What To Do When Lesson Plans Blow Up

To show the students in my first-year seminar that nonhuman technologies are used to control humans everywhere on our campus, I constructed a lesson plan that included having students go on a scavenger hunt. I gave each team a sheet of paper on which to list every example they found and asked them to report back in 15 minutes. I said that the team that found the most would get a small prize. I had already made a list for myself of what I expected them to find, picking seven or eight things that I thought they would probably find.

Purple flowers on rose bowl float

Rose Bowl float in Pasadena City Park

After 15 minutes, the teams began trickling back into the classroom, with a surprising message. They had found lots of stuff! How much wasn’t clear to me until I asked the teams to report their observations and I began recording them on the board. I had a column for each of the five teams and had left space for more than enough reports, I thought.

However, I quickly ran out of space! As I went serially around the room, with each team reporting one thing during their turn, my initial excitement turned to dread as I realized that their interpretation of what constituted “nonhuman technologies” was far more expansive than mine. With the inclusive definition that they were working with, they’d come up with at least 30 examples.

I looked at the clock – – 45 minutes to salvage what I was hoping they would take away as the lesson for the day. Or, not.

I thought back to the last time a lesson plan had blown up on me. I remembered that I had candidly told them that things hadn’t gone as I’d planned. That’s what I did this time. Without going into more detail, I can report that it turned out to be an eye-opening and enlightening 45 minutes.

What lesson did I take away from this? First, don’t abandon ship when things move in a direction other than what you had planned. Instead, see what you can salvage. Second, using open-ended questions, find out how the students interpreted the assignment. Rather than lecturing to them on what I’d expected, I listened to their interpretations of the readings and their explanations of why their views fit the conceptual scheme of the text. I found myself agreeing with them. I recognized that their explanations were a valid and logical extension of what they read, whereas I’d had a preconceived notion that was narrower than it should’ve been.

Third, to give yourself time to think through how to deal with the unexpected answers, record their answers on the board. I wrote each answer in the student’s own words, as much as I could, and stopped often to make sure that I was getting it right. This gave me time to recover my composure. As I probed to make certain I’d understood what they were getting at, it also showed me their thought processes.

Fourth, after listing their observations and hearing their explanations, repeat what you had expected and explain why you were surprised. And by “surprised,” I mean in a good way. In my class, I explained that I found their more inclusive view a better way to read the text than what I had prepared.

Fifth, follow up the “blown” lesson with a posting on the course management system, going into more detail on what you said in class.  This shows students that you take their views seriously.

Six, and perhaps most important for the future of the class, after returning to your office, make detailed notes on what you’d planned, what “went wrong,” and how you can change things the next time you use that lesson plan.

I still haven’t decided whether I will give them more expansive instructions, anticipating that next year’s class will otherwise go in the same “wrong” direction as the class this year.  That is, I could “fix” the lesson plan to deliver the expected outcomes. Another option, and likely the one I will take, is to give them the same instructions as this year, prepare to be surprised, and just go with whatever happens!

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