While mandatory teacher lesson plans might seem like an idea long retired, I am continuously amazed at how many districts and schools still heavily rely on this approach as part of their master plan to improve instruction. Have we learned nothing from state mandated standardized tests, which also (1) force compliance, and (2) turn our attention away from what matters most, student learning?
1. Assumes teachers have all the answers: For some reason, there is this idea in education that teachers know what to do, but just decide not to do it. For example, on the topic of teachers earning cash incentives for their work, Dylan Wiliam states:
But the vast majority of teachers are trying everything they can to increase their students’ achievement. There is certainly no evidence that there are teachers who are holding onto a secret proven method for teaching fractions until someone pays them more money.
I believe Wiliam’s theory also holds true for mandatory lesson plans. The majority of teachers are not holding onto a secret proven method for teaching [insert topic here] until someone tells them to fill out a form. Yes, there are some who improve with rewards and/or accountability, but these carrots and sticks have no effect (or an adverse one) on most.
A greater emphasis must be placed on working together to improve instruction. It is as simple as that.
2. Can destroy autonomy: Autonomy can be defined as “The desire to be self directed,” and Daniel Pink cites it as one of three elements of true motivation (mastery and purpose being the others). Nonetheless, teachers who submit mandatory lesson plans often feel micromanaged, which can be crippling.
A former kindergarten teacher remarks:
I loved teaching so much. It was in my soul, but I have to be honest, micromanagement is one of the things that made me choose to leave…Have you ever wanted someone in control more of your life? Micromanage every moment of your day? Me neither!…That is exactly what required plans do.
Personally, I find it terrifying that a former educator (and a great one at that) mentions micromanagement and required plans as two of the reasons why she left the profession.
Thankfully, over the past few years we have seen the pendulum start to swing from accountability to autonomy and empowerment, as the education world has become fascinated with using various “autonomy models” to drive both educator and student learning: Google 20% Time, Genius Hour, Edcamps, etc.
3. Lack of teacher buy-in: I do think mandatory lesson plans, in some shape or form, can benefit administrators, teachers, and students. However, if teachers do not “get it,” instruction is not going to improve.
Lack of buy-in is unlikely to occur if (1) the mandatory lesson plan format is administrator driven, and (2) teachers do not have an understanding of how the various sections/components of their lesson plan can impact learning. One of my experiences satisfied both these pitfalls…A few weeks prior to the first day of school, district administrators informed teachers they would have to complete mandatory plans for all Language Arts and math lessons. More or less, these forms were then distributed to teachers and their formats/components were a non-negotiable.
Sadly enough, the sections/components of the forms were “research-based,” but administration failed to take the time to facilitate (1) teacher conversation around what should be included, and (2) professional learning. As a result, there was no buy-in, and teachers simply went through the motions because they had to. For example, learning targets had to be posted for all lessons. So, teachers created massive amounts of learning target posters, somewhat reluctantly posted them when necessary, and in the end their students missed out on valuable learning opportunities.
4. Not used formatively: If administrators are collecting lessons plans only to hold teachers accountable, there is a strong chance the forms are not contributing to anyone’s personal and professional growth. Instead, to promote progress, mandatory forms should be leveraged as part of the formative assessment process (similar to why teachers should emphasize formative assessment over summative).
According to James Popham, “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.” Yet, how many schools with mandatory plans are actually using them to assist teachers in growing professionally?
According to an Elementary School Principal who has the right idea, “I collect ‘lesson plans’ but really what I want to see is what was planned and the trajectory of future instruction.”
I would go as far to say…if you have any type of mandatory lesson plan in place, then you owe it to your teachers to work together in developing a formal, non-punitive process in which they can receive feedback on their plans/lessons from others (administrators, colleagues, students).
5. Unit plans should take priority: In 2011 I started to emphasize long-term unit planning over the often times painstaking process of constantly preparing for instruction on a day-to-day (or even weekly) basis. This shift was largely made possible by familiarizing myself with Understanding by Design or UbD. UbD is a framework that “offers a planning process and structure to guide curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Its two key ideas are contained in the title: (1) focus on teaching and assessing for understanding and learning transfers, and (2) design curriculum ‘backward’ from those ends.”
Interestingly enough, about a year later I signed up for an ASCD Common Core webinar by Grant Wiggins, one of the book’s/framework’s authors. During the webinar he mentioned the archaic nature of the traditional lesson plan, and how they have been (or should be) falling by the wayside in favor of unit plans. Yes, it would be easy to be skeptical of this comment since it leant itself to his work (and therefore, what he promoted). But, I can say with confidence that I have experienced first-hand the positive impact long-term unit planning has on student learning.
So, if something needs to be mandatory, try going with unit plans. Also, consider making Understanding by Design (or some form of unit planning) a priority when rolling out professional development. The framework also assisted me in (1) emphasizing inquiry-based learning throughout my instruction and (2) making the shift from doing projects to project-based learning.
In the End
These five points are only a handful of the several reasons why teachers should throw out their lesson plans. In fact, when I brought up the idea for this post on social media, I was immediately met with numerous responses as to why this approach does not work. While I could not reasonably include all replies within the body of the post, here they are for your perusal.
Finally, I want to reiterate, “I do think mandatory lesson plans, in some shape or form, can benefit administrators, teachers, and students.” However, I have yet to hear about a district or school that “does it right.”
Do mandatory lesson plans have a place in our schools? Is it possible to implement them effectively? Is our time better spent elsewhere?
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