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Planning Insanity (Elliot Haspel)

I don’t understand why first-year teachers are creating lesson plans from scratch. No, check that, let’s get more declarative: First-year teachers should not be creating lesson plans from scratch.

The objectives which students need to learn are not brand-new. Lesson plans exist from previous years — tested, pre-made lesson plans from veteran teachers. It is insanity that we eschew best practices. No other industry operates in this way. Not a single one. It would be like each car company coming up with their own way to build cars.

Now, not every teacher should be teaching carbon-copy lesson plans. They need to be adapted and tweaked and honed to fit each teacher’s personal style and the particular needs of his or her class. Not every car company uses the exact same building system — but they’re all based off the assembly line. Nor is there One Lesson Plan To Rule Them All — clearly, there are any number of ways to effectively teach an objective. So, make all the options available!

I should not be drawing up how to teach multiplication on a blank piece of paper, for example. Teachers have been teaching multiplication for decades upon decades, some of them quite well. Surely I can be handed a template for teaching multiplication that is battle-tested, instead of my ad hoc, I-hope-this-works system. It’s not that I’m adverse to the work–it’s that I’m going to be, on average, far less effective at doing the work. That doesn’t help the students learn multiplication, or anything else.

I do understand why the system is so incredibly decentralized. Traditionally, schools have been the exclusive bailiwick of localities, perhaps more than any other institution. And the classroom has reflected this independence, with the teacher as king or queen of his or her fiefdom as soon as the door closes.

Problem is, that doesn’t make any sense. We’ve already started to acknowledge that fact, with renewed emphasis on common standards and common assessments. Still, lesson planning autonomy is a far deeper-set trouble spot.

Why should I be allowed to teach an inferior lesson when superior ones exist? Not just superior because one person thinks so, but superior as in, they’ve been used and produced quantifiable results. In addition, it places an additional burden on already overwhelmed new teachers (yet another contributory factor to the abysmal teacher retention rates).

The solution to this is fairly obvious — online databanks of digitized lesson plans, free and accessible to anyone who wants them. The technology exists to make it perfectly viable; systems that via rating will end up distinguishing those lesson plans that truly work. The ability to actually identify better practices among the sea of plans is crucial. Some lesson plan sites already do exist (http://www.lessonplanspage.com), but they are relatively crude, don’t have effectiveness ratings, and are, judging by what I see and hear, underutilized.

Alternatively, recruit a small group of top educators — 10 or 15 from each grade/secondary subject — and cull their lessons and start from there.

Additionally, at a local level, districts and schools can engage in lesson plan sharing systems without the logistical hassle. A colleague of mine thinks the only way it will ever happen is with the faculty of a school taking the initiative after deciding they want to help incoming teachers.

There are plenty of options. In any case, predone lessons shouldn’t be things that have to be sought out, they should be something readily provided and their use insisted upon.

With 4 million teachers in the American education system, the collective intelligence, creativity and effectiveness could be unparalleled. But we don’t reach out to one another in the most basic of functions — delivering lessons — and as a result all teachers and all students suffer. Let me say it one more time: There is no reason that I, as a first-year teacher, should ever be creating lesson plans from scratch.

Yet I create nearly every lesson plan from scratch.

What sense does that make?

Elliot Haspel is a recent college graduate and Teach for America corps member.  This originally appeared on his blog, EdWahoo

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