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Learning at its Best

How would classrooms be different if teachers came to class not with a lesson plan, but with a concept?

When I was a classroom teacher in a traditional high school, a student and I were chatting about current events. This led to a conversation about economics. I began explaining how the Federal Reserve controls interest rates, and how the government needs to ensure that there is at least some percentage of unemployed people, because full employment would lead to inflation.

The bell rang to start class, but by this time four or five students had gathered around and were peppering me with questions. They were really interested. The discussion got more involved and, soon, the entire class was engaged in the topic.

This was a journalism class, so the discussion had absolutely nothing to do with the unit of study we were involved in. And I think that’s one reason why students were so intrigued.

If I was teaching an economics or sociology class, and had prepared this lecture in a lesson plan, I don’t think the students would have been nearly as interested.

* * *

Years ago, I read an awesome book on pedagogy called Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, by Donald Finkel. The author explains how teachers can focus their energy on building a classroom environment in which his/her voice is not necessary, that the students do most of the talking. It’s a great, great book.

I decided to try this out while reading George Orwell’s novel 1984 with students.

I set up the tables into small discussion circles, and gave the groups a set of questions. I prepared them with expectations on how to conduct their conversations, emphasizing that they didn’t need to take notes and they wouldn’t be graded. My expectation was that they were to use this time to explore various themes in the text. That was it.

It was brilliant. I bopped around and listened in on each group for a few minutes, then offered encouragement and praise before moving on to the next one. Students were dialed in. The conversations were rich and vibrant. I sat at my desk and pretended to shuffle papers around while I eavesdropped. The discussions were a huge hit. Near the end of class, it was really hard to get them to stop talking about the book so I could make a few closing remarks before the bell rang.

I tried it again the next semester, but this time the results were not as good. Some of the conversations fell flat. I overheard a few groups veering off topic. There was a smattering of complaining about the assignment.

I don’t blame the students for this one bit. It wasn’t their fault. It was mine.

The difference was simple. The first time I did this lesson, I had no idea if it was going to work. That gave my classroom an edge, an undeniable energy that students pick up on and that helps them focus. The second time, I was merely rolling out a lesson plan that I knew would work. All the students had to do was follow directions.

But I had lost the edge. The energy in the room was different.

* * *

My friend Neil was telling me a story about when he was a part of an improv comedy troupe in college. Sometimes he would think of a funny joke in advance and would secretly plan to use it when the right moment came during one of their improv performances.

Invariably, he said, the joke would fall flat.

I was explaining this to PSCS founder Andy Smallman, and I said, “That’s because improv is about . . . ”

I paused, searching for the right words to finish that sentence.

“It’s about the moment,” he said. “So is teaching. So is learning.”

* * *

So here’s a question: how would classrooms be different if teachers came to class not with a lesson plan, but with a concept? The class could take that concept in new and unpredictable directions based on the dynamic interaction between teacher and students. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

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11 thoughts on “How would classrooms be different if teachers came to class not with a lesson plan, but with a concept?

  1. Hi Steve

    I agree with these thoughs.

    At my last school we “documented curriculum” in what we lovingly called ‘drop dead folders’. (The idea being if one of us dropped dead someone else could pick up and run with our plan). However, over the years most of our folders simply became a bag of tricks. My own practice involved making a list of topics (concepts) I intended to cover in a semester and then either selecting activities from my folder or developing new ones based on the direction the students pulled me in. No two cohorts are the same and it is the skill of a teacher who practices their art to choose the right activity to make the teaching point.

    My new school is more prescriptive and I find it restrictive. However, my senior English class has evolved its own way around this. The curriculum requires us to explore persuasive language in the media . . .traditionally done by analysing newspaper articles. My students love to talk and debate so on Fridays we have a round table discussion on a topic they bring to the table. Each week one student brings cake or biscuits and a discussion topic (along with stimulus material) and I provide tea/coffee/hot chocolate. We spend an hour discussing the topic and exploring emotive and persuasive language. Then they write and the ‘cake’ person posts the topic in our class blog. All students have responsibility for commenting and replying to comments. Over the weeks they have developed more precise language, they are critical of the facts and information they are presented with and they back up their arguments with evidence. We never know the topic until we sit down to the table, it makes Friday exciting and we look forward to the surprise.

    If teaching were really as simple as following a lesson plan, anyone could do it! However, we know that it isn’t as simple as that.


    Posted by diggers27 | September 30, 2011, 3:11 am
  2. Very interesting, Steve. I teach English as a second language and work very much in the way that you describe. I have a text or a lecture around which I have to structure my classes, but I find that by going into class with the intention of delving into the ideas contained in the material rather than the material itself, the class becomes much more learner centered and more motivating. There is much more flexibility and we usually end up going beyond what we would have done if we’d gone through the stages of pre-, while and post-reading / listening.

    I’m not surprised that it didn’t work as well when it came across as a pre-planned activity. What helps here is asking the learners how they’d like to go about the task of working on the topic.

    Posted by Adam | September 30, 2011, 6:22 am
  3. I once wrote a post about how I believe that I was a more creative and thoughtful teacher when I was younger and wasn’t as organized. Before- I had ideas and spur of the moment activities the grew from an energy in the classroom. Now- I have lesson plans…not nearly as interesting.

    Posted by Laura | September 30, 2011, 6:26 am
  4. The differences between classes in which I pull this off and those in which I deliver content are striking and include high contrasts between student happiness, productivity, and quality of work.

    What about classes to which students bring concepts?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2011, 8:55 am
  5. Thanks Steve,
    I think conceptual teaching is an excellent idea — it is often heard among teachers, that the best lesson’s were the one’s where I forgot the lesson plan book and made it up on the spot. This, of course, is not always true and it doesn’t always pan out, but the moment in which you speak of would be there, which would create surprise and energy, not seen in pre-planned, scheduled lesson plans.

    Chad, this takes it to another whole level, where the students take hold of their education and its generated through their voice, their ideas.

    Posted by caseykcaronna | October 1, 2011, 12:32 am
  6. Steve , this is great. You have given a clear example of how tuning into the energy in a classroom can make all the difference. Your post has me wondering about trust, trusting ourselves, our students and the teachers in our buildings. Great post.

    Posted by Reagan Weeks (@Reagan31) | October 1, 2011, 9:36 am
  7. Steve,

    A terrific approach. Discussing concepts would lead to depth of understanding whereas spoon-feeding factoids for regurgitation might only lead to later recollection. I can only imagine the consternation the test-making companies would experience trying to develop a standardized test for understanding a concept.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | October 2, 2011, 9:12 pm
  8. I had a high school English teacher who was a master at that. Dr. Tom Mooney at Boise High could lead a different class on the same book six times a day. No class was a like. Each period led its own discussions, followed its own themes, explored its own ideas. He taught from concept and allowed us to create our own meaning and dialogue. His class was taught in the moment, we owned the books we read, they were our hearts, our minds, our hopes and dashed dreams and secret fears.
    Dr. Mooney is why, so many years later, I am studying to be an educator and preparing for the battle to teach outside the bubble. Thank-you for your article.

    Posted by Kate Matthews | October 9, 2011, 4:42 am
    • Somehow through some miracle you helped me contact my old English teacher, with yours. It was initially a shout in the dark when I saw your post, but regardless, I just wanted to say thank you.

      Elizabeth (Liz)

      Posted by Liz | September 9, 2015, 8:27 am


  1. Pingback: How would classrooms be different if teachers came to class not with a lesson plan, but with a concept? | Ed News | - September 30, 2011

  2. Pingback: How would classrooms be different if teachers came to class not with a lesson plan, but with a concept? | Edu | - October 2, 2011

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