Planning lessons begins with targeting specific objectives (the concept or skill we want learned). Then we must estimate the amount of time needed for the student to achieve each goal. Just the thought of all this planning makes ready-made lesson plans appealing. The reality, however, is that even with a curriculum that has lessons neatly divided for the school year, kids will find assignments too easy, too boring, or too difficult, more often than “just right.”
Ready-made plans are not the problem, though. It’s the desire to let those plans, or any resource, dictate the lesson and the pace. If we focus on what we want accomplished (the purpose of the lesson—its objective) instead, we can treat all resources as the means to our goal, and make adjustments without anxiety. I realize this will be difficult for personalities who feel the urge to complete anything started, but that urge must be fought in order to meet our children’s individual needs. Ultimately, then, we must think like a tutor, recognizing that the pace of any lesson depends on the student, not the plan. That means we must consider factors which affect how quickly students can achieve goals:
- Background – This refers to past experiences that can be drawn upon in order to aid understanding of new material.
- Type of instruction – Will a teacher direct the student individually? Will he be working alone? With another student? Will multi-sensory materials or something appropriate for his learning style be used?
- Time – What amount of time can be allotted for regular practice?
- Effort – Is the student motivated by interest or by seeing the concept or skill as helpful? Is he focused?
- Ability – Is this an area that comes easily or is there a lack of talent? Are there factors that interfere: a learning disability or physical impairment?
Let’s go back to the gymnastics illustration (in Part 1). The teacher might hand the class a checklist of exercises to practice on their own (type of instruction) an hour every day (time). Even if it’s a beginner class, some of the children probably learned how to perform some of the skills before enrolling, while others only know what has been demonstrated in class (background). In theory, an hour per day should improve skills much more than 15 minutes per day, or a few minutes every other day. However, children practicing alone who haven’t learned the proper form will only be reinforcing mistakes. Some students may remember proper form, but because they find it difficult to focus on their own, they end up dawdling, looking at the clock, and otherwise making the allotted time meaningless by their lack of effort.
Students with ability, background, and the motivation to put out effort may improve given this lesson plan. For those who don’t improve, we must discover why before turning to the common assumption that simply increasing practice time or offering a reward will make the difference. Otherwise the students may become more and more discouraged by their failures, consider themselves stupid or inept, and lose confidence in their ability to learn anything.
Obviously, the greatest improvement will be made when a motivated child can work for long periods daily with enough individual attention and continual feedback to keep him focused and performing correctly. We recognize that people who reach professional levels of performance—competitive gymnasts, sports stars, famous musicians, authors—have been motivated students who spent a great deal of time honing skills under the personal guidance of teachers and coaches. We also recognize that they have exceptional ability in the area of their achievement. Therefore, at some point we must be realistic about the ability of our students as it applies to each objective. If that is the factor interfering, then we need to adjust the goal instead of the method.
For example, a child with great difficulty handwriting due to a learning disability or physical impairment will make very slow progress and perhaps never reach “required” levels of expertise in spite of lengthy, daily, motivated, one-on-one practice sessions. The teacher, looking ahead, must decide what will be important in regard to handwriting in that child’s future and make adjustments that will allow time to develop the child’s interests and areas of ability. The new handwriting objective may be to have the student simply learn to write a mature looking cursive signature, with time assigned for the new goal of having him learn to type.
Sometimes there’s nothing interfering with learning, it’s just a matter of too little time available. Because it’s important to spend time building both weak areas and areas of strength, aptitude, or special interest, the concepts or skills in between may suffer. However, since experiences which provide background increase our speed in learning, we can plan activities that offer experiences—exposure to a subject. Even though we don’t have the time to help the students work toward mastery now, they will have an advantage for learning later. Unfortunately, too often students plow through a curriculum without being allowed time to digest and apply concepts or skills, and without time to pursue areas of interest or talent. Instead of being encouraged to master basics, they’ve been hurried to finish a ready-made program “on time.” This hollow foundation eventually cracks, leaving students feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled. Since the piles of completed papers are not evidence of actual learning, their time was as wasted as if they’d been dawdling.
Education should provide actual training. Instead of general goals that result in hours spent memorizing massive amounts of information for a test, we must think of objectives as something for our children to learn in order to use. Time spent on academic goals must be balanced with time to develop talents and interests, along with character development and spiritual growth. That means our children might not earn a high school diploma at seventeen or eighteen. We may have a child that faces so many obstacles that a diploma is not a realistic goal at all. Nevertheless, we know that child, just like the others, has a God-given purpose. Instead of looking at the school system for our agenda and nervously pushing our children in the wrong directions, we should help them prepare for their very individual destiny.