Rethinking lesson planning

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 8.18.49 PM(from lesson plan templates / Google images)

Writing lesson plans is an integral component of a teacher’s daily practice. The lesson plan template is designed to communicate the topic of the lesson (the curriculum focus), the activities of the lesson (the process through which students engage in the topic) and the anticipated results of the lesson (the product through which the students demonstrate their understanding of the lesson). That certainly sounds like a sensible approach to organizing a teacher’s instructional day — through organization comes success in student learning.

If only it were that easy.

Every teacher knows that even the “best” lesson plans — the ones that we have spent hours perfecting, that our peers have recommended, that were created by our favourite teacher gurus, even those lesson plans that we’ve used successfully in past years, can fail miserably.  About 5 minutes into the lesson, we realize that we’ve lost our focus, the students are not engaged, the anticipated connections are not being made and we know, in the pit of our stomach, that the results will be much less than what we anticipated. Often, we struggle through to complete the lesson and wonder, “What went wrong?”

The easiest way to this question is to assign blame:

  • the students are uncooperative
  • the students weren’t prepared
  • there are too many students in the class
  • the students don’t care
  • I’m a terrible teacher

But blaming others or ourselves takes us backwards. Even if one or more of the answers listed above are true, what we need is a way forward. So let’s rethink the lesson planning process.

We begin with a shift in mindset about lesson panning.

Often, the mindset of lesson planning is focused on determining what students don’t know and providing the information to fill that gap. Not so — the mindset of lesson planning should focus on how to scaffold student learning from what Dr. Marie Clay referred to as the student’s “known” to the student’s “new”.

What does that look like?

A “known to new” lesson plan is responsive to student learning, integrates prior learning strategies from all subject areas, focuses on student progress AND, perhaps most important, allows the teacher the flexibility to adapt and alter the process and the product while maintaining the original focus of the lesson. Sounds complicated . . . but it doesn’t have to be. With a shift in mindset, all the pieces fall into place.

Here are the entry points to a “known to new” lesson planning mindset:

1. Gather information about the student and reflect on the student’s “known”.

Ask yourself:

  • What information do I have about each student?
  • Do my observations, conferences, conversations and work samples tell me about the each student’s known? This includes the student’s progress to date, interests, and levels of engagement with different formats of learning.
  • As I reflect on the information gathered, what patterns in the class’s or group’s “known” emerge? This information allows you to plan effective small group and large group lessons.

If you don’t have this information yet, start gathering it now.  The observations and information gathered throughout the day about individual student learning provide the foundation on which to plan the next lesson.  Lesson plans without a foundation of the known are built on quicksand and the probability of sinking is high.

2. Review the similar trends and patterns among individual student results. Use this information to determine the participants in small group and large group lessons. 

3. Find or develop a lesson plan template that provides explicit space to acknowledge the known and the scaffolding activities that lead to the new.

4. Use a “known to new” mindset to plan the lesson.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the focus of this lesson build on the students’ known? If the answer is no, then rethink your entry point or the students will be stuck before they begin. (Think of your car being stuck in the mud — you can continue to spin your tires and go deeper into the mud, or you back up to reconnect with the roadway. Once again, going back takes additional time, but the time taken ends up being time saved.)
  • Are my expectations for success clearly stated in the lesson plan?
  • How will I convey my expectations to the students?
  • How will the lesson unfold? Is there some time to teach, lots of time for students to practice, some time to respond/share?
  • How will I ensure each student has a voice in this lesson?
  • How will I gather information about student learning?
  • How will I schedule time for conferencing and feedback?
  • How will the strategies learned in this lesson be integrated with other subject areas?
  • How will the lesson be differentiated and still maintain the lesson’s focus?

  4. Use what you know about the students’ known to choose engaging teaching resources.

Ask yourself:

  • What introductory images, quotes, activities, stories, videos, etc. will capture the attention of the students?
  • Are the teaching resources culturally relevant and/or diverse?
  • Can the resources be integrated with other subject areas?
  • Do the texts, images etc. match the developmental and /or instructional level of the students?
  • Can the resources be differentiated?

NOTE: Remember that an image, news item, story or account of a sporting event from the student’s community is a much more powerful teaching resource (and MUCH less expensive) than those created in a location and culture far away.

  5. Ensure the assessment – feedback – next steps loop is woven throughout the lesson plan.

Ask yourself:

  • How will the students demonstrate understanding? Are there alternate ways to demonstrate understanding?
  • What assessment tool best matches this task? Examples include: informed observation, anecdotal notes, checklist, rubric, reading record, etc.
  • How will I provide feedback to the student(s)?
  • How will I use the information gathered to plan next steps instruction?

To sum up

To avoid that pit of your stomach feeling of  “What went wrong with this lesson?”  change the mindset of your lesson planning process. Begin with “What has been accomplished?” or “What is the students’ known?”  Set expectations and make a plan that provides the student with opportunities to scaffold to the new. Throughout the lesson, observe and listen to your students, using their words, demonstrations and questions as cues to what they’ve accomplished and what they need to know next. And finally, acknowledge that if and when necessary, a willingness to alter the path to the known is a sign of professional knowledge, not professional failure.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at




About Beyond The Apple

Beyond the Apple provides everything a Professional Learning Community needs! Designed to follow Beyond the Apple's Tenets of Adult Education, our videos re-ignite the excitement of professional conversations among educators in the classroom, university, colleges and professional training. Our free teaching and learning resources provide a follow up with more information that is current, research based and practical.
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