In my first months as a social studies teacher, I struggled each time I sat down to plan lessons for the upcoming school week. When I opened my laptop each weekend, I spent hours at a time trying to figure out a basic class period. I could not understand how lesson planning seemed so easy to my more experienced colleagues. As I progressed through my first school year—daunted, determined, and eager to improve—I began to learn valuable teaching strategies and engaging student activities to fill my lesson plans. This was a formative time in my development as an educator—but I had yet to learn the most critical component of lesson planning.
Now, as an instructional supervisor, I often see first- and second-year teachers planning the same way I did: properly structured lessons. Engaging and sometimes even innovative lessons planned for the class. Nonetheless, more often than not, the objective, class instruction, and assignments are not aligned.
Learning how to align assignments and assessments with goals and instruction took some time for me. I had yet to grasp the integral concept of backward design, otherwise known as starting at the end. On top of that, I needed a clear understanding of (1) the relationship between each of these components and (2) the benefits of congruent instruction. Well-aligned lesson objectives, instructional activity, and assessment yield a more concise, focused, and ultimately meaningful standards-based lesson. Simply put, congruent instruction proactively answers the question, “Why are we doing this?” If you are seeking to strengthen your planning process and looking to align your lesson design, here is a great way to get started.
3 STEPS TO better-aligned LESSON PLANS
1. Determine the end goal of the lesson. Drafting a well-aligned plan means resisting the urge to start the planning process by pinpointing a great lesson activity or teaching strategy. As a novice teacher, this was one of my biggest challenges.
Congruence begins with the objective, or starting with the end in mind. Still, while it may seem simple, identifying the objective of a lesson should begin with two key questions about content and skill: “What do the students need to know,” and “What do the students need to know how to do?” The answers generated in this exercise create the goal for the class in the allotted time of the class period.
Personally, I like to reframe these questions from the students’ perspective:
“What do I need to know today?”
“What do I need to know how to do today?”
This may seem unnecessary. However, I find that engagement begins by planning with a view of the class from the chair of the children. Moreover, when the kids come into class and inevitably ask, “What are we doing today?” the teacher can quickly respond, “Ahem, what are we learning today? I’m glad you asked!”
2. Identify or create the assessment. Once there is a learning objective, the next question is, “How will I know when the students have met the goal?” In my first years as a teacher, even after I began to understand the importance of learning objectives, I consistently overcomplicated this question. However, the answer is not only straightforward, but also critical for the accurate assessment of student mastery.
For instance, if the social studies objective for students is to use primary sources to explain why the Declaration of Independence was written, you will know that students have met this goal when they can use primary sources to explain why the Declaration of Independence was written. It’s really that simple.
The key here is that the assignment(s), classwork, class activity you plan for this lesson must provide the student with practice and an opportunity to show you and themselves that they have met the goal of the lesson. If this is not so, the lesson is unaligned, and any assessment of what students are able to demonstrate actually has nothing to do with the standards-based objective.
Using the previously mentioned goal as an example, the social studies class must get a chance to use primary sources to explain why the Declaration of Independence was written. Documentary clips about the writing of this document may provide great insight, but how will you use the video in congruence with the goal? A Socratic seminar on a polarizing and relevant topic may generate immense engagement, but how does this activity align with the learning objective?
A better assessment might task the class with a writing prompt asking each student to make a choice supported by evidence from the primary source. The prompt should require students to (1) present the argument as a topic sentence, (2) include two to three textual references (direct quotations or paraphrases, both with citations) as evidence, and (3) provide an explanation of why each reference supports the argument. This alignment allows you as the teacher to make a focused, efficient, and accurate assessment of each student’s progress.
3. Plan the instruction. Now that there is a clear goal and understanding of how to assess the students, the next big question is, how will I teach this skill or content?
For a new teacher, one way to begin planning instruction is to ask one last question from the students’ perspective: “What are the steps necessary for me to meet the goal?” A great way to frame these steps is by completing the assignment you have identified or created in the previous step of planning. There are three great benefits to this. As you complete the assignment, take note of the strategies you employ to do so. This becomes the crux of your instruction. Additionally, as you have already done what the students will do after you’ve taught the lesson, your feedback will be more concise and empathetic. Finally, by completing the assignment you chose or designed, you have an exemplar.
High expectations, engaging activities, and a sense of community are vital components of a classroom culture built to ensure student success. Yet, without congruent instruction, students may benefit from inclusivity, social and emotional support, and being challenged, while still never achieving mastery of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. If you begin designing lessons with a focus on the alignment of the learning objective, assessment, and instruction, you will improve your planning and ultimately become more effective in the classroom.