Like so many words in education, “lesson” gets thrown around all the time without really being defined. If, in my first year, you had asked me what I was teaching next week, I would have said things like:
- Fraction Addition
- Transitive Verbs
- Wind Power
- Ancient Egypt
Now I realize that those are not lessons. They’re merely topics. And topics by themselves are not enough.
A Topic Is Raw
A topic is the content we’re teaching students about. Think of it as the raw materials. If you’re a chef, it’s your main ingredient. It’s your chicken, salmon, or eggplant.
But the main ingredient isn’t the meal. If a chef plopped a whole, raw salmon on your table, you’d walk out. A meal means that we have to do something with the main ingredient. Bake it, fry it, boil it; prepare it in some way.
Likewise, you can’t just plop “Wind Power” or “Fraction Addition” onto your students’ desks. We have to do something with the topic. Specifically, we want students to do something with their brains with the topic.
In a lesson we want our students to think about our topic in a certain way.
Most of my lessons had no plan for how students would think. They were just topics. As a result, I stood in front of my class and told them a bunch of information that they were then supposed to remember.
The piece I was missing is called the thinking skill.
You know what your topic is because it was given to you in a set of standards, a syllabus, or it was in the textbook you’re using. Where do we find thinking skills? There are probably a dozen different frameworks you could use, including:
- Bloom’s Taxonomy
- Depth of Knowledge
They all have the same goal: make it easy to spot if we have low- or high-level thinking.
- Low-Level: remember and then explain it back later.
- High-Level: Really think about the topic! Analyze it; form an opinion; compare with a related topic; think about pros/cons and so on…
I don’t care which framework you use (they’re all more similar than they are different), but please use something. Refer to a thinking skill framework every time you plan your lessons.
I realize now that if I don’t clearly plan out the thinking skill, then I will always default to remember/explain lessons.
I’d Default To Low-Level
Look back at those earlier “lessons” in which I only listed the content. Consider what students will do with their brains during these lessons:
- Fraction Addition – Students will memorize a series of steps and then practice those steps over and over.
- Transitive Verbs – Students will memorize the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs and then identify them on a worksheet.
- Wind Power – Students will remember a bunch of facts about wind power and then explain them back to me in a paragraph.
- Ancient Egypt – Students will memorize a bunch of facts about rulers, pyramids, gods, and events and then explain them back to me.
In each case, because I didn’t plan a thinking skill, I defaulted to remember/explain – the very bottom of every thinking framework. I’m going to dump information on my students and then they’re going to dump it back on me. There’s no thinking!
Plan For Thinking and Get “Remember” For Free
So, I learned not to say, “Today I’m teaching Wind Power” but rather:
- Students will compare and contrast the pros and cons of wind power with solar power.
- Students will find patterns in cities that have successfully implemented wind power.
- Students will decide which forms of power would be best and worst in three neighboring areas.
Now, these lessons have a clear connection with high-levels of Blooms. The focus is on what students are doing with their brains rather than what I’m droning on about at the whiteboard. In fact, with these lesson objectives, I’m probably going to be doing a lot more facilitating and a lot less lecturing.
Sure, students will still be learning the facts about wind power, but they’re learning them with a purpose: to then do higher-level, interesting thinking.
As teachers, we must know this: human brains are wired to remember the things we actually think about. This is why it’s so hard to memorize random facts but so easy to remember things you care about. This is why my kids could recite all the Pokemon but didn’t remember anything from my lessons: I didn’t make them think.
Likewise, I can recall the names of several dozen species, vehicles, planets, and people from Star Wars, but I can’t even remember the main characters’ names from A Tale of Two Cities. One thing I’ve thought a lot about and one thing I read once in 10th grade (no shade to Dickens, of course).
So now I understand this: when we get kids thinking, we’ll get “remember” for free.
What’ll They Need? (Not a Lecture!)
So now I know how I want students to think about the content they’re learning about. For the sake of this example, let’s go with:
Students will compare and contrast the pros and cons of wind power and solar power in three different counties in our state.
The next thing I have to consider is: how will they get the information they need in order to do that thinking?
Year-One-Ian only had two ideas:
- I will tell them in a lecture
- They will read their textbook
Those are ok if we just want basic memorization, but now that I have kids comparing/contrasting and thinking about different locations, they’re going to need better resources.
We live in a golden age of resources. Think:
- Specific websites (not just Google!)
- Specific articles
- Other books from a library
- Videos I’ve picked ahead of time
- An expert to Skype with and answer questions
Once we know how we want students to think about the content, then we need to consider how they’ll access high-quality information so that they can do that thinking.
Students will compare and contrast the pros and cons of wind power and solar power in three different counties in our state. I’ll provide them with links to weather information by county, this video about installing wind turbines, and this article about a rise in solar power usage.
I’ve made this up a bit, but you hopefully get the idea: to think at a high-level, students need access to lots of information from several different sources.
What’ll They Make? (Not A Graphic Organizer!)
So now I’ve got kids “comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of wind power and solar power.” I’ve provided them with a range of high-quality information (not just me lecturing, not just their textbook).
Now I have to decide: how will students show me their thinking? How will I be able to tell whether they hit a high-level or not?
This is the product. It’s what students make. It’s often a tantalizing and creative part of the learning process.
- It can be huge: a 10-minute video, an illustrated and printed storybook, a website, a 1,000-word essay.
- It can be smaller: two paragraphs, a sketch, a quick chat with me, a 2-minute presentation
But it should not stop at a worksheet or a graphic organizer. These can be fine half-way points. They’re great to check-in on and see if kids are on the right track. I’d always approve a graphic organizer before kids could move on to the final product. But worksheets/graphic organizers make for weak final products. After students have done all this great thinking, they should create something they’re proud to show off!
Easy mistake, though: don’t judge the product by how pretty it is. Look for the thinking! Did my students show me that they compared/contrasted wind power with solar power and formed opinions for three different places? Or did they just spend a lot of money to print pictures of turbines?
So, Don’t Stop With A Topic
When I consider what I’m teaching next week, nowadays I don’t stop with the topic. My lesson cannot just be, “Plot Structure,” “Adverbs,” or “Types of Energy.”
- Thinking Skill: I must plan for the level of thinking that my students will be aiming for.
- Resources: I have to give kids high-quality resources so that they can think at a high level.
- Product: I need to plan for interesting products so students can show off the thinking they did.
When I actually create a proper lesson objective, I always find myself planning much more interesting experiences than mere lectures. And my students have a lot more fun and are more likely to actually remember the material!
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