I think one of the biggest struggles a teacher can undertake is the art of lesson planning. And I’m not saying this because it’s detail-oriented, tedious, or time-consuming. Instead, I’m saying this because all planning and all preparation operate off of one assumption — an assumption that can be quite absolutist and extremely dangerous.
And that assumption is that you know what is going to happen in your classroom.
Anyone who has been teaching for more than 10 minutes can tell you that the classroom is a place of uncertainty and unpredictability. In fact, I’d go as far to say that almost none of the lessons I plan progress in exactly the way I anticipate. Kids ask questions, they make interesting connections, or they fail to synthesize the content in the way I’ve planned. And while this can be frustrating, it can also be utterly enriching.
I remember one time, specifically, after reading a non-fiction article on the viral “Gangnam Style” a few years back, my students and I began to learn a bit more about Asian culture since students were interested. We specifically read an article on Daoism, and while reading, one of my students noticed a reference to the yin-yang, posing this question in class:
“I’ve seen that before! What does that mean?”
I explained my background knowledge on the yin-yang, but there seemed to be more interest, and as a result, we dove deeper into the content. We found some other resources on our iPads and developed an understanding of the concept together. For the remainder of the year, this symbol became a staple in our classroom and our discussions. We’d refer to the “light in darkness” constantly when reading stories or when coping with our own personal struggles.
The interesting thing about this whole scenario, though, is that I never intended to teach my students about the yin-yang, or about Asian culture for that matter. Instead, I made a rather cheap attempt to garner their interest by reading an article on that oh-so popular song. And while I could go on about the importance of student questioning and teachable moments, within this experience lies an even deeper question — a question deeper than best practices for planning and preparation, a question deeper than student engagement.
In these moments — in this series of lessons in my former classroom — my students were engrossed in the process of learning. Natural curiosities and the combination of 27 different children’s signal experiences combined together beautifully to create a group inquiry that propelled us further into this mini-study — a study that really had no end in sight. It had no true product and therefore, little intention, especially when it came to the content of the articles.
On the other hand, pragmatic and intentional teaching is essential to being an effective educator, in some capacity, and there is a great demand for it. Parents want to know that our teaching is intentional and that we are providing students with skills necessary to succeed in life. Additionally, they want their children to love learning, and they want them to be encapsulated by the process of learning so that they become learners for the rest of their lives.
But these two philosophies, in a sense, have some different implications and operate under different assumptions. One operates under a process-oriented assumption, while the other operates under a product-oriented assumption. Teaching with an intentional product requires students to set a goal, hold true to that goal, and assess their progress along the way, while teaching with the process in mind involves provocations (that are still intentional and well-planned) that are only intended to jumpstart students on their own learning trajectories.
But where is the line? Where does process end and product begin?
Overemphasizing the product could potentially lead to pressure, unrealistic expectations, and shameful feelings when they’re not realized, while a lack of goal-setting and assessment (while allowing for process-oriented learning), often leaves children directionless and confused. And herein lies the process-product dilemma.
At first glance, it might seem like it’s impossible to teach for both the process and the product simultaneously. But it’s actually quite the opposite, and it merely takes an analysis of your own values, expectations, and daily intentions when you stand in front of your class. My lesson on “Gangnam Style” was, of course, not intended to teach about the song itself; instead, it was to read informational text, find the main idea, and analyze the structure of the article itself, as was the intention with the articles that followed.
In this lesson series, in particular, I had a very clear intention in mind: I wanted my students to comprehend the literal meaning of an informational text, meanwhile analyzing the structure. I was able to achieve this intention, not by rigidly controlling and planning each and every stimulus weeks in advance, but instead I was able to achieve this because I kept that product in the back of my mind while delicately balancing the process of learning by responding to their questions and helping them find more resources in the moment and finding more resources on my own for future lessons.
If nothing else, this series of lessons taught me something about the process-product dilemma: instead of process and product having clear endings and beginnings, perhaps process and product are merely the ends of a continuum or two perpendicular axes on a grid, and each and every one of our lessons lies somewhere in the gray area that fills the hours of our classrooms every day. Perhaps it’s not important which is process and which is product.
Perhaps it’s just important that we have both.