Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 9: Instructional Planning
Selecting general learning goals
- “If you don’t know where you’re going, you could end up someplace else.”
- --Casey Stengel
Casey Stengel, a much-admired baseball coach, was talking about baseball when he made this remark. But he could easily have been speaking of teaching as well. Almost by definition, education has purposes, goals, and objectives, and a central task of teaching is to know these are and to transform the most general goals into specific objectives and tasks for students. Otherwise, as Casey Stengel said, students may end up “someplace else” that neither they, nor the teacher, nor anyone else intends. A lot of the clarification and specification of goals needs to happen before a cycle of instruction actually begins, but the benefits of planning happen throughout all phases of teaching. If students know precisely what they are supposed to learn, they can focus their attention and effort more effectively. If the teacher knows precisely what students are supposed to learn, then the teacher can make better use of class time and choose and design assessments of their learning that are more fair and valid. In the long run everyone benefits.
This chapter is therefore about instructional planning, the systematic selection of educational goals and objectives and their design for use in the classroom. We will divide this idea into four parts, and discuss them one at a time. First is the problem of selecting general goals to teach; where can a teacher find these, and what do they look like? Second is the problem of transforming goals into specific objectives, or statements concrete enough to guide daily activity in class; what will students actually do or say into order to learn what a teacher wants them to learn? Third is the problem of balancing and relating goals and objectives to each other; since we may want students to learn numerous goals, how can we combine or integrate them so that the overall classroom program does not become fragmented or biased? And fourth is the challenge of relating instructional goals to students’ prior experiences and knowledge. We have discussed this challenge before from the perspective of learning theory (in Chapter 2), but in this chapter we look at it from the more practical perspective of curriculum planning.
Selecting General Learning Goals
At the most general or abstract level, the goals of education include important philosophical ideas like “developing individuals to their fullest potential” and “preparing students to be productive members of society.” Few teachers would disagree with these ideas in principle, though they might disagree about their wording or about their relative importance. As a practical matter, however, teachers might have trouble translating such generalities into specific lesson plans or activities for the next day’s class. What does it mean, concretely, to “develop an individual to his or her fullest potential”? Does it mean, for example, that a language arts teacher should ask students to write an essay about their personal interests, or does it mean that the teacher should help students learn to write as well as possible on any topic, even ones that are not of immediate interest? And what exactly should a teacher do, from day to day, to “prepare students to be productive members of society” as well? Answers to questions like these are needed to plan instruction effectively. But the answers are not obvious simply by examining statements of general educational goals.
National and State Learning Standards
Some (but not all) of the work of transforming such general purposes into more precise teaching goals and even more precise objectives has been performed by broad national organizations that represent educators and other experts about particular subjects or types of teaching (Riley, 2002). The groups have proposed national standards, which are summaries of what students can reasonably be expected to learn at particular grade levels and in particular subjects areas. In the United States, in addition, all state governments create state standards that serve much the same purpose: they express what students in the state should (and hopefully can) learn at all grade levels and in all subjects. Examples of organizations that provide national standards are listed in Table 9-1, and examples of state standards are listed in Table 9-2 for one particular state, Ohio, in the area of language arts.
Because they focus on grade levels and subject areas, general statements of educational standards tend to be a bit more specific than the broader philosophical goals we discussed above. As a rule of thumb, too, state standards tend to be more comprehensive than national standards, both in coverage of grade levels and of subjects. The difference reflects the broad responsibility of states in the United States for all aspects of public education; national organizations, in contrast, usually assume responsible only for a particular subject area or particular group of students. Either type of standards provides a first step, however, toward transforming the grandest purposes of schooling (like developing the individual or preparing for society) into practical classroom activities. But they provide a first step only. Most statements of standards do not make numerous or detailed suggestions of actual activities or tasks for students, though some might include brief classroom examples—enough to clarify the meaning of a standard, but not enough to plan an actual classroom program for extended periods of time. For these latter purposes, teachers rely on more the detailed documents, the ones often called curriculum frameworks and curriculum guides.
Curriculum Frameworks and Curriculum Guides
The terms curriculum framework and curriculum guide sometimes are used almost interchangeably, but for convenience we will use them to refer to two distinct kinds of documents. The more general of the two is curriculum framework, which is a document that explains how content standards can or should be organized for a particular subject and at various grade levels. Sometimes this information is referred to as the scope and sequence for a curriculum. A curriculum framework document is like a standards statement in that it does not usually provide a lot of detailed suggestions for daily teaching. It differs from a standards statement, though, in that it analyzes each general standard in a curriculum into more specific skills that students need to learn, often a dozen or more per standard. The language or terminology of a framework statement also tends to be somewhat more concrete than a standards statement, in the sense that it is more likely to name behaviors of students—things that a teacher might see them do or hear them say. Sometimes, but not always, it may suggest ways for assessing whether students have in fact acquired each skill listed in the document. Table 9-3 shows a page from a curriculum framework published by the California State Board of Education (Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Committee, 1999). In this case the framework explains the state standards for learning to read, and the excerpt in Table 9-3 illustrates how one particular standard, that “students speak and write with command of English conventions appropriate to this grade level,” is broken into nine more specific skills. Note that the excerpt names observable behaviors of students (what they do or say); we will discuss this feature again, more fully, in the next part of this chapter, because it is helpful in classroom planning. In spite of this feature, though, the framework document does not lay out detailed activity plans that a teacher could use on a daily basis. (Though even so, it is over 300 pages long!)
Teachers’ need for detailed activity suggestions is more likely to be met by a curriculum guide, a document devoted to graphic descriptions of activities that foster or encourage the specific skills explained in a curriculum framework document. The descriptions may mention or list curriculum goals served by an activity, but they are also likely to specify materials that a teacher need, time requirements, requirements for grouping students, drawings or diagrams of key equipment or materials, and sometimes even suggestions for what to say to students at different points during the activity. In these ways the descriptions may resemble lesson plans.
Since classroom activities often support more than one specific skill, activities in a curriculum guide may be organized differently than they might be in a framework document. Instead of highlighting only one standard at a time, as the framework document might, activities may be grouped more loosely—for example, according to the dominant purpose or goal of an activity (“Activities that encourage the practice of math facts”) or according to a dominant piece of equipment or material (“Ten activities with tin cans”). Table 9-4 shows a description of a kindergarten-level activity about “autumn leaves” that might appear in a curriculum guide. Note that the activity meets several educational objectives at once—tracing shapes, knowledge of leaves and of colors, descriptive language skill. Each of these skills may reflect a different curriculum standard.
Formulating learning objectives
Given curriculum frameworks and guides like the ones just described, how do you choose and formulate actual learning objectives? Basically there are two approaches: either start by selecting content or topics that what you want students to know (the cognitive approach) or start with what you want students to do (the behavioral approach)....(read more...)
Taxonomies of educational objectives
When educators have proposed taxonomies of educational objectives, they have tended to focus on one of three areas or domains of psychological functioning: either students’ cognition (thought), students’ feelings and emotions (affect), or students’ physical skills (psychomotor abilities). Of these three areas, they have tended to focus the most attention on cognition. The taxonomy originated by Benjamin Bloom, for example, deals entirely with cognitive outcomes of instruction...(read more...)
Students as a source of instructional goals
So far our discussion of instructional planning has described goals and objectives as if they are selected primarily by educators and teachers, and not by students themselves. The assumption may be correct in many cases, but there are problems with it. One problem is that choosing goals and objectives for students, rather than by students, places a major burden on everyone involved in education—curriculum writers, teachers, and...(read more...)
Enhancing student learning through a variety of resources
Whether instructional goals originate from curriculum documents, students’ expressed interests, or a mixture of both, students are more likely to achieve the goals if teachers draw on a wide variety of resources. As a practical matter, this means looking for materials and experiences that supplement—or occasionally even replace—the most traditional forms of information, such as textbooks...(read more...)
Creating bridges among curriculum goals and students’ experiences
To succeed, then, instructional plans do require a variety of resources, like the ones discussed in the previous section. But they also require more: they need to connect with students’ prior experiences and knowledge. Sometimes the connections can develop as a result of...(read more...)
Planning for instruction as well as for learning
This chapter started with one premise but ended with another. It started with the idea that teachers need to locate curriculum goals, usually from a state department of education or a publisher of a curriculum document. In much of the chapter we described what these authorities provide for individual classroom teachers, and how their documents can be clarified and rendered specific enough for classroom use. In the middle of the chapter, however, the premise shifted. We began noting that instruction cannot be planned simply for students; teachers also need to consider involving students themselves in influencing or even choosing their own goals and ways of reaching the goals. Instructional planning, in other words, has to be not just for students, but also by students, at least to some extent. In the final parts of the chapter we described a number of ways of achieving a reasonable balance between teachers’ and students’ influence on their learning. We suggested considering relatively strong measures, such as an emergent or an anti-bias curriculum, but we also considered more moderate ones, like the use of the Internet, of local experts and field trips, of service learning, and of guided and independent practice. All things considered, then, teachers’ planning is not just about organizing teaching; it is also about facilitating learning. Its dual purpose is evident in many features of public education, including the one we discuss in Chapter 10 and Chapter 11, which concern the assessment of learning.
- Riley, R. (2002). Education reform through standards and partnerships, 1993-2000. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(9), 700-707.
- Curriculum Development and Supplemental materials Commission. (1999). Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.