Six Common Mistakes in Writing Lesson Plans
(and what to do about them)
Dr. Bob Kizlik
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There are many maxims in education, great words of wisdom, and sincere advice from countless sources. But, without question, it is true that the very best teachers, the most effective teachers, are good planners and thinkers. The success of professional teachers doesn't "just happen." The road to success for teachers requires commitment and practice, especially of those skills involved in planning lessons and learning activities, and in managing classroom behavior. Planning lessons is a fundamental skill all teachers must develop and hone, although implementation of this skill in actual teaching can, and usually does, take some time. Being able to develop an effective lesson plan format is a core skill for all who teach. So let's begin at the beginning.
In my career as a teacher and teacher educator, I have read and evaluated thousands of lesson plans written by education students at all levels. On a consistent basis, I see mistakes that distort or weaken what the plans are supposed to communicate. If you are serious about improving your skill in planning lessons, you should begin by first thinking carefully about what the lesson is supposed to accomplish. There is no substitute for this. In teaching students how to develop lesson plans, the following are mistakes I have observed that students make most often:
1. The objective of the lesson does not specify what the student will actually do that can be observed. Remember, an objective is a description of what a student does that forms the basis for making an inference about learning. Poorly written objectives lead to faulty inferences.
2. The lesson assessment is disconnected from the behavior indicated in the objective. An assessment in a lesson plan is simply a description of how the teacher will determine whether the objective has been accomplished. It must be based on the same behavior that is incorporated in the objective. Anything else is flawed.
3. The prerequisites are not specified or are inconsistent with what is actually required to succeed with the lesson. Prerequisites mean just that -- a statement of what a student needs to know or be able to do to succeed and accomplish the lesson objective. It is not easy to determine what is required, but it is necessary. Some research indicates that as much as 70% of learning is dependent on students having the appropriate prerequisites.
4. The materials specified in the lesson are extraneous to the actual described learning activities. This means keep the list of materials in line with what you actually plan to do. Overkilling with materials is not a virtue!
5. The instruction in which the teacher will engage is not efficient for the level of intended student learning. Efficiency is a measure that means getting more done with the same amount of effort, or the same amount with less effort. With so much to be learned, it should be obvious that instructional efficiency is paramount.
6. The student activities described in the lesson plan do not contribute in a direct and effective way to the lesson objective. Don't have your students engaged in activities just to keep them busy. Whatever you have your students do should contribute in a direct way to their accomplishing the lesson objective.
A lesson plan that contains one or more of these mistakes needs rethinking and revision. Below is a rationale and guide to help you develop effective lesson plans and avoid the six common mistakes.
FIRST, YOU MUST KNOW HOW TO PLAN
The purpose of a lesson plan is really quite simple; it is to communicate. But, you might ask, communicate to whom? The answer to this question, on a practical basis, is YOU! The lesson plans you develop are to guide you in organizing your material and yourself for the purpose of helping your students achieve intended learning outcomes. Whether a lesson plan fits a particular format is not as relevant as whether or not it actually describes what you want, and what you have determined is the best means to an end. If you write a lesson plan that can be interpreted or implemented in many different ways, it is probably not a very good plan. This leads one to conclude that a key principle in creating a lesson plan is specificity. It is sort of like saying, "almost any series of connecting roads will take you from Key West Florida to Anchorage Alaska, eventually." There is however, one any only one set of connecting roads that represents the shortest and best route. Best means that, for example, getting to Anchorage by using an unreliable car is a different problem than getting there using a brand new car. What process one uses to get to a destination depends on available resources and time.
So, if you agree that the purpose of a lesson plan is to communicate, then, in order to accomplish that purpose, the plan must contain a set of elements that are descriptive of the process. Let's look at what those elements should be.
THE LESSON PLAN
1. Preliminary Information
The development of a lesson plan begins somewhere, and a good place to start is with a list or description of general information about the plan. This information sets the boundaries or limits of the plan. Here is a good list of these information items: (a) the grade level of the students for whom the plan is intended; (b) the specific subject matter (mathematics, reading, language arts, science, social studies, etc.); (c) if appropriate, the name of the unit of which the lesson is a part; and (d) the name of the teacher.
2. The Parts
Each part of a lesson plan should fulfill some purpose in communicating the specific content, the objective, the learning prerequisites, what will happen, the sequence of student and teacher activities, the materials required, and the actual assessment procedures. Taken together, these parts constitute an end (the objective), the means (what will happen and the student and teacher activities), and an input (information about students and necessary resources). At the conclusion of a lesson, the assessment tells the teacher how well students actually attained the objective.
In a diagram, the process looks something like this:
Let's look at each part separately.
Input: This part refers to the physical materials, other resources, and information that will be required by the process. What are these inputs? First of all, if you have thought about what the lesson is supposed to accomplish, the inputs are much easier to describe. In general categories, inputs consist of:
1. Information about the students for whom the lesson is intended. This information includes, but is not limited to the age and grade level of the students, and what they already know about what you want them to learn.
2. Information about the amount of time you estimate it will take to implement the lesson.
3. Descriptions of the materials that will be required by the lesson, and at some point, the actual possession of the materials.
4. Information about how you will acquire the physical materials required.
5. Information about how to obtain any special permissions and schedules required. For example if your lesson plan will require a field trip, you must know how to organize it. If your lesson will require a guest speaker (fire chief, lawyer, police officer, etc.) you must know how to make arrangements for having that person be at the right place at the right time.
This is the actual plan. If you have done the preliminary work (thinking, describing the inputs), creating the plan is relatively easy. There are a number of questions you must answer in the creating the plan:
1. What are the inputs? This means you have the information (content description, student characteristics, list of materials, prerequisites, time estimates, etc.) necessary to begin the plan.
2. What is the output? This means a description of what the students are supposed to learn.
3. What do I do? This means a description of the instructional activities you will use.
4. What do the students do? This means a description of what the students will do during the lesson.
5. How will the learning be measured? This means a description of the assessment procedure at the end of the lesson.
As an example, here is a template that I have used successfully to teach students to write lesson plans:
Lesson Plan Format:
I. Content: This is a statement that relates to the subject-matter content. The content may be a concept or a skill. Phrase this as follows: I want my students to: (be able to [name the skill]) OR (I want my students to understand [a description of the concept]). Often times, this content is predetermined or strongly suggested by the specific curriculum you are implementing through your teaching.
II. Prerequisites: Indicate what the student must already know or be able to do in order to be successful with this lesson. (You would want to list one or two specific behaviors necessary to begin this lesson). Some research indicates that up to 70% of what a student learns is dependent on his or her possessing the appropriate prerequisites.
III. Instructional Objective: Indicate what is to be learned - this must be a complete objective. Write this objective in terms of what an individual student will do, not what a group will do. Limit your objective to one behavioral verb. The verb you choose must come from the list of defined behavioral verbs on my web site. Make sure your objective relates to the content statement above.
IV. Instructional Procedures: Description of what you will do in teaching the lesson, and, as appropriate, includes a description of how you will introduce the lesson to the students, what actual instructional techniques you will use, and how you will bring closure to the lesson. Include what specific things students will actually do during the lesson. In most cases, you will provide some sort of summary for the students.
V. Materials and Equipment: List all materials and equipment to be used by both the teacher and learner and how they will be used..
VI. Assessment/Evaluation: Describe how you will determine the extent to which students have attained the instructional objective. Be sure this part is directly connected to the behavior called for in the instructional objective.
VII. Follow-up Activities: Indicate how other activities/materials will be used to reinforce and extend this lesson. Include homework, assignments, and projects.
VIII. Self-Assessment (to be completed after the lesson is presented): Address the major components of the lesson plan, focusing on both the strengths, and areas of needed improvement. Determine here how you plan to collect information that will be useful for planning future lessons. A good idea is to analyze the difference between what you wanted (the objective) and what was attained (the results of the assessment).
Of course, there is an immense difference between being able to plan and actually being able to carry out the plan. However, if you have thought carefully about where you are going before you begin writing your plan, the chances of your success, as well as the success of your students, are much greater.
The Madeline Hunter Lesson Design Model
Madeline Hunter's eight steps have stood the test of time. Below is a brief description of each. Understanding these components will add to your understanding of how to plan a lesson, and is useful for the model presented above.
1. Anticipatory Set (focus) - A short activity or prompt that focuses the students' attention before the actual lesson begins. Used when students enter the room or in a transition. A hand-out given to students at the door, review question written on the board, "two problems" on the overhead are examples of the anticipatory set.
2. Purpose (objective) - The purpose of today's lesson, why the students need to learn it, what they will be able to "do", and how they will show learning as a result are made clear by the teacher.
3. Input - The vocabulary, skills, and concepts the teacher will impart to the students - the "stuff" the kids need to know in order to be successful.
4. Modeling (show) - The teacher shows in graphic form or demonstrates what the finished product looks like - a picture worth a thousand words.
5. Guided Practice (follow me) - The teacher leads the students through the steps necessary to perform the skill using the trimodal approach - hear/see/do.
6. Checking For Understanding (CFU) - The teacher uses a variety of questioning strategies to determine "Got it yet?" and to pace the lesson - move forward?/back up?
7. Independent Practice - The teacher releases students to practice on their own based on #3-#6.
8. Closure - A review or wrap-up of the lesson - "Tell me/show me what you have learned today".
Please feel free to comment on the ideas expressed on this page. The ADPRIMA web site is intended to give you both information and to stimulate your thinking about teaching and learning. In short, your growth as a student or teacher depends on your willingness to learn and think. To that end, I hope this information is useful to you.
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