The Tyranny of the Standardized Lesson Plan: Learning Intentions & Success Criteria

Given the limitations of educational research, it comes as no surprise that the magical lesson-based formulas with a starter with clear objectives & success criteria are put forward as forms of best practice.  The tyranny of the standardized lesson plan.  What I don’t like about educational research & how it is applied is the fact it is assumed by many that all research is applicable to an individual teacher’s context.  In this sense, if you have a traditional approach with learning intentions & success criteria, then I agree that you are demonstrating best-practice pedagogy.  Best-practice of what? Well, I would contend that is is teacher-centred behaviourism that is based on a banking model of education that limits the personalization of learning.  If your aim is to apply student-centred constructivist methods, then I would suggest you change your track (or at least pause to think critically).  While this dichotomy can be oversimplified & overstated, & it is possible to work with mixed approaches, I still believe that there are some fundamental differences between these educational world views that are reflected in the approach to learning.

If I am personalising learning & I have a class of twenty different learners, here are some things I need to consider:

  1. I have 20 different learners with different capacities, prior knowledge, interests, & expectations.
  2. If I teach a one-size fits all model, then it is likely to be unproductive for many students in terms of their readiness for learning.
  3. If I direct the plan, then the students are passive recipients with no agency in the development of their own learning (& this is a tragedy for senior students).

Given this, I take issue with the lesson-plan model.  This is not to suggest that preparation & clarity in my approaches are not important, in fact increasing student empowerment & greater differentiation takes more work (at least in the initial stages).  Given the complexity of learning, it does not make sense to have predetermined outcomes, content, or even processes (Dylan William etc).  How can we, as teachers, or even observers, even know what each learner is taking from the learning experience?  I don’t believe that we need to narrow or standardize learning in this way.  One might make a case for process-based objectives but I prefer to engage in inquiry with a series of learning opportunities & experiences.

So, I don’t like to see structures pushed on me because research says so.  Well, not research that is relevant to my constructivist teaching context.  I do also wonder, though, if it is also encouraging a feel-bad education.  If students have not achieved the prescribed objectives & success criteria, does that make them feel like failures? I have always had an issue with this traditional lesson model that is pushed by all teacher-education institutions & I have found that it creates no academic disadvantage for my students (in fact, in terms of grades, it is the opposite).

Such standardized uniformity rubs me up the wrong way.  There are a number of reasons.  First, this is not how my specialist subject literature on teaching history structures approaches (it almost universally starts with a question).  My study of Philosophy for Children (P4C) & use of various community of inquiry models tells me that meaningful learning often does not come out of a pre-planned packet or prescriptive approaches.

I contest that they have the potential to have a corrosive influence.  One problem with them is that they come across as limiting flexibility in their prescriptive nature.  Next, we may have a conversation about maybe it is in how we design them.  Perhaps these outcomes could be more inclusive to cover the possible variations that I would want: this becomes either too generic & vague or an exhaustive list.  A better idea would be to co-contruct learning intentions & success criteria with students.  It may be at a whole-class level or even on an individual’s student level.

Recently I have been pondering the concept of learning productivity.  Now the word is unfortunate in how it might be connected with a factory model, but remember, the focus on so-called 21st century skills is simply preparing the future industrial workforce for the new digital industrial revolution that is occurring.  My main issue is that these approaches actually represent a fundamental shift away from learning towards an outcomes-based model.  It is about simplifying education down so that it is unambiguous.  If only people, the world, & history were all unambiguous.  Life would be much easier.

The argument in their favour is clarity.  I agree that this is a worthwhile goal.  However, I also believe that the type of clarity from learning intentions & success criteria is part of the creation of a simple form of clarity that can be measured easily, as if learning was not complex & was entirely visible in front of us.  This utilitarian approach to educational lesson structures devalues what we understand about education.

What perhaps annoys me the most, of those who preach its value, is the assumption that this universal strategy applies equally across disciplines.  Now, perhaps, in some disciplines, & for many teachers, these approaches work successfully.  I would argue, & here Wineburg & Seixas would likely agree, that in engaging in the historical past, it is far better to be focussed on a central or critical historical question to guide learning.  There are skills to learn & outputs to engage with, but we don’t need to be so linear & limiting about it all. Education is not certain & what learning will take place in my classroom is also not certain.  Learning intentions & success criteria promise a degree of certainty that is not only unobtainable but in the teaching of historical inquiry is ultimately undesirable.  History & learning are not fixed or stable but are fluid & unpredictable.

This model of learning intentions & success criteria encourages a banking model of education, where what is to be learned is fixed & student voice is limited.  In short, it goes against anything remotely close to Socratic approaches to teaching (quite important for a classics teacher).  A dialogue is not a dialogue if we have an idea of what it will produce.  If you are a fan of Martin Robinson & Trivium, I would argue it goes against the heart of dialectic.  You might make a case for learning intentions & success criteria if you were building grammar, though.  An outcome of this is that students will feel uncomfortable with uncertainty.  Richard Hill, writing on such issues in a tertiary environment, argues that such interventions are not about clarity but represent the “rigidification of pedagogy”.  He suggests that such outcomes create a type of mimicry: complexity is removed & ‘template speak’ becomes the norm (undoubtedly another outcome of rubrics too).

In sum, there are a few significant reasons to be concerned at the uncritical use of learning intentions & success criteria:

  • Its limitation on personalization of learning
  • Their rigid nature that is either inflexible or too generic
  • Their lack of alignment with disciplinary literature on teaching historical thinking
  • The strong messages about who controls & drives learning that results in reducing student agency (unless they are co-contructed)
  • Assuming that there is a linear pathway that has a pre-determined ending
  • Its discouragement of creative & responsive approaches that do not fit the rigid learning expectations
  • Its oversimplification of the complexity of learning
  • Its focus on measurable, particularly immediately measurable, outcomes
  • Assumptions about the extent that learning is visible
  • It encourages a uniformity & control mindset in the educational context or culture

To conclude, this is not to say that someone can’t use them beneficially or that clarity is not important.  I believe there is a pluralistic nature to the world & there are multiple ways of achieving what you would like. However, authentic learning is not a linear or short-term process.  It is a series of experiences over time. In history, it is about the process of inquiry that drives the learning going on in the classroom.  I believe constructivist approaches are less likely to be focused on clear objectives & measurements of success but are built upon creating meaningful learning experiences.






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