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How to create a purpose-driven lesson plan

Andrew Cohen
August 17, 2015

classroom 2

This month, SmartBlog on Education is exploring classroom design and management — just in time for the new school year. In this blog post, Andrew Cohen, a former educator and current CEO of web and mobile-education platform Brainscape,  suggests ways to "prevent random 'rules' from just sounding like 'noise.'"

Nearly every activity in life -- from playing Candy Land, to studying for law school, to learning computer programming -- requires us to learn a series of interconnecting rules that comprise a system. One could even argue that the ability to quickly learn how rules fit into systems is the single most important life skill that anyone could develop. Yet our current education system misses a critical step in students’ development of systems-based learning skills. We fail to instill the appropriate purpose that drives students to seek to learn the rules of systems on their own.

The rules of a system cannot be taught

Webster’s Dictionary defines system as “a coordinated body of methods forming a plan of procedure.” When you learn how to speak a language, for example, you are subconsciously synthesizing tens of thousands of vocabulary rules, grammar rules, and voice inflection rules into sentence-building procedures that are commonly accepted by other speakers. The same goes for perfecting the thousands of tiny muscular contractions necessary to become a great basketball player or concert pianist. If we could simply optimize the way that people are able to learn such systems’ rules and synthesize them together, then we could essentially optimize learning itself.

The problem with much traditional education is that it attempts to teach individual rules, rather than setting up the conditions for students to learn the rules of the system on their own. This results in drastically reduced student outcomes. It is hard to drill yourself on Spanish verb conjugations (and have that learning truly stick) unless you have first established a goal of learning Spanish. It is torturous to get drilled on factoring polynomials, unless you have first experienced the pain of being unable to solve an important problem without that skill. The rules of a system are best acquired not when they are taught, but when they are learned deliberately.

Give learning a purpose

In order to prevent random “rules” from just sounding like “noise,” parents and educators can first maximize students’ level of interest in those systems. This can be done by starting with a real-world application of the system in action, and making the student feel passionately uncomfortable about their current learning gap. In his book Making Learning Whole, David Perkins refers to this tactic as having students “play the whole game” before diving into any details.

For instance, if I hear a beautiful guitar solo (or see a rock star getting lots of attention), I am much more likely to want to learn to play music myself. If I encounter an unfair situation that makes me obsessed with the principle of justice, then I am more likely to want to study law. If I play an engaging game that simulates the exciting career of a real estate tycoon, then I am more likely to want to learn about Finance and compound interest. If a hypothetical friend or hero has a life-threatening illness, I am much more likely to care about the anatomical system that it affects (so we can diagnose and solve the problem). And if I have an exciting real-life startup idea that I want to pitch to (real or mock) investors, then I am more likely to want to learn how to storyboard a great PowerPoint presentation and write a business plan.

Of course, not all students will get excited about every subject, no matter how interesting of a scientific mystery is presented in the beginning of a lesson. And we don’t yet live in Sal Khan’s ideal world where students are only required to pursue their strongest areas of interest. But we can at least try to do a better job of creating an initial purpose before diving into any details. Perhaps we first bring in a guest speaker to inspire students about a topic. Or maybe we frame an entire lesson about a fictional story where Sally Career has to go from point A to Z (the “whole game”) by learning interim rules and solving smaller problems along the way. Instilling a stronger degree of purpose before learning can make students want to learn, rather than making learning feel like a required form of torture.

Constantly move the goalpost

systems learningAs much as possible, educators should strive to make purpose a prerequisite to deeper dives into any topic. If students do not seem fully engaged enough to move on to learning the specific details of a subject, then we might consider spending another day or two of class time focusing on the big picture.

Students could potentially spend some more time understanding the career applications of the knowledge, or learning about how some of their favorite celebrities or business moguls have succeeded because they possess the skills in question. Basing instruction around stories makes it more likely to stick with us, so we might as well focus as much class time as possible on engaging students in purposeful stories, while leaving more of the detailed learning up to the students to seek on their own for homework.

Once students have begun to establish a decent sense of purpose, educators can begin to introduce challenges of incremental degrees of complexity. Students can start by learning the simplest individual rule (e.g. a G-chord) that accomplishes a microcosm of the overall learning objective (e.g. producing a beautiful harmonic sound). Then little by little, the student should continue learning rules that are just barely outside her current level of understanding -- in the so-called zone of proximal development.

This system of scaffolding is why we talk to toddlers in simplified “baby talk” (with a clear purpose of communication) and why we begin our math-learning journeys with the simple truism 1+1=2 (so we can tell mom how many cookies we want).

Optimizing curriculum

Our biggest goal as educators should be to maximize the return on investment (ROI) on students’ time spent learning. And if we know that students will spend less time paying attention (and therefore less time learning) if they are not engaged, we should accordingly spend a disproportionate amount of lesson-planning time on making those first few minutes as engaging as possible. Missing the initial window to engage students’ sense of purpose can otherwise destroy the ROI for the rest of the lesson.

Only after establishing a strong purpose and foundation should any specialization, or memorization, ever take place. Perhaps we should delay “studying” until the very end of the learning process! But even though repetition is still the mother of all learning and still is the only way students will ever get great at math, tennis, PhotoShop, or brain surgery, we educators must first ensure that students establish a baseline sense of purpose.

Remember: application first, theory & details second. If we do our jobs right, students will seek the most complex layer of knowledge on their own, and we won’t have to “teach” it at all.

Andrew Cohen holds a masters degree in Education Technology from Columbia University and worked as a teacher (General Assembly), international economist (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and government corruption fighter (World Bank).  He is the founder of web & mobile education platform Brainscape. Read more: Learn Deliberately, The Zone of Proximal Development  and Repetition is the Mother of All Learning