Designing Lessons That Work


In designing a lesson, you are trying to do two basic things:

1. Transmit a knowledge or skill in such a way that it seems like part of the student’s own life

and

2. Surprise the student in such a way that he or she sticks with it until 1 is achieved.

Education is a much more sophisticated enterprise than it was. Students are now exposed to far of the world than was the case, say, fifty years ago.

You have (or should have) created a series of steps as the basic outline of your lesson: these need to come to a close in a fairly logical way so that the student feels comfortable knowing or being able to do what he or she is supposed to know or be able to do.

You have (or should have) created a series of mysteries or puzzles as the ‘glue’ to hold student attention: by the time you reach the end of the lesson, these need to be explained to some degree so that the student feels ‘released’ from any further mystery, or left unexplained in a satisfying way so that the student feels intrigued and captivated beyond the confines of the lesson and therefore wants to pursue further knowledge or skills.

If the product of your lesson isn’t perceived to be an inev­it­able res­ult of earlier steps, the student can feel cheated and confused; conversely, if the product is plainly obvious, the student can also feel cheated and uninterested.

In theory, lessons con­verge upon a prize - knowledge or skill - and either winning it (per­haps with some additional reward) or losing it (per­haps with some future revew). This vic­tory (or defeat) deliv­ers con­sequences for the students. The product of a lesson is supposed to be when the student and the knowledge or skill merges - the student has his or her need for knowledge filled.

Essentially, then, there are four types of lesson:

1. The lesson in which, as above, the student and the knowledge or skill merges - the student has his or her need for knowledge or ability filled. Satisfactory progress has been achieved.

2. The lesson in which the student and the knowledge or skill do not converge - the student has his or her need for knowledge or ability left unfilled. No progress has been achieved.

3. The lesson in which the student and the knowledge or skill separate or grow further apart - the student not only has his or her need for knowledge or ability left unfulfilled, but is in a worse position with regard to whatever it is he or she is supposed to be understanding and doing. A deteriorating situation has been created.

4. The lesson in which the student and the knowledge or skill grow closer together - the student still has his or her need for knowledge or ability left unfulfilled, but is in an improving position with regard to whatever it is he or she is supposed to be understanding and doing. Deterioration has been reversed, but in effect no progress has been made.

By deduction, 1. above has managed to transmit a knowledge or skill in such a way that it seems like part of the student’s own life and has held the student’s attention until he or she sticks with it.

2. has failed to bring about the merger of student and knowledge or skill, but the student may still be interested.

With 3., not only has the merger failed, but the student has been ‘turned off’ and even turned against the process itself.

4. manages to recover the destructive effects of 3., but doesn’t achieve the merger. A student can be left on the cusp of knowledge, as it were, but without making forward progress. The big thing to notice about 4. though, is that in order to get the student to that position, a great deal of attention and willingness had to be recovered.

Successful lessons ask students four key questions:

‘What will happen next?’

This question forms the basis of even the most fundamental of lessons. Keeping the student in ‘suspense’ and having them surprised by unfolding action or knowledge are two signs that a lesson is driven by this question.

‘What is really going on?’

The ‘glue’ that sticks students to successful learning is composed of mystery. Having something happen ‘under the surface’ of the lesson means that students will ‘stick’ to the process and, if the mystery is strong enough, won’t let go until things are resolved in some way.

‘What is the right thing to do?’

Engaged students should be given choices. The more ramifications their choices have, the more gripping is the moral dilemma involved. Successful learning thus involves students at deeper levels by engaging their sense of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the context of the lesson.

‘What is this really all about?’

Lessons are usually about transferring a particular piece of knowledge or a distinct skill. Good teachers, though, disguise this carefully so that the outcome or ‘message’ of their lesson is not obvious and is instead ‘swallowed’ willingly and even hungrily by students.

Running these questions repeatedly and concurrently, successful teachers draw in students’ attention and then grip it and drive it forward towards the merger of student and knowledge, obtaining a commitment so that when that knowledge arrives, it is consumed.

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