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Yesterday I shared some advice on how novice facilitators might put more thought into cooperative group work.

Today I focus on how they might write better lesson plans.

Lesson planning is not a chore, it is a discipline. With practice, it becomes a habit that gets internalised.

Even faculty members in institutes of higher education (IHLs) need to lesson plan. Especially faculty members need to lesson plan because they might not have had teacher preparation.

Novice facilitators should not simply walk into tutorial rooms or laboratories and try to repeat what they experienced as undergraduates and graduate students. The didactic pedagogy they perpetuate is based on the transmission of information.

While information might be transferable, knowledge is not. Such meaning is negotiated cognitively and socially. Facilitating such negotiation first takes the knowledge and skills of writing learning outcomes, designing learner-centred activities, and providing feedback on performance. All these should be developed in a lesson plan.

Lesson planning is essentially a writing process. Like any writing process, there is drafting and revising. Novices should not expect to get a plan right on the first attempt. The process can be painful, but as the adage goes: No pain, no gain.

The programme I am involved in requires future faculty to write course descriptions, lesson plans, and personal teaching philosophies.

No matter the academic subject, there are disciplines to hone when writing. One is chunking thoughts in paragraphs. Each paragraph should contain one main idea. Ideally, one chunk should link to another in a logical series.

Write tight
Another discipline of writing is not to write the way you speak. A conversation between two people can meander and even get lost. It is informal and interaction is immediate. Elements of a lesson plan need to be written clearly and concisely.

I find that it helps to imagine that you are planning a lesson just in case someone else needs to take over your class in your absence. You need to write simply and directly so that another facilitator might read your plan and lead the class almost like you would.

Do not be lazy
When writing, use the autocorrect tools in word processing programs. They help you avoid spelling and grammatical errors. However, they cannot correct lazy or ill-disciplined writing.

The screen capture above shows how I highlighted and corrected a lesson plan element. The lesson plan was about bits and bytes, hence the tongue-in-cheek comment about ones and zeroes.

My comment might come across as mean. It is not. Being a disciplined writer means not taking the reader for granted. What you say is not necessarily what someone else will hear. It is about taking another’s perspective.

Disciplined writing is also about caring for the small things that matter. If you cannot get these details right, how can you be trusted with the larger picture?

Autocorrect tools do not understand context or detect all errors. So another aspect of disciplined writing is proofreading. Such reading is not just for spotting and correcting spelling and grammatical errors, but also for addressing flaws in logic and bumps in flow.

I find that it helps to walk away from a piece of writing and return to it with a fresh perspective.

Practise and transfer
Like most skills that are developed over time, writing takes practice. Future faculty who wish to be good facilitators should invest time in writing good lesson plans because this is a skill that transfers. Disciplined writing can help with the composition of dissertations, grant proposals, conference submissions, research papers, etc.

But the most important purpose of disciplined writing by novice faculty is lesson planning. Such writing might seem burdensome initially, but when practiced iteratively and reflectively, it becomes a habit. This habit pays off when students benefit from learner-centred design that is held together by disciplined writing.

In the first three parts on novice teaching mistakes by future faculty (FF), I reflected on flaws in implementation, planning, and mindsets.

In this final part, I rise above those reflections.

Why share these thoughts only after three semesters of working with FF?

Part of the reason was the time to interact with FF and evaluate their work. The mistakes repeated themselves and they became more obvious. They also reminded me of what I noticed as an educator of student teachers during their courses and practicum. So I wrote down what came to mind, was most recent, and most repeated.

The most important thing to address when trying to change behaviours is mindsets. A short series of modules cannot change mindsets overnight.

Part of me shrugs and thinks that doing something is better than nothing at all. The other part of me is convinced that we provide powerful and meaningful enough experiences to affect some FF for years to come.

Yet another part of me is saddened by how most universities operate. When I suggested more modules and alternatives to address diversity, I was told that the university did not want to invest in this effort because research output is what matters.

The rationale from a systemic point of view was this: Dedicate more time to developing FF pedagogically and their doctoral studies research will suffer. I can see that. Funding, rankings, and reputation are at stake.

But some FF and I also see that high quality and progressive teaching also matters. Prospective students and parents do not realise that university rankings are not based largely on teaching. Furthermore, the quality of teaching is very hard to measure compared to research output.

To use an analogy, measuring research output is like grading the quantity and quality of factory products. There are few grey areas, but doing this is relatively easy.

On the other hand, trying to gauge the quality of teaching is like trying to measure the factory’s staff morale and their bosses’ leadership abilities. These not only have indefinite shades of grey, they also have rainbow colours.

One of the most important international university ranking systems, QS, relies on proxy measures of teaching, e.g., student satisfaction, student/faculty ratios, course completion rates. These are not measures of pedagogical effectiveness, change, or innovation.

This is why it is important to improve teaching at the university level even though it is not measured precisely. The indicators at an administrative or report level look good, but the reality on the ground paints a different picture. I would rather point out mistakes and make the effort to deal with them than hide behind a ranking or number.

This is Part 3 of my reflections on the teaching mistakes that some novice instructors and future faculty (FF) might make.

In Part 1, I shared three implementation missteps. In Part 2, I highlighted two problems with planning. In this part, I comment on mindsets.

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

Calling all lessons lectures. I know of some FF who cannot think outside the lecture box. They label all sessions lectures even if they are tutorials, coaching sessions, workshops, laboratory experiments, field trips, etc.

This is not a matter of semantics, but of mindset. Play a word association game starting with “university” and “lecture” will probably be among the first mentions.

Lectures are the least effective method of promoting deep and meaningful learning and this is one of the first boxes I try to get FF to climb out of. Unfortunately, if you have been in the box for a long time, it can be hard to think outside of it. It could be the pedagogical equivalent Stockholm Syndrome.

Efficiency as the rationale for change. In trying to justify change, I have noted that quite a few FF justify better teaching methods as being more efficient.

Why focus on efficiency? Lectures are very efficient from a teaching and mass processing point of view. Why not dwell on effectiveness? After all, deep learning takes time, e.g., learning-to-be takes longer than simply learning-about.

Not paying attention to WHY or SO WHAT. While evaluating the writing, planning, and teaching of FF, I notice that some individuals put the WHY of the lesson last or do not emphasise it at all.

Why is the lesson important to the learner? So what is it to them if they know something? What if they did not?

These are important questions that need to be addressed before focusing on the what, how, where, and when.

Everything in the room should just work or everyone has a smartphone. This might be true in a well-maintained campus and if there is a population of well-off, well-connected students.

However, tools can occasionally not work and FF need to think of contingencies. Some students might, for whatever reason, also choose to not use technology despite being reminded to bring a computing device. How are they to learn if the tools do not work or if they choose not to use them?

I share these thoughts not to shame new instructors or FF. We have all made mistakes and we should learn from them. However, there is a serious problem if FF do not admit to or realise they are making these basic mistakes. This is why I mention these mistakes explicitly.

In Part 1 of my reflection of teaching mistakes by novice future faculty (FF), I focused on implementation mistakes that might recur.

Today I focus on planning mistakes.

Confusing teaching objectives with learning outcomes. Objectives are what instructors focus on; that is what they plan on doing during a lesson. Outcomes focus on the learners; these are what students need to be able to attempt and achieve after an experience.

I find that many FF still think that their stating or demonstrating something is the same as their students learning it. If only teaching and learning was that easy a matter of transference!

If we focus on learners and learning, we seek evidence of change and only students can provide it because we are not mind-readers. Educators can create numerous opportunities (see the orange and green bands in Bloom’s revised taxonomy below).

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

[Larger version, CC-BY-NC-SA] [My notes on BT revised]

Bloom’s taxonomy (BT) is taken as a prescriptive framework instead of a descriptive one. The conventional representation of BT (revised version) is a triangle with a broad base of remembering and an apex of creating. FF, and indeed many teachers, assume that they must always proceed from simple to complex.

Some experts take the deductive approach. Having previously struggled with a learning journey, an expert might wish to simplify the journey for someone else. The deductive method might mean sharing general principles and then illustrating with examples (generic to specific).

This is the approach that most textbooks use because authors and publishers try to inform in the absence of an instructor. However, instructors who rely on the textbook might adopt the same deductive strategy.

There are problems with this approach. It does not reflect authentic learning nor does it embrace complexities and subjectivities in the wider world. Problems that require the application of theories are rarely of a textbook nature.

This approach also focuses on learning-about over learning-to-be. The instructor gained expertise and is passionate about the academic subject perhaps because of the struggle while learning. Simplifying and reducing takes this experience away from new learners.

One reason why employers might lament that graduates are not prepared for “the real world” is because students are taught to operate in a textbook, deductive-only, and inauthentic bubble.

Today I have reflected on just two of several novice instructor mistakes in planning for teaching. Tomorrow, I highlight a few mindsets that hold back more effective and innovative teaching.

I was a teacher educator for almost ten years before I left the NIE, Singapore, in 2014. I continue to provide professional development for teachers and educators as a consultant.

For the last three semesters, I have been involved in a programme that tries to prepare future faculty (FF) to teach differently. One broad goal is for FF to not just teach the way they were taught (i.e., lecture) and to adopt more learner-centred approaches like collaborative learning.

As FF try something new, they make mistakes. This is a good thing if they learn from those mistakes. This is bad thing if they think there is nothing wrong with perpetuating mistakes.

I share Part 1 of a small catalogue of strategies that some FF might not think are mistakes.

Playing background music because it seems cool or has words that mention the content. They might be thinking of how they study and listen to music at the same time or they might have heard about the so-called Mozart effect.

FF might not realise that the study music serves as white noise and does not necessarily strengthen cognition. In fact it can distract instead of enable learning. This is particularly true since the listeners do not have a choice whether to listen to the music, and if so, the choice of music.

These FF probably have not heard of the limited effect of the Mozart effect or how it was a commercial push instead of one borne of replicable research or critical practice.

Video source

The mistake here is relying on novelty. This strategy is neither professionally sustainable nor responsible.

Calling on students only randomly. I know of FF who like reaching into a “fishbowl” of numbers that correspond to students and calling on them randomly.

This disempowers students who wish to answer, creates fear in those who do not wish to answer, reinforces that the instructor is the only one in control and bears initiative, and turns active students into passive ones.

I tell FF I coach that this fishbowl method of classroom interaction should be a method of last resort instead of first reach. 

One alternative to prompt and wait for responses. This breaks the cycle of dependency on the instructor. Another alternative is to call on students strategically, e.g., those that have something to say or look certain; those that have doubts or look confused.

Assigning students to groups without consideration. FF do not always know when to create relatively homogenous groups (learners have similar abilities or backgrounds) or heterogenous groups (very different abilities or backgrounds).

Homogenous groups might be useful for differentiating instruction. (Note: The students are not identical; homogenous is not meant to be taken literally.) After learning more about one’s students, FF might divide students into groups that need to be challenged and others that need close tutoring or coaching. The FF might design different challenges and activities for students assigned to these groups.

Heterogenous groups might be useful for peer teaching or project-based work. Learners in each group might possess different academic abilities and character traits so that they complement one another in the learning of new content or in the tackling of complex tasks.

I will share more typical novice mistakes in future entries.

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