You walk into a classroom. You see students are excitedly conversing with each other, taking notes on their papers and drawing models. The teacher rotates around, speaking very little, but when he does, he typically leans down, examines a student’s paper and then asks a simple question. You see students not only completing the work but having real discussions about the concepts being taught. You think to yourself, ‘Man, I bet I would have loved to be in this classroom when I was in school!’
When a professional masters their craft they make it appear effortless. But we all know that behind the elegance lies thousands of hours of practice and decades of learning. This is no different in teaching. A great lesson doesn’t just happen. It takes time and effort to both create and execute great lessons. It also takes a solid understanding of what makes a great lesson. It might look like magic, but all great lessons contain several key components that we as teachers should recognize when sitting down to plan.
Before getting into the components of a great lesson, we need to ask ourselves, what does a great lesson look like? In my experience a great lesson is one where students can both accomplish the lesson’s objective and explain the concepts behind the skills they are learning. This necessitates that we engage students in the learning process and empower them to come to the conclusions themselves. Great lessons, therefore, involve students in the learning process throughout to achieve this goal. It transforms them from silent consumers of information into critical thinkers drawing conclusions.
So what are the components of a great lesson? Above all, they are first and foremost question-driven. I’ve found that the simple act of asking questions requires students to think about the answer themselves. Consider an experience in my classroom the other day when we were learning about the properties of trapezoids. Instead of just giving my kids the notes, I gave them information about the shape and asked them to come up with the concepts themselves. If I just give it to them, I know they’ll forget within a minute or two and will have to remind them again. But by asking them to come to the conclusions themselves I help ensure that their understanding will endure far beyond the lesson.
It’s important to note that great lessons don’t just ask any questions. They have to be the right questions. They need to guide students toward the answer, but leave enough room open for them to bridge the remaining gap between the question and the answer on their own. If we make them too broad, the questions instead become a gaping chasm. But if they’re too easy they allow students to spin their wheels in place. As teachers we need to think carefully about the questions we choose and how they are framed.
Second, great lessons also allow students to struggle at the edge of their comfort zone. This piece of great lessons is grounded in the discipline of neuroscience outlined in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Coyle notes throughout his book that the greatest learning takes place when we operate on the edge of what we can do. The same holds true in teaching. Often times I’ll give my students a part of the answer, and then announce, “You have two minutes. Come up with the rest!” At the end of two minutes I find that giving time to struggle and work with the information given means that when I finally reveal the answer I’m simply filling in gaps in what they’ve figured out rather than just telling them.
Third, teachers plan great lessons days and, sometimes, weeks in advance. Everything we learn in school builds on previously-learned concepts. This means that in asking questions of students and allowing them to struggle, we must first do the same with ourselves and determine the skills and concepts that form the foundation of the knowledge we seek to impart and how they all build on each other. When I failed to do this early in my teaching career, I would often get to the question in my class and realize that I’d been asking all the wrong questions the previous few days to prepare them for the one I was about to ask them. There’s nothing more frustrating than realizing you haven’t prepared your students for success!
Fourth, a great lesson drives toward a meaningful and thoughtful objective. At the end of great lessons students should be one step closer to achieving something important. I try to practice this in my classroom by designing some type of complex task for my students to complete at the end of the unit that requires them to apply their entire breadth of knowledge to solve the problem. In my last unit, we took everything we learned about trigonometry, went outside and found the height of the school using nothing other than a tape measure, a protractor and our knowledge. In this way, each and every day becomes meaningful to kids because they know it’s taking them a lesson closer to somewhere new and exciting.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” I believe that all great lessons should drive toward the goal that Mr. Franklin articulated all those years ago. They involve kids through questioning, demand struggles to attain knowledge, are planed far in advance and all take our students closer to a meaningful goal. Once we can demystify this process, we’ll be in a much better place as a profession to push our kids towards where they need to be.
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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.