By Dr. Gabe Goldman
I learned how to plan lessons when I was in undergraduate school in the early 1970s. I also learned how to arrange desks in even rows, adjust classroom radiators and “use chalk and blackboard effectively.” While these skills were suitable for my first teaching position in a congregation school with 30 student desks in even rows and walls covered with large blackboards, just about everything in Jewish education has changed over the last half-century. Smartboards have replaced blackboards, text messages have replaced hand-written notes, cooperative learning has replaced frontal teaching and learning areas have replaced desks arranged in straight rows. Jewish education now takes place in Jewish Community Centers, in gardens and on hiking trails – not just in schools. The only aspect of Jewish education that has not changed is the lesson planning process. Schools of education continue to teach the same lesson planning model used over the last half century, a model that is clearly outdated and inadequate for today’s Jewish teachers.
The lesson planning process I learned five decades ago will sound far too familiar to readers who are teachers or prospective teachers. First, I was taught to articulate my overall goals. This step was compared to picking a destination for a trip. Without the final destination, it would not be possible to plan the trip. Then, I was instructed to identify my objectives – to be stated in terms of “student outcomes” i.e., what students should be able to demonstrate that they “learned” from the lesson. Next, I had to describe the teaching activities I would use to achieve the objectives. After compiling my list of teaching activities, I could then identify the resources I would need to execute these activities. Some of the language has changed over the years but the approach has remained the same. And it is not working. All evidence points to the fact that this approach has never been a good fit for Jewish educators and is now completely inadequate for Jewish experiential and informal Jewish educators (those working in non-school settings).
The model fails in three ways: A) Does not encourage creative thinking; B) Limits what can be taught; C) Does not address needs of experiential educators or educators in informal settings.
A: Does Not Encourage Creativity — This approach does the opposite–it deadens creative thinking. It dictates that if “A plus B equals C” and our goal is “C,” then we must focus on A and B. Such logical thinking is linear and leaves no room for creative thinking. Creative thinking, on the other hand, explores whether there is a different way to get to “C”. Perhaps this means starting with D or E or F and progressing back to “C”. Perhaps it means starting with W and including X, Y and Z as a way of putting A and B into context. The point is that the strictly logical, linear lesson planning approach dooms creativity.
B: Limits What Can Be Taught — This approach requires that there be a direct and immediate relationship between what is taught and its effect on students, an effect that can be observed or measured. But, this just isn’t the case with much of Jewish life that revolves around ethical, moral and faith-based beliefs that take years to formulate – and even then continue to evolve. This lesson planning model favors the teaching of facts (e.g. the names of prayers) rather than student attitudes and beliefs (e.g. students’ belief about G-d or the power of prayer to bring about change).
C: Does Not Serve Experiential and Informal Educators — This approach does not embrace experiential or outdoor Jewish education that focuses more on the experience than on particular facts, for example; student experiencing Ahavat HaShem (Love of G-d), or overcoming their fears by facing them; or learning how live in community on a camping trip And, the logic of starting with defined goals and objectives fails completely when applied to outdoor educators. In outdoor education, it is the physical setting that defines everything else that happens. It makes no sense to identify specific goals without first determining whether those goals can be achieved in the setting in which the lesson will take place.
There is ample evidence that logical lesson planning has not worked, does not work and will never work for most Jewish educators. Most teachers either do not write lesson plans or they put the least amount of effort into them as possible. While many schools still require teachers to submit lesson plans, there is no real penalty for not doing so and few school directors seriously review lesson plans (and rarely before the lesson is taught). And, the few teachers who attempt to use logical lesson planning to the best of their ability often end up with lessons less than satisfying to them. As one Jewish community high school director put it, “Lesson plans are a lost cause.”
The Circular Lesson Planning Alternative
Circular Lesson Planning involves circular thinking (not to be confused with circular reasoning). Circular thinking better represents how the average person goes about solving a problem than does the linear model. Few people think in linear fashion – starting with a goal, determining the steps necessary to achieving the goal, then thinking of ways to accomplish these steps. People are more organic in their approach to problem solving. We have a problem and we get some ideas about how to solve it. We investigate those ideas and find out there are other possibilities we did not know of or did not consider. Frequently, as we look for solutions, we learn to express our goal in more detailed and sophisticated ways – which in turn reshape our approach to solving it and the resources we will need. Circular Lesson Planning mimics this organic thinking process by changing two key parts of the traditional lesson planning process.
First, Circular Lesson Planning uses a circle, not a line, to guide the lesson planning process. All of the elements of the lesson are placed at points in any order around the circle – teaching activities, location of lesson, goals, objectives, etc. Second, Circular Lesson Planning does not require teachers to begin their lesson planning by identifying goals and objectives. Rather, this approach instructs teachers to begin with any element – it might be a resource, or a particular teaching/learning activity or simply whatever is easiest for them (e.g. makes them most excited, what they understand the best or are most confident starting with). Outdoor educators always begin with “location” which determines everything about what can and cannot be taught or experienced.
One might question how it’s possible to plan a trip without identifying the destination—that is, how to plan a lesson when there is no goal. Of course there are goals; not stating them immediately and not having goals are very different. Teachers know what their overall goals are and these goals do not vary from one class to the next. Teachers know that they are teaching about the Holocaust for certain reasons or Hebrew for certain reasons or taking students on a hike for certain reasons. These reasons (goals), of course, provide the boundaries for the thinking that takes place. That is, Holocaust studies teachers are not going to focus on teaching Hebrew vocabulary. Think of this in terms of planning a car trip. I might know that my final destination will be California. It is not necessary for me to state exactly where in California I plan to get when I first start my trip in New York City. I know which direction I am headed and now can think about how I want to get there. At some point, perhaps in Colorado, I might want to have a better understanding of whether I’m heading to southern or northern California. This is why it is frequently better to delay the start of lesson planning with a goal statement (though teachers can start here if it is the easiest place for them to start).
Note that what keeps this process from deteriorating into chaotic, disjointed lessons is – the circle. Every element of the lesson plotted on the circle must have a clear relationship and connection to everything else on the circle. If teachers begin by describing a teaching/learning activity, ultimately they must show how it connects to all other elements listed on the circle – the location where the activity will take place, the resources necessary for doing the activity, how the activity accomplishes an objective and how that connects to their guiding goals. Conversely, if teachers do not see a direct connection between the teaching activity and every other element on the circle, th en something is out of balance with the activity that must be changed.
The fact is that most school directors have given up on asking teachers to put their lesson plans on paper. As one of my colleagues put it, “Lesson plans are a losing cause.” This is the truly unfortunate outcome of the failure of Jewish Academia to recognize how traditional lesson planning has failed Jewish educators for decades or how it will fail today’s Jewish experiential and informal Jewish educators who are supposed to be leading the great changes taking place in American Jewish education. Yet, the fact also remains that lesson planning is the only way to ensure that one’s teaching will be creative, coherent, on-topic and that it accomplishes more than simply entertaining (or boring) students for a short amount of time. Circular Lesson Planning is a solution that has proven itself in the field, requires little training in its use and is beneficial to Jewish educators in any formal or informal setting.
Dr Gabe Goldman is the Director of Outdoor Jewish Classroom