Lesson plans are only as good as the learning they bring about. For that to happen, the lesson plan must be executed well by the teacher, and the students must complete the learning tasks that are part of the plan. This is a dynamic process, not a static one. In other words, teaching a lesson plan is not like delivering a piece of mail, where a mail carrier deposits an envelope in your mailbox, and the plan is completed. In order for the bill to be paid or the letter to be answered, the recipient must retrieve the mail from the mailbox, open it, and act upon it. There must also be sufficient interest in what is contained in the envelope, or else it will be categorized as “junk mail” and tossed out before any further action is taken. A letter from a loved one gets our attention. Bills get our attention. Wedding invitations get our attention. We act on these pieces of mail in a timely way either because we anticipate enjoying the action (attending the wedding) or because we understand the importance and urgency of the action (paying the bill on time).
Our students receive our lessons in the same we that we receive our mail. They glance at what they will be doing and learning, and then decide if it is of interest or of importance. If not, our lesson is categorized as “junk mail” and tossed aside in favor of inattentiveness and indifference to what we are wanting to teach and accomplish. Some of this disinterest can be avoided by planning lessons with students’ interests and preferences in mind. Other instances of disinterest can be avoided simply by doing a better job of communicating objectives, and including students in planning their learning.
While it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach the curriculum and use the National Core Arts Standards, these responsibilities can be met while including students in the planning process. You will need to teach your students how to plan learning so that it is substantive, but it is worth the time to do so. In its simplest form, a good lesson plan, which I like to refer to as a learning plan, answers three questions: What will you do? What will you learn by doing it? How will you demonstrate that you have learned what said you would learn? When the answers to these three questions are written out at the beginning of the lesson, students have a clear and irrefutable understanding of what they are to be about.
After students have had time to act upon those questions, as part of the assessment piece, they will answer these companion questions: Did you do what you said you would do? How well did you do it? This requires that an assessment tool be ready for use that measures how well the task was performed. Most often in music classes, this will be a rubric. Be sure the student is familiar with the assessment tool and how to use it before beginning the lesson. Next, the student gives an answer to the question, “Did you learn what you said you would learn? Prove it! While the question can be answered yes or no, it is not complete until the learning claim has been supported with evidence. This leads to the third companion question: What learning did you demonstrate. Learning is not credited to the student until it has been demonstrated.
When students navigate the planning process from this perspective, they tend to raise the bar for their own work. This is, I think, especially true in the arts, where the focus is often on the product, the concert performance or art show, at the expense of focusing on the learning that (should) take place along the process of preparing a performance for presentation to an audience. For example, performing dynamic contrasts can be a matter of simply following a conductor’s instructions, or even following the markings in the printed music, or it can be a tool among others put into play in order to create an interpretation. Students consider questions like, what effect does a crescendo here have on the expressive quality of the phrase? What other uses of dynamic contrast could I use to express a similar intent? Which dynamic contrast works better to convey the composer’s or my own expressive intent? What is the expressive intent I am trying to convey, and what expressive devices can I use to most effectively express it?
When asking students to create their own plan, it is important to guide them to making specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART). When I first started doing this with my middle school students, they would write that they will learn a song, will learn a song, and will sing the song to demonstrate what they learned. I kick goals like that right back to them, and tell them to be more specific. After more careful thought, students often come up with excellent goals. Some that I have received include, “learn how the bass and guitar are used in the son, and then create a new bass and guitar part for the same lyrics and melody,” or “listen to the song and then describe how dynamics and rhythm complement the lyrics.” Honestly, these are better objectives than I probably would have come up with. They show creativity and an interest in learning an aspect of music that I may not have included in their instruction.
Once students have written down their plan, it is a simple matter to provide individualized instruction to students, because they have already designed their learning and the way in which their learning will be assessed. Of course, getting an entire class of students to be proficient in planning their own learning this way itself takes teaching, but the time spent is worth the investment; it doesn’t all have to be done at once. You can give students smaller planning tasks at first, and gradually add on others. For example, have them just design how their learning will be assessed. This makes them think about what they will need to accomplish, but leaves the actual learning objective to the teacher. Once the teacher tell the student what they will be doing and what they are expected to learn, then the student designs the assessment before beginning the learning task. I find that starting with the assessment piece avoids superficial results at first, which often occurred when I started with having the students just decide what they would do, or what they would learn. Assessment drives both of these, and designing assessment demands that what is to be learned be considered.