Program Goal VII: Planning Instruction

Effective planning is a crucial component of effective teaching. According to Orlich, Harder, Callahan, Trevisian, and Brown (2004), there is not necessarily one "best" way to go about instructional planning. However, "Regardless of the format they choose, master teachers use planning to help them select the content and methods that will most help their students achieve predefined learning goals. Without effective planning, students are less likely to achieve these goals" (p. 118). Though it is often helpful for beginning teachers to put most of their planning in writing, research cited by Kindsvatter, Wilen, and Ishler (1996) showed that much of the instructional planning process is done mentally and that "written plans reflect only a small portion of the total plan" (p. 146). These authors also noted that the planning process typically begins with a general idea and moves through phases of modification and elaboration. Though there are various ways to describe these phases or stages of instructional planning, Orlich, Harder, Callahan, Trevisian, and Brown (2004) proposed the following three: preplanning, unit and lesson planning, and post-lesson activities. The paragraphs below follow their format.

Preplanning: Before getting down to the specifics of unit or lesson planning, teachers need to consider several more general aspects of instruction such as overall content, standards, resources, instructional materials, the needs of their students, and time constraints (Orlich, Harder, Callahan, Trevisian, and Brown 2004).

Deciding what content is important, relevant, and appropriate is a difficult task for beginning teachers. Sources to help with this process can be found at the school district, state, and national levels. The Minnesota Department of Education (2011) has established Academic Standards for the fine arts, English language arts, mathematics, physical education, science, and social studies. These standards specify curricular content for Minnesota schools and also specify the content in reading, writing, mathematics, and science that is assessed as part of Minnesota's compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act. At the national level, nearly every discipline has a national organization which has identified standards (see Standard I, Subject Matter), and as of August 8, 2011, 46 states had adopted the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and mathematics (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2011).

The availability of resources and materials is also an important preplanning consideration and often limits the range of possibilities for instructional activities. Fortunately, the Internet is a great tool for locating resources of potential use for lesson planning. Students and their needs, including developmental and readiness levels as well as prior knowledge, must also be considered. Determining student needs is complicated by the fact that nearly all classrooms include a wide range of developmental and academic levels as well as students with special needs. Cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity are also factors that influence content decisions.

The school calendar and time constraints are additional variables that must be considered during preplanning. As Orlich, Harder, Callahan, Trevisian, and Brown (2004) noted, there often is not enough time for all that teachers need to do. Therefore, it is important to set priorities, even (and perhaps especially) about unit content and decide which topics to include, which to emphasize, and which to omit. As noted by Tyson (1991), a characteristic of effective experienced teachers is their ability to focus their lessons around and give greater emphasis to important and more challenging aspects of subject matter.

Unit and Lesson Planning: After reviewing standards, considering student needs, and deciding how much time should be devoted to the particular unit, the nest step is to focus on developing the specific lessons that will go together to make up the unit. Though there are many appropriate formats in which lesson plans may be written, most include such essential elements as goals, objectives, instructional activities, lesson rationale, motivation, and assessment.

Goals are "general statements of desired educational outcomes" (Snowman, McCown, and Biehler, 2012, p. 441). Objectives are more specific and describe what students will be able to do in order to demonstrate the new learning that has occurred as a result of the lesson or unit. Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, et al 1956) is a helpful and commonly-used system for classifying the levels at which objectives are written. The taxonomy includes three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. The six levels of the cognitive domain, listed from lowest to highest, are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. It is crucial that lesson and unit objectives be written at cognitive levels that are consistent with the proposed instruction and assessments. The affective and psychomotor taxonomies, though helpful for planning some lessons, are neither as widely used nor as generally accepted as the cognitive taxonomy. Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) offer modified versions of taxonomies for all three domains. Their taxonomy of the cognitive domain changes nouns to verbs (for instance analysis to analyzing), substitutes the terms remembering and understanding for knowledge and comprehension, places creating, their term for synthesizing, at the highest level of the taxonomy, and moves evaluating down to the second-highest level.

In addition to goals and objectives, most lesson plans include a rationale which explains why a specific lesson is necessary or appropriate. Having a rationale is important in justifying the need for teaching a topic or content, not only for the teacher's sake, but also for students, parents, and administrators (Orlich, Harder, Callahan, Trevisian, and Brown 2004). Explaining the lesson's rationale to students is also an important way to help students see the relevance of a topic, one important factor in in developing student motivation. (See Program Goal V: Learning Environment for an overview of student motivation.)

Instructional activities, or teaching methods, are the heart of the lesson. Options such as constructivism, discovery learning, cooperative learning, direct instruction, discussion-based learning, reception learning, and holistic learning all may be appropriate in certain circumstances. Though content, availability of resources, and student characteristics play a part in deciding which specific instructional techniques are chosen, the teacher's personal style or philosophy is often a deciding factor in this choice. We believe it is generally best for teachers to design their own lessons and instructional activities that are specifically tailored to their students' needs. However, collections of high-quality lesson plans available on the Internet, such as those offered by The  Gateway, NEA Lesson Ideas, Thinkfinity, Smithsonian Education, Discovery Education, Read/Write/Think, and EdSITEment, are excellent sources for ideas regarding instructional strategies as well as other aspects of lessons and units. Robert Branch, Dohun Kim, and Lynn Koenecke (2002) offer helpful ideas for evaluating and choosing online educational materials.

Regardless of which instructional techniques one chooses, a helpful approach in planning for individual needs is the "differentiated classroom" described by Carol Tomlinson (1999). Her proposal takes into account student needs such as interests, readiness, prior knowledge, gender, and culture so that the content, process, and products will better meet those needs. In this model, students are offered tasks based on flexible grouping. Effective differentiated instruction often involves the use of instructional scaffolding, a process in which students are given various forms of support or assistance (Larkin, 2002) in order to control for aspects of the task "that are beyond the learners' capabilities so they can focus on and master those features of the task that they can grasp quickly" (Schunk, 2012, p. 245). The amount and form of scaffolding varies depending on the students' needs.

Developing appropriate assessment strategies is yet another crucial aspect of this stage of the planning cycle. As noted by Orlich, Harder, Callahan, Trevisian, and Brown (2004), assessment must occur throughout the unit, not just at its end. Assessment during instruction allows the teacher to monitor student learning and make any necessary adjustments. Though checklists and rating scales may be used for these purposes, the majority of classroom assessment during instruction is formative, and involves observation and reflection (Snowman, McCown, & Biehler, 2012).

Planning for Post-Lesson Activities: Evaluation of student learning is one of the final pieces of a well-constructed unit or lesson. As was the case when choosing instructional strategies, the teacher again has many options in regard to evaluation. Traditional objective and essay tests as well as performance assessments all may be appropriate as long as they effectively measure the extent to which students have learned the intended content and skills or mastered the lesson objectives. Regardless of which format is chosen, it is essential that the evaluation activities are linked directly to the lesson objectives and are consistent with the cognitive levels at which the objectives are written. An overview of evaluation techniques is provided in our chapter on assessment (Program Goal VIII).

Finally, lessons and units should always be thought of as works-in-progress or "emerging documents," as Orlich, Harder, Callahan, Trevisian, and Brown, (2004) have called them. In other words, they can always be refined or improved through careful reflection on accomplishment of the lesson's outcomes. As we have noted in Goal IX: Reflection and Professional Development, we agree with James Cooper (1999) that "reflection is the decision-making system's way of correcting itself" (p. 8) in that it adds to one's body of knowledge for use in future decisions, particularly those involving instructional planning.

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Updated July 2012 by Edmund J. Sass