There are many ways of creating lessons, and many ways of thinking about creating lessons. Some are more workable than others. Here is a simple - but analogy-strewn! - procedure that may help you to cut through some of the complexity that sometimes enters into this.
The best lessons - indeed, the best of most things - begin with an idea. Perhaps you have to teach about a particular thing in a particular way as part of the system that you are in, school-wise or curriculum-wise, but even within these parameters there is usually freedom to have some kind of idea about a lesson or an aspect of a subject you are teaching. To use a metaphor, your idea is the reactor which will power your entire lesson: strike on a good one and you could fuel a whole series of lessons, not just one. Alone, the idea, even if brilliant, will sit glowing in a void, but without the idea, there’s just the void.
Keep in mind that, as a teacher, you are both a gatekeeper, standing upon the threshold of knowledge and wisdom for your students, and a coal-miner, persisting in digging for the inner worth or brightness of each of the people sitting in front of you. Without you present, it’s unlikely that much will occur, except perhaps for the most knowledge-hungry amongst the group. Almost everyone in any class needs live contact with another human being for anything of significance to take place. Yes, you can use tools like text books or videos or performances, or any number of things - but these things revolve around you. Your lesson (to use another analogy) is like a solar system: all its elements are in orbit around you, at least initially. Unless you are putting yourself there at the centre of that solar system, those elements will wander and be pulled away by other ‘gravitational sources’.
Having established that you are there, in front of a class, with an idea, what should you concentrate on?
You may be tempted to simply barrage the class with facts of some kind or shape. You are the one in possession of them after all - isn’t your task simply to spread these datums around and compel your audience to pick them up? At the risk of another analogy, this will turn out to be ‘casting pearls before swine’ in many instances. Unless you can engage their attention in some way, your audience gradually ceases to be an audience at all. Why should they pay any attention?
The trick here is to grab their attention in a range of ways. Think of a group of students as a collection of individual universes, each in possession of many qualities but also an entire spectrum of unknowns: the fact that they need to be educated at all suggests that they don’t know enough about everything. You can assume that they don’t know enough about the specific thing you’re about to teach them, for a start. They have wider unknowns, such as how your subject relates to anything meaningful to their immediate needs. Then we get into the interesting field of how what you’re about to teach relates to their lives as a whole, outside their immediate environment. And then, on a fundamental level, what does what you’re about to teach have to do with the Bigger Picture of everything - how does it fit in with Life?
This is a series of holes or gaps or vacuums, beginning with their mental and physical surroundings but extending out into zones they have probably never considered.
If you were about to give a lesson on the role of the Allies in the Second World War, for example, initially this might appear to have nothing to do with them, sitting as they are many decades after the events you’re about to describe, apparently untouched by them or their consequences. Only the students with a natural interest in the subject will pay over to you this magical thing called ‘attention’, eager to learn more. The rest will be disengaged. But somewhere along the spectrum - from their close concerns and surroundings all the way up to the ‘meaning of Life’, there will be a point of access, a point where the individual student will say, ‘Hang on, this has something to do with something I feel I’m missing’. Your job is to find a way of communicating your topic so that a window opens in each and every one of your students. You have to find the ‘need’ that will stir the embers of their attention.
Perhaps they’ve been bullied. Without sparking anything off or being insensitive, you could find material which positions the Allies efforts in World War II as an ‘anti-bullying’ endeavour. Suddenly, you have some attention. Or perhaps you have to go wider, and point out some of the things that would be absent from their lives had the Allies not done what they did. Or perhaps you take things to another level, and relate what happened in the 1940s to what is happening now in parts of the world that your students will have heard about on the news.
Whatever you do, your job here is summed up in two words: creating desire. As long as a student has some kind of desire to know, the mysterious thing called attention will flow your way. And that leads to the next point.
Get enough desire for knowledge flowing and you will reach a point of commitment. Now the ‘gears’ in the lesson will change: if you get this right, you will realise that you have to generate less horse-power yourself. That’s because your audience has started to participate, perhaps only a little at first, but soon (if your ‘desire generators’ keep going) more and more. The students will become committed. They pay attention, literally, in the same way that a customer pays cash when they are committed to a purchase.
To return to an earlier metaphor, desire showed them the window but commitment has opened the door. As the doorkeeper, if their commitment is firm, you now need to step out of the way, to some degree.
Now the knowledge has to actually be transmitted. Whether that is a set of facts about the Second World War, a chemical formula, a mathematical technique or the meaning of a poem, this is where the work is done by the student, to acquire whatever the knowledge is.
It may be a performance skill to be learned or a style to be practised. Whatever it is, because you were there and created desire, the student will now be committed enough to proceed and to get the datum or skill or whatever it is. You might do this through worksheets, or through guided supervision, or through any number of channels. The thing that will make it successful is the foundation you have laid. Uncommitted students may go through the motions of learning, but will not actually engage with the subject. That’s where the next step comes in.
A cup of tea has to actually be made - in whatever sequence is right for you, milk in first or not. Boil the kettle, pour in the water and so forth, everything that is involved in furnishing an actual cup of tea. There are basics which can’t be violated if you want something that remotely resembles a cup of tea. But the first sip tests the quality of the cup of tea. If it’s not right, some adjustments will need to be made. How do you judge the quality of a lesson? You match it against the earlier desire. If it is found wanting, things have to be adjusted, perhaps even completely re-made in some way, to match that desire.
A student who is engaged will themselves know whether or not they have filled the void which you created in them in Step 3. They might not communicate that, though. A truly committed student will tell you when he or she doesn’t feel quite happy with something, but a less committed one will simply feel vaguely unsatisfied and not bother about it. This is where assessment comes in, not just to see whether they have ‘got it’ from your point of view, but to see whether they are happy with it from theirs. It takes some skill to measure success in this way; you have to have a really good level of communication with your class. But ultimately it depends on how successfully you did Step 3: if the desire to know was strong enough, a student will self-determinedly persist until that desire is satiated.
Then the cup of tea is finally consumed. The lesson is done. As a teacher, you will get a sense of fulfilment - but more importantly, so will your students.
It should be clear that if any one of these steps is not there, the whole product is not fully achieved. It might take a series of lessons to get the whole way through this sequence, but each part is vital.
Obviously, without the idea for the lesson, whether it’s your idea or not, nothing even starts to happen. Then, if you don’t stand up and project your ‘gravitational field’, the idea won’t get very far.
In the absence of any kind of desire for knowledge, even if you’re standing there with a great idea, your students won’t be sufficiently motivated for anything to occur. You won’t reach that ‘gear-change’ moment of commitment. And though you might get things that have the apparency of completion about them - finished worksheets, answered questions, demonstrated skills - nothing will be of a quality that matches the initial desire: it won’t be good enough.
You won’t exactly have wasted your time - perhaps someone got something from the lesson - but your morale, and the participation of your students in the game knowledge acquisition which is education, will have dwindled.
Each step, then, is essential.
Have great ideas, make sure that you are there to present them, create plenty of desire, obtain commitment, deliver the knowledge, check quality and arrive at fulfilment. In that way, you will feel that you really are accomplishing education, rather than fighting a losing battle, and your students will too.