The best lesson planning ever…really? – Of the perils of educational sensationalism

As I was ‘snooping around’ the Internet I bumped into a title that attracted my attention: “9 ways to plan transformational lessons – Planning the best curriculum unit ever” (on the Edutopia site) .  At first I thought the author may have been a tad arrogant but when I read that the article had been shared 4.9K times on various social media I said to myself “Let’s read this”. And I did. After reading I felt immediately compelled to write this post as I got worried:  were the language teachers amongst the 4.9 K people who shared that article and/or the people who shared them with going to do what the article advises in the belief they will, by so doing, plan the best lessons ever?

The following are the points in the article that I had the most issues with:

  1. A… ‘transformational’ lesson??!!

This was the first – but not the greatest of my worries. Transparent learning; Visible learning; Dynamic learning; Collaborative learning; Positive education; and now…Transformational learning? For real? Another label thrown upon teachers by educational consultants wanting to create a brand? Yet another trendy category that if you do not belong to you are not up-to-date and feel left out? EVERY SINGLE LESSON where a student learns something you taught them is a transformational lesson, as you add new cognition to their brains. Even if you do not do any fancy stuff, any backward design or pedantically follow pseudo-scientific learning rubrics.

  1. For the best lessons ever shift from solo to collaborative design…really?

Whilst I do enjoy working collaboratively with my colleagues, especially doing long-term planning with them (e.g. preparing a unit of work), I am definitely at odds with the statement that in order to plan the best lessons ever I need to plan them with another teacher. When I plan my lessons I have every single student of mine in mind and the vocabulary and grammar structures they learnt with me in our last lesson as well as the mistakes and problem areas I want to address in their output; I know what strategies and learning activities keep them focused and motivated; my colleagues would not know that. Also, not all of my colleagues share the same theory or approach to language learning as me and often use or sequence the very same activities differently.

  1. Create the assessment before developing content… the Wiggins and Tighe curse

There is nothing less educational in language teaching than the adoption of Wiggins and Tighe’s backward design approach to MFL lesson planning – whist I can see its merits in the planning of longer units of work. There is nothing more straight-jacketing than teaching a language lesson with the assessment in mind. Whereas I do agree that one must have aspirational learning outcomes to work towards in a lesson and sequence of lessons, to set these in stone and let them drive the way we teach language is not only unethical, but counter-productive in terms of language acquisition; unless, that is, we are willing to sacrifice sound cognitive and psycholinguistic development in the name of a trendy curriculum design principle. Unless we teach robotically to our schemes of work and we are not willing to adapt our plans when we feel that our students need more practice.

A good L2-classroom practitioner teaches adaptively, creatively and should not teach with a specific test in mind; learning a language structure or function is a process which may need more time than planned. A good teacher must be prepared to change their plans if needs be. Teaching is not simply about planning and assessing.

  1. Don’t forget the introverts…

Quoting work by Susan Cain, the author points out how introverts enjoy working autonomously and how currently a lot of teaching includes group work. Is the implicit recommendation for the best lesson ever not to involve introverts in group-work? If it is so, I do not agree; whilst there has to be a balance of individual and collaborative work  in most lessons, I deliberately encourage students who do not enjoy working collaboratively to do team work so as to get them out of their comfort zone and learn a major lifelong skill; also, learning a language is about communicating with others!

Then the author goes on to say that increasing wait time to seven seconds – when asking a question in front of the classroom – will play to the strengths of introverts. Really? I give any of my students, regardless of their personality as long as they need unless they say ‘pass’… I would be interested to know why seven seconds is the ideal wait time as for some of my students it would not be enough, and I would rather wait a bit longer than dent their self-esteem.

Integrate Productive struggle in the curriculum

This is a direct quote from the article:

Don’t lower the expectations of your next lesson plan. Instead, scaffold instruction and check to see that you are challenging students appropriately with Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrix.

In other words, in order to plan progression and challenge in the best lesson ever, teachers ought to refer to Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrix one of many Bloom taxonomy surrogates… Speechless!

In conclusion, I apologize to the author of the article for sounding a bit too harsh. The article does contain some sound recommendations (e.g points 7 and 8); however, the harshness was elicited by the sensationalist title which clearly alludes to outstanding – the best ever – practice. When one is passionate as I am about teaching and learning one can only find it unacceptable and even ‘dangerous’ for the pedagogic recommendations made in this article to be divulged as ‘the best ever’ practice, especially when they are endorsed by a very authoritative educational website as Edutopia followed by a vast number of teachers from all over the world.

What does the message sent by the author and Edutopia to novice teachers about what best teaching practice is entail? A fixed wait time of seven seconds? Planning challenge in language learning based on Hess’ Matrix (please read my article on the Bloom Taxonomy and you will understand my ‘fury’)? Teaching a lesson based on a set-in-stone piece of assessment? Or that best lessons must be planned collaboratively? Whilst many of this recommendation can be useful, they should not be presented as evangelical truths, the pre-requisites for the best ever practice.

Edutopia should know better and put ethics before sensationalism.