson will be reached, what the students will do to meet the objectives set out by the teachers, and what the students are expected to do. That is all fine but I think that perhaps the procedures should be more open ended. Or, at the very least, students should be given more time. I am thinking about how things work in a college classroom. I have worked with college professors that teach face to face courses. They have notes and they make sure that they have all of the supplies necessary for any particular class but they are not required to write up what they are going to do every single day. They create a syllabus at the beginning of the semester that contains the learning outcomes, assignments, and expectations for the semester. I realize that it might not be realistic to expect a 6 year old to follow a syllabus but I do think it would be a good idea if things weren't broken down into such small chunks.

Really, I think a monthly syllabus or even a weekly syllabus would be a good idea. It would give parents the chance to work ahead with their children. I think it would also give the teachers more flexibility. Right now, teachers typically break the day up into subjects. I haven't been in an elementary classroom in a while but I am thinking that the chunks of time for a lesson are usually about an hour. If the subject is boring, then an hour seems like forever. If the lessons or activities are fun, then an hour isn't near long enough.

Independent Work
This section typically spells out the types of independent work that a student is expected to do. Ideally, the independent work should reinforce the lesson, build upon it, and create background knowledge for the next lesson. If all of this were done in larger chunks of time (day, half day, several hours), there would be more time for kids to explore and the lessons could be intertwined so there would not need to be as much instruction time. When I was in the classroom, I found that the hour long lesson was a problem because it made it difficult for me to plan lessons. There were lots of things that would have been cool to do but it would have been very difficult to spread them out over the week. The other problem was that kids would sometimes forget what they learned from one day to the next because they were never really allowed to fully immerse themselves in the topic.

With larger chunks of time, there could be more options for independent work. There could be a written component such as work sheets or book work, there could be an exploratory component where kids are allowed to explore the topic in a hands on fashion by doing a project of some sorts, and there could be a play component. If all of these components are set up at the beginning, then students could work through the different components at their own pace and allow the teacher more time to assist students that need more help. With larger chunks of time, the classroom could have a lot more self-directed learning going on.

My argument for more time for lessons is that I think the little 45 minute and 1 hour lessons do not prepare kids for the real world. (There, I said it. I am tired of people saying that to me with regard to homeschooling.) In the real world at real jobs, people are expected to work on the same activity or subject for hours at a time. I know that when I am working on my online course, I will sometimes work on it for 3 or 4 hours at a time. School didn't prepare me for that. Heck, I think schools gave me a short attention span because of spending years in classes that would only allow short periods of time for classes. The fun classes went by too fast and the slow classes took forever. I suspect that having longer class times wouldn't change that.

And then, of course, is the dreaded assessment. Why does every single lesson have to have an assessment component? When you break learning down into such tiny bits, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether or not somebody actually learned something. In a lot of cases, I think assessment is merely assessing a child's ability to follow directions.

I think larger chunks of time would also for more authentic types of assessment such as observations or personal success plans or portfolios. One of the biggest hurdles in the classroom is not enough time. When the day is broken up into 5 or 6 subjects, it makes it almost impossible for teachers to do anything but test. If people want to move the focus away from tests, then teachers are going to have to be given more freedom and more time.

Depending on where you look, some will list reflection as part of the lesson plan. The way it is worded is that it is the teacher's opportunity to decide whether or not the lesson was effective. All it would take for the focus to move from pedagogy to andragogy would be to ask for student feedback, which leads me to my last and final point.

Rating a teacher based on the students test scores is the most outrageous thing that I can imagine. First, how a student scores on a test does not indicate how much they have learned nor does it indicate whether or not the teacher is a good teacher. In all honesty, I don't think that I will be happy until student evaluations are introduced into K-12 classrooms. All the test scores in the world and all the observations by administrators are not going to make an ounce of difference. In my opinion, what matters is how students react to the teacher.

Kids can be given a voice in the classroom without eliminating standards and without removing mass instruction. Mass instruction can be tweaked to address how students actually learn rather than how people wish they would learn. Pretty much all of the articles that I have read about child development have said that kids learn best when playing and having fun. I think it would be really easy to build that into mass instruction. It could all be done with a mind to the standards. Maybe I am crazy but it seems like there is too much of an either/or dichotomy here.

Mystified Mom
I am passionate about learning. I have four beautiful daughters (10, 7, 4, & 2) and I am married to my best friend. We live a lifestyle of learning, which means that learning is a part of everything that we do. As somebody that is always learning and always seeking new ideas and perspectives, I am not tied to any one method of learning. My goal is to examine my life and the world around me so that I may grow as a mother, wife, and human being. I am very interested in child advocacy, especially as it relates to the rights of children.

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