Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

Lesson plans of some form are vital. Fixation on their format is distracting. One of the ways schools frustrate new teachers is by forcing them to submit lesson plans written according to complicated templates. When teachers spend more time fretting over format than determining procedure, there is a problem.

Teachers need a destination and a route. They need to know what content or skills students must learn. They need to know their students’ abilities along with any necessary accommodations. Finally, they need some method of imparting the content or skills. This is a heap of information. The lesson plan should be a reliable way to streamline it.

The least desirable quality of a lesson plan is complexity. Ideally, the written plan should be something a substitute can follow without difficulty. The actual teacher typically shouldn’t need the plan during instruction, although using it as a guide is fine. It should be easy to use. It should read like a recipe. The plan need only be an objective, a list of materials, any accommodations, and a brief step-by-step procedure. Depending on the lesson, some assessment could be included. The key is simplicity. What it looks like shouldn’t matter, as long as it’s usable. It should be part of a sequence, but isolated lessons have a place as well.

Enter accountability. Many parents demand it. Most states demand it. Thus, schools require transparency regarding planning. Policy varies, with some schools insisting teachers post plans where students and parents can access them and others only requiring submission to administration. Perhaps students and parents should have access to daily plans, or at least to a calendar of upcoming lessons and corresponding assignments. Administrators probably should have access to these as well. Accountability measures keep teachers from slacking on planning while providing stakeholders with assurance that systematic instruction is happening.

The trouble begins when schools insist on highly detailed plans for all lessons. This isn’t practical and instead is counterproductive. Yes, any plan should include the components described earlier, but these can be stated succinctly. Confident teachers could keep these in a day planner or even on sticky notes. Making teachers write plans that include “essential questions” and “assessment anchors” often forces the stretching otherwise good ideas to fit artificial and unnecessary constructs. It also wastes teacher’s time and insults them by suggesting a lack of professional faith.

State standards aren’t inherently evil, as many education professionals suggest they are. Curriculum guides aren’t either. New teachers benefit greatly from having a scope and sequence for instruction. Some schools insist teachers take plans directly from these guides, bypassing the controversy over plans. Others require teachers to take everything in the classroom and make it fit an inflexible template. Failure to comply can lead to punitive action. School officials (and the whole of education law) tend to ignore notions of positive reinforcement.

What stings more is inconsistency. Some schools don’t require teachers to submit any kind of plans. Are teachers in these schools more dependable and less in need of supervision than those in other schools? Probably not. Are these school loosely run, chaotic messes without any form of oversight? Most often, no. The best teachers in these schools almost certainly have their own systems for planning, but no one holds a magnifying glass over them. Learning typically isn’t compromised. This is an indictment of the schools that require them.

Inequities develop within schools, too. Special education teachers might be exempt from writing and submitting plans. The rationale? They collaborate with general education teachers on accommodations, but aren’t authoring their own plans (this assumes they’re supporting students with IEPs in the general education classroom and curriculum). Additionally, these teachers are busy enough with developing IEPs, conducting progress monitoring, and other special education-specific responsibilities that exemption from planning makes sense. It doesn’t always sit well with equally busy general education teachers. When special education teachers do have to write plans, the results can be maddening. They frequently must attempt to fit scripted lessons from commercial interventions into convoluted templates meant for totally different kinds of lessons.

Colleges of education train teacher candidates to write detailed plans. This makes sense in college, as it forces these students to consider the reasons behind each decision and action in a lesson. Student teachers find themselves dumbstruck if they learn their cooperating teachers aren’t required to write plans. They might almost be relieved to end up in schools in which they must write them. Upon hire, that relief will last until around the end of the first month.

When schools require overly detailed lesson plan formats, they’re giving strained professionals one more task that mostly serves to complicate their jobs. It also suggests their judgement isn’t completely trusted. Teachers should practice their craft like someone is watching, but with confidence and pride instead of fear of reprimand. Employing sensible accountability is an asset. Making teachers grind out twenty or more multipage plans per week is a burden. Teachers shoulder enough of these.

Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

Discussion Starter: Does Anyone Like Cooperative Learning?

I’ve begun to wonder if anyone likes cooperative learning. I certainly don’t. In high school, few activities bothered me more than having to work in groups. I felt the same way in college and eventually graduate school, cringing whenever a professor assigned any kind of group work. Annoyance turned to resentment if this group work represented even a small portion of my grade. Have I been alone in this?

Recently, my curiosity prompted me to ask the undergraduates I was teaching. My polling methods weren’t exactly scientific. I simply asked, by show of hands, how many students enjoyed cooperative learning, either in high school or college. Out of the six sections I asked across two semesters—over 200 students—almost none raised their hands. During the first semester, not a single hand went up.

When I pressed, they offered a long list of grievances. Many disliked having to work with less capable or motivated students. A few added to this, saying they felt absences and aptitudes made group work feel imbalanced. Several complained about having their grades tied to the performance of others. As many as half of them indicated a preference for working independently, which might be surprising considering these students were preparing to be teachers. Some rather candid students mentioned specifically disliking having to interact at all.

This sampling isn’t enough to damn cooperative learning. Remember, I only spoke with around 200 students. Peer pressure might have dissuaded some from raising their hands. Furthermore, students dislike all sorts of otherwise effective methodology and programming. Working in teams has some merit and shouldn’t be tossed out because a few dozen undergraduates take exception with it. Justifications for its use include fostering inclusion (one of the original motivations for it), modeling 21st Century work environments (although this alignment might be shifting), and promoting engagement through active learning (which works so long as all members truly are active; it might backfire for students who struggle with interaction).

What do you think of it? I’m mostly interested in your perspective as a student. If you have thoughts on using cooperative learning as a teacher, share those instead. As a teacher, I used cooperative learning models because such strategies were expected to be present in lesson plans. I’m guessing other teachers use it at least in some part to secure positive ratings from administrators. No, I don’t think this is the only reason teachers use it. Plenty of teachers are skilled at doing so, choosing arrangements that atone for potential inequities while fostering effective learning. Students can benefit when it’s wisely implemented. Some students might even enjoy it. These students must be out there somewhere. Share your thoughts in the comments, whether or not you’re one of them, or ever were one of them.

Discussion Starter: Does Anyone Like Cooperative Learning?

Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?

You might suspect this is a loaded question, setting up an attempt to challenge the value of your K through 12 education. That isn’t exactly my intention. I realize you learned much through your formal schooling. So did I. For this Discussion Starter, I’m asking you to consider what you learned in school versus what you learned independently. I’m discounting skills or knowledge acquired in post-secondary education specific to your profession or trade. Instead, think about the general education obtained in your youth. How did you acquire most of this?

Determining this isn’t easy. I’ve had difficulty parsing it out. I did learn the foundations of literacy in school. Maybe my parents could have taught me how to read and write, but my elementary school certainly managed this more efficiently. I learned basic mathematics, although my school was up against a barrier here. I don’t think anyone could have taught me how to do math beyond simple algebra. People have limits. I know mine well. Outside skill instruction, I got exposure to the basics of history and the basics of science. Other than that, I only remember a handful of disconnected facts.

My school district wasn’t bad. It was and continues to be about average in all measures for schools in my state. I recall having some okay, even enthusiastic teachers. I remember more about the lackluster ones, like those who fell asleep in class. Some of those who stayed awake were worse. Despite them, this district gave me the foundational skills needed for everything else I’d learn through reading. That is really important. Most schools manage this. Those that don’t tend to be under-resourced schools serving exceptionally needy populations.

However, I wanted to be somewhere else each day of high school. I’ll admit having a bad attitude. Perhaps no school would have motivated me. Mine definitely didn’t. I’ve heard similar tales from friends my age regardless of where they went to school. Is it just the types of friends I’ve chosen? No, because I’ve also heard it from recent undergraduates who really want to become teachers and are much more optimistic than I’ve ever been.

I’ve thought about the specifics of what I didn’t like. Just being in the building all day grated me. Reviewing for the first few months of each year was another problem. In the mid-1990s, I endured the emerging trend of cooperative learning. Little turned me off as much as working in groups. One thing school taught me: I really dislike having to work with other people. Recently, I got some feedback that hinted at such sentiment being more common than I’d thought. I’ll write about this in the coming weeks.

In my last post, I asked for thoughts about potentially changing roles for teachers. Personalized learning came up. I’m not convinced personalized learning will work, partly because I’ve watched how schools muddle implementation of other programs. Additional factors weigh against it, enough for another article. It might work for skill instruction for some students, maybe even for content. The push behind it does seem to be part of an agenda, but regardless, what if it improbably ends up working? Research might never tell us convincingly one way or another. Even if research points to effectiveness, teachers aren’t likely to accept it.

I’ll tell you this: I wish something loosely akin to personalized learning or some other system of highly individualized modules would have have been available for me from elementary school onward. I can’t emphasize enough how much I would have preferred being able to move on when I was ready, being able to take more time as needed, not falling behind after absences, not having to talk with other students, and not having to sit and listen to a teacher. I’ve always preferred reading about how to do something to having someone tell me or show me. This might not work for some students (and the commercial versions of it on the horizon might not work at all), but I’ll say with confidence it would have worked for me.

As I’ve thought about it, I feel the bulk of what I’ve retained and been able to use has come from studying on my own. I can thank my school for some of the skills needed for this (and for having a functional library), but I really think the preponderance of my general education happened outside a classroom. And I didn’t even have internet access back then. Maybe my sense of this is wildly distorted and I’m wrong about the balance. I think otherwise.

But what about you? Do you feel content with what you learned in K through 12? What about your thoughts on how you learned, such as the methodology used? Would you have preferred working at your own pace (if you didn’t)? Do you feel you learned better in classrooms than through your own efforts? Did you learn more through your parents, or even through incidental learning across settings? Share in the comments.


Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?

Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

In a series of recent posts, I discussed possible future scenarios for special education teachers (Part 1 here). One of the scenarios I described involved teachers morphing from instructors to facilitators as innovations such as personalized learning software encroach. Similar changes are happening now. Special education teachers in many districts have relinquished roles closely associated with teaching: lesson planning, assessment design, and content instruction. Instead, they’re implementing scripted lessons as part of commercial direct instruction programs. General education teachers could experience a shift of their own. Some would claim they have already in an age of test preparation.

My question for readers is this: should classrooms be in the hands of teachers or technicians? I’m not asking who readers want in charge of classrooms. I’m asking who should be in charge. Do we want teachers to maintain their roles as designers and implementers of instruction, or do we want them to facilitate highly individualized learning modules that students navigate on their own? Do we want teachers creating original lessons in response to performance data, or do we want them remediating through research-based programs?

I anticipate responses being solidly on the side of teachers continuing to be teachers. What I press readers to consider is whether they would continue to want this if research would begin to indicate methodology that alters the role of the teacher is more effective than what we’ve done in the past. My position in education always will be that we should do whatever yields the best results. Research already shows the effectiveness of direct instruction remediation for students with learning disabilities, which is why schools use it. More evidence is needed regarding personalized learning, but if it works, should we not be using this, even if it reduces the role of teachers? Would opposing it be akin to preventing progress?

Implications will range from changes in teacher preparation to consideration for how much educational technicians should get paid. I invite readers to think about all this and respond with what roles teachers should have in the coming decade. This need not be an either-or. Many versions of each role and combinations of the two are probable, especially with technology still emerging and school structures varying so much. Roles for licensed professionals might change, but that doesn’t mean they’ll disappear. Share your thoughts about however you think roles should be reconciled.

Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

Discussion Starter: How Are Charters Doing Where You Live?

I recently asked about issues that will impact education in 2017. As a follow up, I’m dedicating a post to the status of charter schools. Specifically, I’d like readers to share the relative success of charters in their area. If any readers have insights regarding how their local charters are responding to the needs of students with disabilities, these would be especially relevant on this blog.

I’m expecting what others report to be similar to what I’ve found where I live. Philadelphia’s charters get results that are as mixed as what the city’s publics get. Some charters seem to be exceeding the outcomes publics with similar populations are managing, although a few crucial variables might be skewing results in favor of the charters. Other charters are disasters and should be chained shut, but the same could be said for many of the city’s publics (which is part of how Philadelphia has ended up with so many charters). My city might not be the best litmus, as too many of the issues impacting school performance are beyond what any school could address.

What is happening with the charters in your community? Are they improving upon what the local publics offer? Are they worsening anything? If you respond, sharing the composition of your community (rural, suburban, urban) might be helpful.



Discussion Starter: How Are Charters Doing Where You Live?

Discussion Starter: Education Issues for 2017

A fitting way to end 2016 is to look forward to what the most pressing educational issues of 2017 will be. What can we expect to be on the minds of educators as the year unfolds? Will federal-level initiatives meant to further the propagation of charter schools dominate education news? Could changes in funding create additional staffing shortages as early as fall 2017? Will wrangling over the Common Core remain a principle concern? What will the coming spring look like for parents seeking to opt out of state tests?

While something unanticipated could emerge to become a focus for educators and others on the periphery of the field, chances are the most significant issues will be a continuation of those in place at the end of 2016. We’ll likely see more discussion of classroom concerns such as the nature and purpose of grading and homework. Schools will wrestle with how to address intolerance and violence on and off campus. Districts, state departments of education, and lawmakers will examine the strain of pensions on budgets. Issues such as these aren’t approaching resolution. Some aren’t going to have clear resolutions.

I have my suspicions regarding what will on the minds of those in the field in 2017. Have I missed anything? What do you think will be most critical to education over the next twelve months? What will be solved? What will get worse? Share in the comments and best wishes for the new year.

Discussion Starter: Education Issues for 2017

Discussion Starter: How Much Freedom of Speech Should Teachers Have?

The question I’ve posed is difficult to answer in any satisfactory way. A few considerations obscure the original question. Does a reliable tool for measuring freedom of speech or expression exist? If such a tool exists, how readily can one apply it to the words and actions of teachers? Additionally, in what contexts should one measure the speech and expression of teachers? Do we only consider the classroom and what is said in the course of instruction? Do we include a teacher’s use of social media outside the workplace? Do conversations at a grocery store matter?

Beyond these initial qualifiers, the essential question is whether or not teachers have the license to express their views with impunity while employed by a school. Precedent suggests they do not. Examples are plentiful of teachers losing their jobs over off-hand comments and opinionated tweets. Similar examples abound in other fields, so this isn’t merely a concern for those working in education. Might the threshold for tolerating aberrant or challenging comments made in or out of the workplace be lower for educators? Should it be?

Most schools have policies meant to answer these questions. As school employees, teachers are beholden to these policies. Repeatedly, circumstances have arisen that have tested established policies. From teachers launching into unsolicited sermons exposing their political views, to students taking umbrage with seemingly innocuous banter during homeroom, recent and ongoing situations have muddled conventional understanding of acceptability. The threshold for tolerance might be changing.

I turn this discussion to any readers who care to comment. What I’m seeking are thoughts on the parameters of speech and expression that should apply to teachers.


Discussion Starter: How Much Freedom of Speech Should Teachers Have?