It seems obvious. First, we should consider what we want students to learn and then we should figure out how we might teach it.
It is a model that is hard-wired into many lesson plan templates that ask teachers to first declare their learning objectives. My school is teaching a new physics course next year and our first step was to sit down and look at a list of the objectives across the year. Do they make sense? Are they coherent? Do they progress in a logical way? Are key concepts revisited? If we were to put it in psychological terms then we might ask: Does this sequence of objectives promote optimum schema building?
The idea of starting with the objectives is one that draws support from across the otherwise polarised educational landscape. Traditional approaches have always emphasised a sequenced set of objectives and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe developed the idea as their philosophy of ‘backwards design‘.
Yet, in practice, we are bombarded with what I have described as ‘activity based learning’. Have you ever been in a meeting where a colleague says that there is this really cool activity, that he did it last year and that the kids loved it? Where is the learning objective here? Are we somehow meant to derive one after-the-fact?
I remember a training that I once attended where the presenter waxed lyrical about a particular task. The idea was to present students with a drawing of a field that contains chickens and pigs. You tell them how many animals there are, how many legs there are and the students have to work out the number of pigs and chickens. Then, as extension work, you could throw in a few crabs.
I couldn’t really follow the thinking. This was about simultaneous equations but they were never mentioned. And once the crabs arrive then you can’t even solve it. Instead, the activity was presented solely as a cool, fun thing to do with no word about when or how it might fit into a sequence of instruction.
It’s the same phenomenon that sees teachers trying to shoe-horn the latest craze into their teaching. How can I use Minecraft in my English teaching? How can we do something with Pokémon Go? How can I use iPads in science class?
I agree with the criticism that these ideas are gimmicks and that once a teacher starts using Pokémon Go it loses its cool. Teachers should not be try-hards. But this is not my main point. Potentially, Pokémon Go might be the perfect example to help students learn a particular concept. But we would need to start with the concept. First, we need to figure out what we want the students to learn.
An almost perfect example of activity based thinking can be found in Dan Meyer’s recent blog post. He knows that he wants to do something with bottle-flipping. Apparently, it is the latest craze and all the kids are doing it. He videos the bottle-flipping and it looks cool. He tries to link it to some maths but the maths of bottle-flipping is hard. He can’t think of anything in the end and wonders whether to give up.
Here’s a thought: why not start with the maths we want the students to learn?