Why I Scrapped All Lesson Plans

A few years ago, I shared some student essays with my colleagues, as part of a teacher training program I was co-facilitating. I was proud of what my students had done: They had read a series of difficult texts, formulated their thoughts on a profound ethical question, and written a lengthy essay offering evidence for their views. Due to the complexity of the topic, the essays were complex, too. They meandered, as minds do. The students showed what they wondered about, what they were unsure about. These essays were not thesis-driven, nor did they follow the format of a traditional 5-paragraph essay. They were a little messy, perhaps, but they thrilled me with their nuanced ideas.

After my colleagues read these essays, one teacher threw the papers down on the desk and said, “So you’re prioritizing thinking, then?”

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to leap up to the ceiling and swing from the rafters like a monkey, screaming “YES, EDUCATION IS ABOUT THINKING!”

How did we get to a place in education where thinking is not the goal?

The astounding book Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Underderstanding, and Independence for All Learners by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison helped me answer this question. The authors write,

Classrooms are too often places of “tell and practice.” The teacher tells the students what is important to know or do and then has them practice that skill or knowledge. In such classrooms, little thinking is taking place.

This simple passage illuminated for me why sometimes a well-planned lesson will drain all of the air from a classroom. I still remember a moment early in my teaching, where I taught composition students about summary writing by making a detailed Powerpoint presentation, something I didn’t usually do. I thought I was finally “becoming a real teacher,” with organized lessons and clear goals. But halfway through my presentation, the room had become deathly quiet. My students were looking at me, puzzled, wondering where their teacher had gone.

I realized much, much later that a “lesson” on summary was always going to be bad, but that a discussion about pretty much any topic, wherein students were asked to use their minds, would always be a learning experience.

When I started giving up lesson plans, I saw real progress in my students. Instead of “teaching” students about how to write an introduction, I would ask my students questions to try to get them to think from the perspective of a reader. Models of introductions can be helpful, but not models of “student writing” from a textbook, which sound false and lack context. But in the end, I scrapped using models, too, and focused more on the ideas that students were writing about. I had some faith that if they were invested in their ideas, and if they had an awareness of their readers, they could write that introduction much better than if I had told them how to do it, or showed them how a “good writer” had done it.

A “lesson” presumes that I already know the answer and that the students don’t. Students feel this power dynamic, and many strain against it. A discussion, on the other hand, is an exploration of a topic, where the students’ ideas and my own are in conversation. No one’s ideas are superior except in that some ideas can be better justified or defended. Hearing other people’s ideas expands our own minds beyond their current limits. And often a student can “hear” another student’s idea better than if that same idea had been offered by me.

Questions are the spark that gives a conversation its energy. We teachers ask a lot of questions, but what kind of questions are they? The authors of Making Thinking Visible argue that “asking authentic questions—that is, questions to which the teacher does not already know the answer or to which there are not predetermined answers—is extremely powerful in creating a classroom culture that feels intellectually engaging.” When I read this, my first instinct is to cheer for the teacher who feels enough confidence to ask students a question to which she does not know the answer. And yet—of course. Of course, all truly interesting questions don’t have one right answer.

Why, then, in education, do we give students questions to which there are simple write and wrong answers? Such questions are easier to “assess” and to grade, I imagine. What would happen if we stopped doing this?

I’ll make a bold assertion here: I think we could transform education completely if we threw out all lessons and goals aside from one: to encourage students to think more deeply and to show that thinking. Luckily, Making Thinking Visible shows us a path forward, by offering us “thinking routines” instead of lessons. Teachers know the awkward silence that can sometimes descend upon a room when we ask students “What do you think?” A thinking routine helps here, by providing a structure to help students work through their thinking.

One example is the See-Think-Wonder. I’ve used this routine when showing my students photographs from the civil rights movement. First, students discuss simply what it is they see, without interpretation. Then they discuss what think it means. Finally, they are given an opportunity to wonder about what they see. In response to a photograph of police dogs attacking a black man, one student said, “I wonder why this police officer thinks he is doing the right thing.” The word “wonder” gives voice to students’ curiosity and encourages inquisitiveness rather than judgment.

And isn’t this the essence of education? To wonder about something. To have an unanswered question that tugs at the edges of the mind. These unanswered and unanswerable questions cannot be taught in lessons. But they can be explored, through conversations and in writing. Many of my old lesson plans were fun, and I hated to give them up. But I decided that any lesson with a predetermined outcome, where students are asked to perform but not think critically, had to go. It is humbling to stand up in a classroom and try to engage students in the difficult and mysterious work of thinking. It is never boring, though.

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