Monday, March 1, 2010

Teacher's Intent

Every year I get a couple student teachers from the local college. They are third or fourth year university students who are learning to become teachers (Bachelor of Education typicall takes four years of university in Alberta - sometimes five). And every year I have to convince them that everything they have been told about lesson planning was maybe a little bit of a lie.

Let me explain by using an excerpt from the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath.

Every move an Army soldier makes is preceded by a staggering amount of planning, which can be traced to an original order from the president of the United States. The president order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accomplish an objective, and the Joint Chiefs set the parameters of the operation. Then the orders and plans begin to cascade downward - from generals to colonels to captains.

The plans are quite thorough, specifying the "scheme of maneuver" and the "concept of fires" - what each unit will do , which equipment it will use, how it will replace munitions, and so on. The orders snowball until they accumulate enough specificity to guide the actions of individual foot soldiers at particular moments of time.

The Army invests enormous energy in its planning, and its processes have been refined over many years. The system is a marvel of communication. There's just one drawback: The plans often turn out to be useless.

"The trite expression we always use is No plan survives contact with the enemy," says Colonel tom Kolditz, the head of behavioral sciences division at West Point. "You may start off trying to fight your plan, but the enemy gets a vote. Unpredictable things happen - the weather changes, a key asset is destroyed, the enemy responds in a way you don't expect. Many armies fail because they put all their emphasis into creating a plan that becomes useless ten minutes into battle."

The Army's challenge is akin to writing instructions for a friend to play chess on your behalf. You know a lot about the rules of the game, an you may know a lot about your friend and the opponent. But if you try to write move-by-move instrucitons you'll fail. You can't possibly foresee more than a few moves. The first time the opponent makes a surprise move, your friend will have to throw out your carefully designed plans and rely on her instincts.

Colonel Kolditz says, "Over time we've come to understand more and more about what makes people successful in complex organizations." he believes that plans are useful, in the sense that they are proof that planning has taken place. The planning process forces people to think through the right issues. But as for the plans themselves, Kolditz says, "They just don't work on the battlefield." So, in teh 1980s the Army adapted its planning process, inventing a concept called Commander's Intent (CI).

CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan's goal, the desired end-state of an operation. At high levels of the Army, the CI may be relatively abstract: "Break teh will of the enemy in the Southeast region."

...The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. "You can lose the ability to execute the original plan, but you never lose the responsibility of executing the intent," says Kolditz.

No plan survives the enemy. Even those who have no connection to the military must find a lot of truth in that statement. For teachers, no lesson plan or curriculum survives contact with students.

Lesson planning is stressed a lot in our teacher education programs in Alberta, but it shouldn't be that important. A teacher who plans their entire lesson from start to finish without bringing the students in on the planning is no less foolish than the bride who plans her entire wedding, honeymoon and life without finding a husband to share it with.

The same can be said of inflexible and top-down prescribed curriculums. Good teachers know that no curriculum survives first contact with the students. That is why curriculum should be focused less on a 'bunch o' facts' and more on teaching the cognitive, thinking and collaborative skills that children will need.

If we are going to continue to seriously pursue national, state or provincial standards then we need to seriously look at keeping those standards as vague as possible.

Alfie Kohn summarizes this standards movement nicely in Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests:

Considerable research has demonstrated the importance of making sure students are actively involved in designing their own learning, invited to play a role in formulating questions, creating projects, and so on. But the more comprehensive and detailed a list of standards, the more students (and even teachers) are excluded from this process, the more alienated they tend to become, and the more teaching becomes a race to cover a huge amount of material. Thus, meeting these kinds of standards may actually have the effect of dumbing down classrooms. As Howard Gardner and his colleagues wisely observed, "The greatest enemy of understanding is 'coverage.'"

Just as standards and curriculum should be kept vague, so should lesson planning. The vagueness is necessary so to allow teachers and students to personalize their learning to suit their own personal needs.
Susan Ohanian's book One Size Fits Few and Peter Sack's book Standardized Minds are fascinating reads on why standardization is doing more harm than good.

Made to Stick shows how important it is to keep planning to a simple primary objective, but they also show how training your personal properly and then trusting them to understand the objective is at the heart of good planning.

Like the Commander's Intent that the Army created, we might be better off creating a Teacher's Intent that keeps the primary objective of school focused on one very focused, primary objective - that all children would have the desire to go on learning. An interesting model of this Teacher's Intent might be found in
UNESCO's Four Pillars of Education.

But none of this works if teachers are distrusted. If we continue to try and 'teacher-proof' education with more top-down prescribed standards and standardization, we will never be able to properly provide our children with the education they deserve.


  1. So true! I'm a senior education major, and the more I teach the more I see how hindering these detailed lesson plans are. We have to write them for class, but sticking to them at all costs when teaching really doesn't seem practical.

  2. Many teachers from Estonia would applaud to you! Recently one teacher asked me: "If there is trust and reality why do we need these plans for?" I didn't dare to answer like you since our laws require it from teachers... Thank you for allowing me to quote you:)!

  3. Hi Pipsimone! I was wondering who my Estonian readers were! I'm glad to have you on board.


  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I like the planning a wedding without a groom analogy. While reading Made to Stick, I also picked up on the power of "Commander's Intent" and the futility of making detailed plans. Now there's an idea I wish we could make "stick" with our instructional leaders!

  5. I agree completely. I don't think I have ever had a lesson go as planned, so I stopped planning in detail. I feel like every interaction with a student is "planning".

    I would venture to say that one can tell a great teacher by the dearth of plans in their planbook (district supplied, of course) and the laughter coming from their classroom.

  6. @ Joe
    I don't know if "planning" is really the issue here. I think what you are really celebrating is the "flexibility" to take the learning to a deeper richer level by having the courage to guide the process. I'd argue without much of an original plan the richness would probably not be discovered.

  7. I am becoming a seriously big fan of your blog. I totally agree with having lesson plan intents rather than hard and fast plans. I've seen any number of lessons wrecked by a teacher going too fast or too slow simply because that's what they planned. Or they don't address the learners' needs because they are adhering to the plan to rigidly.

    Also, could you change your comment settings. It's driving me nuts that I can't post a comment without going through the rigamarole of logging into some account and it won't accept my Open DNS

    I like to plan general topics or tasks and then just see where the lesson goes. The best lessons are always the ones where the students take over and create their own content and progress.

    I'm do agree with Charlie though that there needs to be a starting point and perhaps a framework. Depends on the ability of the learners. Sometimes they need more scaffolding than other times.

    I think the most important thing in a lesson is creating tension either through interesting information, a challenge, something to be discovered, etc. Create good tension and the students will do the rest.

  8. @ oxfordhouse
    I'd agree that Joe's blog is becoming one of the first ones I check in google reader. Maybe Canadians just make great education bloggers.

  9. Good post, and very true. I teach in one of those Faculties of ed - and was a public school teacher for 30 years. While planning is important, it must be flexible .. and the teacher must be prepared to throw out the 'plan' and go in a different direction. Some colleagues might disagree, but I tell my students to plan, but the plan is more of a guide, you have to be prepared, but must be ready to change direction on the spur of the moment. After teaching awhile, my lesson plans were a few lines in my day book. Your points on standards are well taken too, the path to deskilling teachers needs to stop!

  10. Joe,

    I agree with a lot of this. My district has a lesson plan format, but it doesn't work for me. I found out that they only care if you use the format; not how you use it. So I started molding it to what I like to do. More often than not, my lesson plans consist of questions that I want to uncover. What do we think about this...? How do we look at that...? Either way, my "lesson plan" doesn't have all the damned components that education schools swear make "great lesson plans". I like it that way. Schools of education continue to feed pre-service teachers a load of crap, and then it takes them 3-4 years just to unlearn that crap and be effective in the classroom.

    Attrition rate of teachers is highest in the first 4-5 years of teaching? Hmmmmmm...

    Maybe if pre-service teachers were told up front that all the nonsense they emphasize in college doesn't work, we wouldn't lose so many people. They'd stop bogging themselves down with paperwork and start to realize that if they have natural conversations with kids they would be more effective as teachers.

    I know I started to wander off topic, but I think the crux is somewhat close to what we were talking about last night regarding lesson planning.

    Thanks for the link.

  11. The situation you describe would entail a major paradigm shift on so many levels. At least most effective teachers already know this to be true, and understand the importance and limitations of planning. Thanks for a superb post.


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