Friday, August 04, 2006

Maybe my job isn't so bad after all

This started as a comment in response to Paul's post, but it got out of hand, so I'm giving it its own post.

Since when did the government stop giving teachers (albeit loosely-defined) lesson plans? That's what NCLB and district curriculum standards are all about, Charlie Brown. At my job right now I'm the process of proofreading thirty teacher-written essays about leadership, nearly all of which touch upon the conflict between educators' desire to create new and presumably more effective and creative curricula and the government's insistence that students learn a prescribed set of skills. Obviously this conflict originates more from the state's testing requirements than content requirements, but the two are tightly linked. The problem isn't the state's lack of guidance but their failure to provide it in a useful way.

I don't think any one of your three hypotheses is correct. First, it's not the public's (i.e., the state's) obligation or business to create specific curricula or lesson plans. The government isn't famous for being good at specialization. That's what experts, usually in the academic or private sectors, are for. (As the benefactors of public education, however, the state is entitled to create minimum educational requirements akin to AYPs, provided that, unlike AYPs, they are developed by and for educators and not to sate an uninformed public who has been falsely convinced that teachers aren't doing their job; and provided that, also unlike AYPs, the state provides schools the resources necessary to meet those requirements.)

Second, teachers as a group aren't more likely to be want to be independent than the general public. In fact, in my experience, they're more likely to work collaboratively with their colleagues across sites than, for example, computer programmers (probably because lesson plans aren't proprietary [yet], whereas software is). Teachers LOVE to share and collaborate, even if they can be defensive about their time-tested techniques.

Third, along the lines of my first argument, we should be wary of the government dictating lesson plans. When you refer to the push for teachers to be more autonomous, who is doing the pushing? The state? If teachers are feeling alienated, it's probably because of and not in spite of government dictation of education.

I think the lack of widely-utilized lesson plans is more logistical than deliberate. For one, there aren't many national or regional networks of teachers who can work collaboratively to share ideas and classroom tools. Teachers are notoriously slow to adopt new technology, and many haven't picked up on the idea of chat rooms or blogs where they could formally or informally exchange lesson plans.

Further, many teachers probably believe—with good reason—that one teacher's lessons won't directly apply to her classroom. Demographics, geography, rural v. urban setting, gifted v. special needs students ... any of these factors might render a generic lesson plan useless or unadaptable. It's natural to think, "That plan worked for Miss Brown's class, but all her students' parents are upper middle class, and my audience is working class." We lack a wide-spread networking system that connects teachers of similar backgrounds together, so inter-professional commiseration is hard to find.

Lastly, what constitutes good pedagogy is always changing. More research yields more (and presumably better) ideas, so lesson plans (like software) quickly become outdated and appear naïve to future users. Certainly some principles transcend generations, but there's an understandable desire to always have the newest (read: best) information.

If the problem is logistical, so must be the solution. My employer, the National Writing Project, is just one of the aforementioned national networks that acts as a community wherein teachers can exchange ideas and lesson plans. NWP focuses on both providing the technological infrastructure for this exchange and on encouraging teachers to utilize this technology. They connect teachers with similar geographic and demographic constituencies through national and regional programs. Their teachers-teaching-teachers model makes would-be defensive educators receptive to new ideas because their instructors are peers, not distant legislators. But NWP is just one little group, and, while they are federally-funded, the government's NCLB standards make NWP's job as difficult as humanly possible. (Oddly enough, in spite of NWP teachers' tendency to dismiss the value of NCLB, NWP-influenced students do better on state-mandated testing.)

If the NWP model could be replicated on a larger scale, if it could be not just endorsed but facilitated by the state, then indeed the government could remedy this continual reinventing of the wheel. Rather than enlist bumbling and uniformed U.S. senators to do the job, though, the structure and content would have to be generated by teachers themselves. If the state could magically replicate the ease and resourcefulness of a private company—to harness the brilliance of that teacher who sold her lesson plans on—rather than futz and stall the way governments like to do, we might have a pretty amazing system on our hands.

And yes, for the record, a raging liberal did just suggest that the government try harder to emulate the private sector. Ha!


Paul said...

I didn't mean to suggest that I think the government should be creating lesson plans - but I can see no reason why the government, particularly over the last decade, hasn't at least made gestures toward some sort system like that aforementioned website.

A couple of other things.

I think there is great deal to the "teachers don't like new technology" issue, but that's really part and parcel of the personality type I was referring to in my post - teachers, in my experience, don't like adopting anything foreign to their past experience.

Which isn't to say they don't like to collaborate - collaboration is different from adoption. Collaboration, in fact, is just creating something with somebody else. Which teachers do indeed like to do - but they like to be involved at the creation stage one way or the other. Part of this is the entirely reasonable instinct that a teacher will be more comfortable with something he or she has created. But not all of it.

Also, I think you make too much about the progress of pedagogy. As John Searle likes to say, teaching hasn't really changed that much since Aristotle. At the college level this is especially true, but it's largely true at the K-12 level as well. What has changed, and what I think accounts for the vast majority of whatever progress in education has been made, is the increase in resources devoted to education - it's more universal and lasts longer than it ever has. (Or, as someboby - probably Matthew Yglesias - pointed out recently, the fact that private and public schools perform equally well when you adjust for demographics shows nothing so much as that there isn't a tremendous difference in effectiveness betweem different educational environments.)

Finally, and related to the last two points, flexibility is obviously important in a lesson plan, but my complaint was with the fact that so many teachers feel compelled to start from scratch. My suspicion is that teachers start from scratch not because of a dearth of quality lesson plans created before, but because they will inevitably be more comfortable with something they've shaped from nothing. I mean, we would laugh at any other field in which new workers were taught only general principles and then required to develop all of their own practical strategies and methods.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Ah, I see. Yes, I agree mostly with you. I still don't see why teachers moreso than any other professional group would be exceptionally reluctant to adopt previously developed materials. If this seems to be true in practice, what's your theory about its origin? You can't attribute everything to basic personality type. All kinds of personalities go into education. You alluded to what teachers are taught--perhaps while in their credential programs, perhaps perpetually in their post-graduate training--and because you work more closely with teachers than I do, perhaps you have more to say about what teachers learn when they learn to be teachers. Are they being encouraged to create lesson plans from scratch? Or are they simply not being discouraged from doing so?

The government probably hasn't made gestures toward that website because the only institution more afraid of technology than teachers and old people is the government.

Thinker said...

If, indeed, good teachers feel compelled to "start from scratch", it is because of the point that Rebecca made regarding the differences from school to school, and class to class. Especially in K-12, good teachers recognize that a technique that works with one individual or group one year in one community, may not work with a different indivudial or group the following year in the same or a different community. That leaves him/her the choice of doing what s/he already has a plan for, with a diminished chance for success; or with erasing the slate (or modifiying it substantially) and crafting a new plan. Good teachers opt for the latter.

However, not all teachers are good teachers. Many are just looking to fill time and maintain some semblence of order. Before I moved to the Bay Area in the winter of 1979-80, I took a leave of absence from my job at Palos Verdes High School, where I taught history and government. Between June, when school finished, and December, when I moved, I worked for a great company in Culver City called Social Studies School Service. It sold (and still sells) some of the best teaching and learning materials I'd ever come across. I found their catalog a godsend for social studies teachers looking for innovative materials that could be used as the core on which to build lessons that would engage students and fire their imaginations.

One afternoon I was talking with the company president and was shocked to learn that despite this wealth of amazing materials, the core of the company's sales were ditto master books. (This was in the era before microcomputers, when even photocopiers were rare commodities in K-12 schools; and teachers created handouts with ditto machines.) These books enabled teachers to run off a set of handouts (with instructions) that would keep a class occupied for 50 minutes. I was aghast, and asked him how that could be. How could teachers choose such mindless dreck when they had so many other great choices? He told me that most teachers just wanted to fill time in a way that would keep students occupied and orderly. Students were apparently happy because they got something they could do to get a grade without much thinking or effort, and teachers were happy because students were calm and occupied.

But it wasn't all teachers who bought ditto books. The company still sold at least some of all those other fabulous materials they carried. Its just that they made up the lesser part of their sales.

To be fair to teachers though, even today few are trained in how to deal with the diverse problems most face when they walk into those classrooms and close the door for the first time. Some have good instincts and do well; but most, wanting to avoid a bad evaluation and feeling that they are somehow supposed to know what to do, reach into their memories for techniques they saw used in their own schooling. Unfortunately, too often that is today's equivalent of the ditto master book, or the always available "Read chapter 10, quiz on Friday."

Regarding the TeachersPayTeachers site you noted in your post Paul, it is an interesting idea, but I doubt it will flourish. There are just too many good, free sites available at which to find teacher-tested lesson plans. The biggest is probably Education World (

Paul said...

It's definitely true that all sorts of personality types go into teaching, but teaching, like any other field, has certain features that encourage or discourage from entering different personality types to different degrees. My experience is that a very salient feature of teaching is autonomy, and, again, in my experience, this feature serves to attract two sorts of personality types disproportionately.

First, you get the type A's I referred to earlier. These are very self-motivated people who will dedicate significant resources to developing a quality classroom experience and who are very emotionally invested in what they produce. The second type of person is drawn by the combination of autonomy and what is often a relative lack of accountability - if you're not very vested in the work, teaching can be a very low-stress occupation.

So I think these two personality types are disproportionately represented in the teaching force, and I think both of these personality types can be resistant to adopting entirely new, elaborate technologies, lesson plans, etc. For the first batch, it involves too much disruption to what they've already vested themselves in, and for the second group it's just a pain in the butt.

I think two things happen in teacher training that contribute to so many teachers feeling compelled to reinvent the wheel when they get into the job. First, there is a lot of encouragement to create lesson plans from scratch, because that is a good way to learn how to effectively present new material to an audience. Even if in an ideal situation teachers are just tweaking lessons to better suit their classrooms, the best way to learn to do so is probably to make some lessons entirely from scratch to get a feel for what changes have what impact. Second, and this is much less formal, I think in some cases relying on pre-created lesson plans is looked down upon. I mean, don't you care enough about your kids to make special lessons just for them? And why are you mooching off of me?

I mean, I'm sure there are a whole lot of things going on, but more than I think I could explain, or even understand, why things are they way they are, I'm just amazed that they are that way. If I'd started my job that way, without utilizing systems designed by my predecessors and coworkers, it would have been a disaster.

Lisa said...

Hi there. I am a teacher. I taught using a scripted curriculum last year. BAM!

I have several points to weigh in on.

1. Curriculum and/or lesson plans created by others. Why don’t teachers use them?

No, teachers aren’t trained in credential programs to create lesson plans from scratch. They’re trained to grab every resource out there, then make it work for themselves and their class. That’s the hard part, and I don’t think it has to do with being a type A personality: just caring about kids.

Just as Rebecca points out: every class and group of students is different. They enter with different background knowledge, reading levels, and interests. Many of the pre-created lesson plans I’ve seen take for granted that students will have certain skills, such as writing a 5 paragraph essay without any guidance, working with a group to accomplish a task, or reading a dense text and gaining certain information from it. If students don’t have these skills, (and some of my students don’t), the plans will not work until they are first taught these skills. Furthermore, every teacher is different I’m good at using lessons that involve art and drawing; others are not.

Another reason is that many pre-made lesson plans are just plain bad. They leave out lots of details that teachers must develop on their own. Trust me, I’ve tried LOTS of websites with free lesson plans, and few of them are worth it. For example, let’s say your pre-made book/plan tells you “have a class discussion on _______” or “Have students do a project and then write an essay explaining the procedure.” (Actual suggestions from my scripted curriculum). Non-teachers may not see a problem with this, but I assure you, the first time you get in front of a bunch of 12 year olds and say “OK, class, do a project! On whatever you want! Then write an essay!” you are going to hear about 5,000 questions about the requirements and then only one person will actually have enough structure to get started. It’s called scaffolding, and like I mentioned earlier, you need to tailor your additional instruction to what students already know or don’t know. This tailoring ALONE, even using an existing curriculum (an overall framework, different from day-to-day lesson plans), even collaborating with others, even buying someone’s lesson plans off a website, can take up hours and hours of time. That's why it takes so long to become a good teacher: learning how to make it work and work right. It's a constant trial and error experiement, because the environment is always changing.

(As a side note, collaborating of the kind encouraged by NWP (go Rebecca!) is often more useful because it is presented with the understanding that it can and will be tweaked to fit your own needs/strengths. Sadly, such development is usually unpaid and on the teachers’ own time: Saturday.)

2. Why shouldn’t the government “give” teachers lesson plans?
These reasons, plus two more, add up to a reason why it’s good to be wary of government involvement at the scripted curriculum level. When the government gives you a mandated curriculum, such as Open Court, they also mandate WHEN you should be on which lesson plan. This doesn’t work at all, because if you notice your students aren’t getting it (due to those aforementioned missing skills), you can’t go back and “Re-teach,” which is a critical teaching strategy. Instead, you have to be on page 99 to give the midterm test by December 12. And in order to get to page 99, you have to cover over 30 CA standards (created by legislators, not teachers) in only four months. So those kids BETTER not have any missing skills and they better get everything right the first time. And they simply don’t. Even the best and brightest kids need some of that tailoring and re-teaching on some things—otherwise, they aren’t learning something new, just something they already know. And that’s not what we want to teach kids, right?

3. Why can’t we just use curriculum or lesson plans from the past?
As Rebecca said, what constitutes good pedagogy keeps changing. This is more dramatic than just changes in technology: it comes down to a shift in the theory of how people learn. In past times, that whole “drill and kill” thing was considered an effective way to teach. New information was possessed by the teacher and the students had to get it from the teacher. Current theory models teacher and student “in dialogue,” where students apply their own knowledge and experience to new concepts presented by the teacher. I teach English, so here’s an English example (just for you Tom): In Moby Dick, Ahab is supposed to see the white whale as power, or maybe God, or something like that. But let’s say a kid whose parents are divorcing reads it and, applying his own schema, sees the elusive Moby Dick as a sort of father figure, always running away just when you want to get close to it. But also you want to kill it… New theory says that teachers’ job is to get the kid to make his own connection, not tell him that the whale symbolizes power, QED. Yes, there are still “facts” to learn, like the definition of a simile, but these are tools—means to an end—not the ultimate goal. The same is true for other subjects. What this ultimately means is that lecture was OK 20 years ago, but nowadays it’s all about small group discussion.

OK! I just burst my political blogland cherry! Woo!

Paul said...

See, a lot of the teachers I know are made in their training to create lesson plans from scratch, although I suppose I know a disproportionate number of teachers who have gone through or are going through somewhat unconventional programs, so they're probably not representative.

And definitely a lot of the comments about flexibility and lesson plan quality seem important, but I don't see how they make desirable the state of affairs that we have. So, if a lesson plan expects that students have certain skills that they in fact lack, surely that's not entirely without precedent; it just kind of pushes the question forward a step - so the teacher needs a different lesson plan...but why in so many cases are teachers making that lesson plan from scratch?

Similarly, I've tried to use those free resources as well, and found them badly wanting - but that hasn't led me to the conclusion that good lessons haven't been created that would approximately serve my purposes.

And I think I was maybe careless with my criticism of the government - I'm not all about the government telling teachers what to do in their classrooms. I am all about the government making it easier for teachers to acquire the resources they need to make their classrooms function effectively. The government shouldn't be doing the creating, and it shouldn't be doing the mandating - but I'd like it to do something constructive, like better connect teachers to one-another and to educational research. My sense is that there's a demand for those sorts of assistance, but that that demand is rarely met in a systematic sort of way.

Paul said...

Oh, the other thing I wanted to say was that you see a lot of classrooms - be they in public schools, parochial schools, or secular private schools - where teachers, as far as I can tell, aren't using lesson plans at all. Maybe they're lecturing then distributing dittos or, in the worst cases I've seen, just skipping straight to the dittos and telling the kids to ask them if they have any questions.

It just seems to me like those classrooms could only benefit from the increased availability of already-created lesson plans.

Thinker said...


What do you do when you find yourself in a hetrogeneously grouped classroom, where some students have all the necessary prerequisite skills to proceed to work on a given objective, while others may have some, but not all, and still others may have almost none? Have you seen ready to use lesson plans that are useful in such situations?

Paul said...

The question isn't whether I've seen them - though I've seen teachers handle such situations with varying degrees of success by employing various strategies. The question is, have such lesson plans ever been created?

My issue is just that I feel like the market of already-created lesson plans (I don't like this "ready-to-use" talk - adapting a lesson plan seems unavoidable in any case, even on the fly) is under-developed. Which is really probably part of a broader issue in education of individual success stories failing to be replicated on a larger scale.

Thinker said...


By and large I agree with just about every word you wrote. While your classroom experience is certainly more recent than mine, it appears not to be substantially different.

One small disagreement I do have, however, is with your statement that "lecture was OK 20 years ago". I can assure you that for a very strong educational reform movement that began in the late 1960s, developed throughout the 1970s, and reached its peak in the early 1980s, that was not the case. What did happen twenty years ago was the beginning of the educational counter-revolution, led by people such as Lynne Cheney (yes, that Lynne Cheney) when she headed the National Endowment for the Humanities under Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. I don't recall that she advocated lecture or "drill and kill", but she certainly went after non-traditional curriculum with a vengence, especially in U.S. History.

Thinker said...


I agree, "ready-to-use" was a bad choice on my part. Maybe we should refer to them as adaptable lesson plans.

As for your question about whether the market for them is under-developed, it may be; but the task for entrepreneurs hoping to tap that market is difficult.

One of the best teachers I know is a man named Jeffrey Schrank. His teaching techniques are without peer. In the 1970s he wrote a series of books in which he attempted to share them with others. (Titles include: TEACHING HUMAN BEINGS; DECEPTION DETECTION; and THE LEARNING SEED CATALOG.) They led to his founding a company in the late 1970s to enable him to develop and market learning materials for the classroom. In many ways they were the adaptable lesson plans I think you're talking about.

His company is still in business, and still produces first rate stuff; primarily DVDs with accompanying adaptable lesson plans for their use. The topics however have become much narrower than the humanities ideas he first shared in his 1970s books. A few months ago I asked him why those ideas and plans, which I still see as quite valuable, hadn't made the transition to his current catalog. He told me that they just didn't sell - social studies and English teachers don't buy things like this in sufficient numbers to keep a small company going. On the other hand food and nutrition topics, marketing analysis, etc. apparently does. His products sell to schools and teachers throughout the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and the UK - most of the English speaking world.

Lisa said...

You're right, there are other movements (though I didn't know about Cheney's) and not every teacher subscribes to the dialogical model (those ditto hander-outers, for one). Since I got my credential from among the liberalliest of the liberal arts colleges (UCB), I tend to take it as a given that it's the most modern and best. Thanks for broadening the perspective.

I also wish lesson plans could be more scalable (it would save me a lot of time), but I still think there are so many variables among students and teachers that it is a difficult task at best. Also, what are all these great systems you have in place at work? Can I steal--I mean collaboratively use--them?

Thinker said...


Here is a technique for you to think about, if it is not already in your bag of tricks.

Small groups can be used as a central tool in instruction in much the same way they are in certain aspects of adult life. There, groups are given a task; and to accomplish it, the various members contribute their unique strengths, rather than each doing the same thing as often happens in the classroom.

For example, I once decided to ask students to actually do something with facts they found in their US History texts. I had them divide into groups of five or six, then explained that each group was to consider itself a TV news team. We spent some time watching local TV newscasts, especially the credits, then discussed what each of the jobs were that went into the production of a report (anchor, reporter, writer, director, producer, cameraman, sound engineer, etc.) I explained that the task of each group was to select an event they'd read about in their texts that semester, then prepare a TV news report on it. They could present the report live in front of the class, or record and submit it.

Each group was responsible for dividing up the work so that the members of the group got to do that at which they were best. At first, the A students were very concerned. Since I was planning to give a group grade that would count in each individual's average, they felt either that they would end up doing all the work (thus benefiting the poorer students who would do little or nothing), or their grades would be dragged down by the bad work of the poorer students. I asked them to have more faith in themselves and each other. In fact as it turned out, the "poorer students" actually had some skills that the "better students" lacked, that were necessary to get the overall job done well. For example, the A students were usually great at research and writing, but perhaps not so great at performing and technical activities - skills at which some of the "poorer students" excelled.

Anyway, I made this assignment several weeks before the end of the semester, and devoted the last five minutes or so of most class periods to discussing problems and progress. Eventually, everybody got comfortable with their roles and very excited about what they were doing. Since the presentations would be short (five minutes each at most), I split our final exam period into two parts - one hour for an essay exam, and one for the groups wanting to present live (most of them) to do so.

The performances were all great. So good in fact, that the students in the audience paid rapt attention to each (even after they'd finished theirs), and broke into spontaneous and sincere applause and cheers when each concluded. (This last fact turned out to create a slight problem as we were in a temporary structure where accordian dividers separated us from the class "next door" that was struggling away with their all written final. At one point my adjacent colleague opened the divider to see what was going on. Observing everyone "under control", he closed it up again. I guess he was used to me by that point in the semester.)

To me, this could be fleshed out into an example of an "adaptable lesson plan". The topic doesn't have to be an historical event, and the method doesn't have to be a simulated TV newscast; but the core technique where the group task actually requires a group to do it, and individual roles play to individual strengths would be common.

In fact, I think I got the idea from which I built this and some other group activities I've used over the years from a book I found in the 1970s - Developing Effective Classroom Groups by Gene Sanford. Sadly, I don't think it is any longer in print, but I see Alibris has two copies up for sale.

Paul said...

My workplace, for better or worse, isn't a school environment so much as a supplement to the students' regular school environments. That said, we do have classroom-style teaching in addition to smaller group work.

I can't speak to the reading lessons, which I'm substantially less involved in, but the general model we follow for the math lessons is: create smallish groups of students of varying degrees of proficiency to minimize skill differences between groups, and then set that group to solving a problem while holding each member of the group individually responsible for explaining the solution. The idea we try to implement is to rectify the skill gap by having the students teach one-another. Provided the problem is engaging enough - we had them spend three weeks this summer creating their own math detective agency to solve math-related crimes - this keeps the most proficient students involved and helps the less proficient students receive a peer's perspective on the subject.

Our rather special circumstance is that we also have a basically unlimited pool of funds from which to pull for specialists who can spend 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 time with about 15% of our students each for reading and math - which simplifies things considerably, since our least proficient students are less of a factor in the classroom setting.

But what's always a pain is having to start basically from scratch because the only resource we have to easily pull good lesson ideas from is our own staff - our full-time staff is about 20% credentialed teachers, many with graduate degrees, but that turns out to be not that many in actual number. Setting up an egg drop can be entertaining, but that's a selfish consideration on my part - I'm usually far from convinced it's the most efficient use of my time.

Thinker said...


Yours sounds like an almost ideal teaching and learning environment.

How do you go about assessing longterm student progress? And, have you found that lessons from TeachersPayTeachers are of better quality than those that can be found at other sites where math teachers contribute ideas and plans they want to share?

Paul said...

I think we've got a pretty good system to supplement the public school system of the area. Whether it would translate well into a more conventional day-school setup seems plausible, but not obvious, to me. As it turns out, we're trying to test just that question out, but the politics of charter school-dom are dense and difficult to navigate. I think the fundamental problem is that the mission of the program, at least ostensibly, is to create a replicable system, but it's not clear to me that we have a replicable set of circumstances on our hands, especially in terms of funding. Is it sustainable as a model for public schools? I dunno.

Long term progress we measure in math through readiness tests in conjunction with UC Berkeley. I'm less familiar with the language arts evaluations, but I know it consists of a battery of tests that includes the San Diego Quick Assessment and maybe 4 others. Then there are statistics like high school graduation, college attendance, etc.

As for, I haven't checked it out. I don't think I know about the incentives and disincentives to putting one's work up to have a feel for what would make a good system.