Two key components of good lessons

If you asked people what makes a good lesson good, I suspect most of them would identify the clarity with which the teacher explained the subject.  A good lesson, they would maintain, has a clear theme, appropriate background information, illuminating examples, precisely connected points.  I’m sure we have all suffered through enough lessons that didn’t have these features to appreciate just how much they contribute to our understanding of a topic.

I would argue, however, that this emphasis on clear presentation assumes that the general structure of an academic lesson involes a person explaining or demonstrating something to some students.   I think it is more useful, however, to think of lesson in broader terms, as a set of experiences that help students learn something.  When we expand our conception of a lesson in this way, I think we will find that explaining or demonstrating, while certainly one kind of experience students can have, is a rather limited and generally overused technique.

The problem with direct explanation or demonstration is that helping students understand something new cannot be accomplished simply by adding information to their brains.  The development of understanding requires a further step, namely, integrating the new information with what is already known.  Now,  a good lecture attempts to do this, but it can do so only in a rather crude way, making assumptions about what the person already knows and thinks. Moreover, the connections a lecturer makes in his lecture enter the mind of a student in a weakened form because the student aquires them, in a sense, too easily.  They are predigested and second-hand, and not hard won through the student’s own active exploration.

In this light, I would argue that one key component of a good lesson is selecting the right task or tasks for the student to do at the very beginning.  These tasks must be familiar to the student, or at least have a structure that provides her with all she needs to perform the task.  In addition, they should require the student's active participation and engagement.  The final challenge in developing suitable tasks is to carefully embed something new within the familiar elements.  The something new, of course, is the focus of the lesson.

Certainly, giving students experiences is, by itself, an inefficient and indirect way to develop a student’s understanding.  To allow the experience to yield new connections and new understanding the teacher needs to include the second key component of a good lesson, and this is to ask the student questions to help her analyze some experience. 

The questions I am referring to here are not those that ask a student to recall specific facts per se, but rather the kind that focus on identifying patterns and relationships.  These questions include, “What’s the same between this and that,” “What’s different,” “What patterns do you see” and “How is this connected to something you already know?"

For those of you already using ABeCeDarian, I encourage you to review lessons you have done to see this general structure: giving the students a task in conjunction with analysis of the task.  To assist you, let me point out three examples of this structure in ABeCeDarian lessons.

As I’ve discussed in an earlier blog post, the very first thing that a beginning student does is to spell the word “mop” as part of an activity called a Word Puzzle.  After the teacher states very briefly that the student is going to help spell the word “mop,” the teacher then asks, “What is the first sound you hear in the word ‘mop?’”  The activity includes a number of supports that help the student answer this question.  The lesson thus begins with the experience of hearing a familiar word “mop,” and the teacher prompts the student to analyze this experience by asking “What is the first sound?”

Here is another example, this one from Level B-1.  When a student has learned the one-letter consonants and vowels, she then begins to learn to read 1st grade level words with vowel digraphs such  as “boat,” and “rain”  (Digraphs are two-letter spellings used to represent a single sound, such as the “oa” in “boat,” and the “ai” in rain.)  The student's initial task at this level is to examine a list of words that all have the so-called “long-o” sound and sort the words depending upon how that sound is spelled.  Students begin the task by reading the words.  If they don’t know the word immediately, they sound it out, a task that they have done hundreds of times in the earlier level.  What is new is a spelling for the long-o sound.  Most can figure this out without help from the teacher.  But if they don’t, the teacher simply tells the student the sound.  That is the whole activity, reading and then sorting.  Again, the student begins with a task, reading the word, and then analyzes it by sorting, prompted by the teacher’s question, “How is the /oa/ sound spelled in this word?"

My final example comes from Level C of ABeCeDarian, a level suitable for students at a 3rd to 4th grade reading level. This level address word parts, namely, prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Many programs covering this material begin with a statement such as, “Words are made up of parts that we call prefixes, suffixes, and roots.”  In ABeCeDarian, in contrast, students are are introduced to the topic by reading the following list of words:  helpful, unhappy, landed, rebirth, starting, refill, landing, started, careful, and untruthful.  Then the teacher asks them to identify all of the syllables that appear more than once in the words.  As in the other examples, the lesson has the same basic structure:  the student is given a task that requires them to analyze and identify a key feature of words. 

As I have mentioned before, I am currently preparing a series of math lessons to add to the ABeCeDarian lineup.  These math lessons are also organized in the same way:  Students are given tasks and then, with the aid of precise questioning from the teacher, they analyze what they have done in order to develop new skills and to see new patterns and relationships.  I will be writing more about these new math materials in the coming months.

In the meantime, I hope you will reflect a bit about how close or far apart other lessons you have your students do are from the structure I have just described.  And if you are not happy with how your students are doing in those lessons, one area to examine is the extent to which the student performs some relevant task and then analyzes it with your help.