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Planning to Learn?

September, 2011
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Angelia Lai is a new teacher in my school. It’s Friday afternoon, at the end of a long training week, when we can finally catch up. I find her preparing her classroom. The walls are covered in shiny tapestries and the books are neatly arranged in student pigeonholes to be collected on day one. After an hour-long discussion on the challenges of planning differentiated assessments in a bilingual context, I ask her if she has a quote for my new article on planning for learning. “Not at the moment,” she says with a tired smirk. I understand.angelina-lai-s

The start of the new school year is just days away. Soon the halls will be filled with hundreds of tiny feet collectively signaling the great migration back to school. The pace will only intensify, and there’s not a minute to waste. Yet, for another few days the buzzing in school corridors will likely be between teachers, who – according to Philip Avery, an educational consultant with 40 years of international experience – can usually be heard saying something like, “I am planning to teach…” when what they really mean is, “I want my students to learn…" All too frequently, says Avery, “There is quite a distance between what educators plan on teaching and what the students actually learn.” This is why it’s critical this time of year to ensure that our efforts are geared towards truly planning for student learning.    

What this means depends on who you ask. Katherine Zhu’s daughter, Rachel, will return for another intense year at her international school this month. Zhu says Rachel is already nervous about how strict some of her classes will be and how much homework she will have. “Reviewing holiday homework could help,” notes the mom, yet a better idea may be just “using the last two weeks as relaxation time.” She is right. rachel-1sRelaxing and doing something you enjoy, say experts, is a way to bring down stress levels and jazz up your brain. The trick, however, is doing something active. In other words, couch surfing in front of the television doesn’t count. The pros suggest pursuits such as playing Scrabble or building a birdhouse. Their rationale is that when you are actively engaged in something you like, you fret less, and start to think better.

Meanwhile, back at the school house, Avery suggests that teachers “plan for a first day that focuses on instructional activities that are light and fun, but that send a clear message: this is a learning environment, this is a place where the most important thing we do is learn.” He suggests avoiding the much criticized, yet still surprisingly employed “My Summer Vacation” essay, while factoring in small doses of reading, writing, and thinking. He also advocates what Lai spent the last days before the term ensuring; that “the classroom is filled with interesting displays, and that the teacher is organized and ready to go before the first student arrives.” A classroom that is ‘Spartan’ sends a signal to parents and students, and it’s not the right one! On the other hand, the ‘Athenian Classroom,’ with walls filled with open-ended questions, lists of student roles and responsibilities, and interesting information is the sign of an environment that is thought provoking and inclusive, which is a recipe for great learning.

Rachel would like teachers to make the whole world a stage, planning active pursuits like “a theater concert where students act out plays that have been written by the class.” She thinks this “helps the students develop their writing skills and leadership.” For Rachel, learning is about more than just book work. She advocates helping students who are “really nervous” to learn to “speak to the crowd.” She also wants to learn about plants and animals through games and real life experiences, like planting a school garden. Teachers eager to plan with learning in mind will do well to consult their students on how they learn best, and what they want to know.

One strategy for doing just this is what Ralph Pirozzo, who founded Promoting Learning International in 1997, calls Ralph’s Area of Maximum Potential, or the RAMPramp-1sPirozzo last visited Shanghai in August of 2009 and shared his learning-focused strategies at the Xiehe Education Institute. According to Pirozzo, finding a student’s optimum learning strategy requires us to construct a simple Venn diagram using three overlapping circles. In each circle, students can write and/or draw a picture that illustrates how they learn best, then color or shade in the overlapping triangular area in the middle. It’s then up to their teachers to make differentiated educational decisions that target all three areas simultaneously, or as Pirozzo puts it, “score by nailing their area of maximum potential.”   

Planning a bit of comic relief into lessons may take students far. So will planning balanced reiteration, which, in the words of Veronica Gu, a local Chinese teacher, is “repetition that’s not always the same.” She plans backwards, knowing the destination, but reinforcing the knowledge or skill in a variety of ways: through a story, a game, or a competition. She only ends her persistent cycle once her students have fully absorbed a concept.

Planning for learning may require abandoning the traditionally linear lesson plan in favor of a template that poses reflective questions such as those I discovered on a lesson planning document from Coppenhall High School in England: “How will student interest be stimulated? How will students share what they already know, understand, and can do? How will learning be presented in a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic way? What multi-intelligence activities will the pupils explore and apply in their learning? How will you check that the objectives have been met?”

These are the kinds of questions that can help us get “different kids to the same point,” according to Mara Marin, a student teacher training in an American overseas school in Germany. She cautions us to remember that “planning isn’t everything; improvisation is key.” To do this successfully, she advocates “knowing the kids.” Whether it is advanced planning or striking gold with a teachable moment, a good understanding of ones’ students will always be central. Learning names as quickly as possible, profiling learning styles, and frequent formative assessment will help inform planning and spontaneous decision points.

phil-1sIf you’re a school leader, Philip Avery would encourage you to avoid “needless interruptions of classes for announcements” that “can leave students deflated.” While important, such talks often have little to do with instruction or learning. He further points out that students arrive at school to kick off the year brimming with excitement and enthusiasm, but rather than nurturing these emotions, teachers can easily stifle them with talk of homework policies or by making “lengthy presentations on classroom rules and behavioral expectations.”

Avoiding the aforementioned problems requires heightened levels of emotional intelligence. This means recognizing how everything going on in the classroom, right down to the way teachers themselves dress, can impact a child’s orientation to learning. Veteran educators tend to have higher levels of what is sometimes referred to as teacher “with-it-ness” and should be called on to coach newcomers. Kicking off the school year all guns blazing is another common mistake some young teachers and students alike can make. Effective learning is balanced, reflective, and on-going. If you are a teacher, do pace yourself. For parents, remember slow and steady wins the race, and coach your child. This may be the best planning advice of all, as burning out two weeks into a new term serves no one’s interests.

Critical reflection on planning for learning, as opposed to thinking only about what we are going to teach our kids requires disciplined thought, and no detail is too small to overlook. So, as the echo of those tiny footsteps gets closer, ask yourself: how can you plan to raise the bar for learning this year? It’s the responsibility of all of us to engage in learning planning.


By Richard Eaton,

Head of North American School

Shanghai United International School, Shang Yin Campus



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