How to escape the clip art vortex

An unscientific estimate of the breakdown for an average KIPP teacher’s planning time would be…

Defining/Refining the Objective or Aim 10%

Crafting explanations and questions 10%

Creating materials (activities, directions, problems) 70%

Housekeeping (copying, organizing, etc) 10%

What happens when our lessons are planned this way?

The activities are elaborate but the achievement is ordinary.  The teacher’s students may achieve impressive gains as a result of countless other factors (relationships, extra time spent tutoring, etc) but the lessons themselves aren’t driving growth.

Why does the breakdown of planning time so often look like the one above?

The teacher is working without a long term or even weekly plan.  The desperation of day to day lesson-planning results in activity planning.  Activity planning[i] can look and feel incredibly creative but it limits kids’ achievement and represents an incredibly inefficient way to plan.  I know I am activity planning when I find myself sucked down the clip art vortex[ii].

We make an assumption that teachers are content experts and therefore don’t need to engage with the material and the standards.  The teacher’s internal dialogue is something like I am English major I know how to analyze character. I need to find a way to make it fun. This leads to explanations and examples that don’t anticipate confusions or misconceptions.  The result is that kids can look engaged, even enthralled and walk out with completely backwards ideas about the aim.

Our teachers believe that they must create all of their own materials from scratch.  In this, they are like an engineer who believes he or she has to forge their own bridge beams or the director who spends time building the stage rather than thinking about the script.

How do leaders help teachers to plan more intentionally?

We all believe that little things matter and details make a difference.  However all of us posses a finite amount of time, emotional energy, and brain space.  We need to start planning with the details that matter most.  My hypothesis is that if teachers spent 70% of their time crafting explanations, examples, and questions there would be a dramatic gain in learning.  A secondary benefit would be that teacher retention would improve because of the increase in student achievement and more efficient use of time.  Here are two things that I have tried and seen success with in improving a teacher’s capacity for effective planning…

ì  Do planning conferences instead of observations and debriefs.  After watching Jon Saphier do four planning conferences with teachers I work with (un-shockingly this was a completely humbling experience) one of the biggest takeaways was approaching conferences as a naïve learner. Throughout these conferences Jon would say…

Explain this to me.

Why does that work?

Why do we do the _______(problem, writing, reading, etc.) that way?

What would it look like if students were mastering the aim?

As a result of these questions teachers almost invariably rewrote the aim or the criteria for success.

They also wound up anticipating more of the kids questions and confusions.

ì  Instead of listing the steps to backwards planning or any other planning behavior, plan think alouds during professional development. A quality think aloud should help teachers see how a strong planner generates ideas, encounters obstacles, and zeros in on the most effective sequence of learning experiences. There are excellent models of think alouds here and here

I am still wondering….

  • Should we teach teachers more time management strategies in order to maximize the amount of time they can effectively plan?
  • What are the other misconceptions new and old teachers have about quality planning?
  • How much of a time-suck is multi-tasking and what role does the culture of our school and staff play in effective planning?
  • How do instructional leaders use looking at student work or assessment data to change the way teachers plan?
  • How much would providing pre-packaged materials (textbooks, old teacher’s files, etc.) shift teacher’s planning behaviors in the right direction?[iii]

[i] This idea comes from Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe. Activity planning happens when teachers lesson plan by deciding on the activities that will keep kids engaged or soak up the class time.  Wiggins and McTighe contrast activity planning with backwards planning where teachers start by determining the aim and what evidence of success with the aim looks like before deciding on which activities will most likely produce that evidence.  Activity planning looks like the classroom where kids work in groups all period and produce a half-hearted poster board accompanied by one student reading from Wikipedia.

[ii] The clip art vortex is dark, dark place where creating and jazzing up a document costs a disproportionate amount of time and energy that would be better spent on things like actually planning a quality explanation or check for understanding. The clip art vortex has a few related entities

  • The formatting rabbit hole where you start experimenting with a new font or style of bullets and find yourself a few hours later with a document whose typeface resembles a pasted together ransom note.
  • The motivational quote vacuum that sucks away precious minutes and synapses as you flip though page after page looking for the “quote of the day” to paste at the top of the morning work all the while knowing that you only have a few minutes in the lesson allotted for talking about the quote (in other words one high flying reader will share their interpretation and then you will move on).
  • The Youtube void where you spend your evening combing through comedy clips for the perfect motivation until you realize you are watching an episode of the Simpsons that can’t possibly connect to your lesson on integers or your PD on backwards planning.

[iii] I added this questions after a great conversation with Mike Goldstein, Erica Winston, Laura Schwedes and Orin Gutlerner of MATCH, Tobey Jackson of Boston Collegiate, and Spenser Blasdale of SchoolWorks.


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