Learning is cyclical, and I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone who would argue with that. But it’s the overlaying cyclicality that makes what educators do every day so tricky. You see, while learning is cyclical, the cycles tend to overlap upon one other both on a broad and granular scale; either that or the cycles tend to move so quickly from one cycle to the next that it’s really difficult to keep track of where different students are in the cycle, especially when you’ve got a whole bunch of them — all with different needs.
But these cycles can be simplified — and not for the purpose of simplifying the learning process, but instead, these cycles can be simplified for the purpose giving teachers a triangulated framework in which to ground their planning, preparation, and instruction. Take these two examples, for instance. Within each of these, you’ll notice all three pieces of this framework:
Macro: Katy is planning an interdisciplinary unit on cell biology.
Over the course of 6 weeks, Katy wants students to identify the parts of a cell and explain how they work together over time. She also wants her students to be able to identify the main idea of a text (RI.4.2) and explain scientific concepts (RI.4.3) specifically through access to nonfiction text. In order to determine the success of her students, she will create a series of formative assessments that determine the knowledge her students have ascertained over the course of a few weeks, specifically asking students to identify cell parts and explain their function. She will also create decontextualized reading assessments that ask her students to identify the main idea of a text, giving them multiple tries over the course of the six weeks. She will use the assessments to help guide future instruction and instructional groupings. She will also create guided reading groups based on the results of the assessments. For the science content, she will use a mixture of videos, informational text, and modeling to help students see how the parts of a cell work together.
Micro: Katy is planning a lesson as a part of her interdisciplinary unit on cell biology.
The objective for her lesson is two-fold: (1) Students will be able to identify the main idea of a 1-2 paragraph text using text features and non-fiction strategies; (2) Students will be able to identify the cell membrane and explain its function. In order to teach this, Katy has planned an interactive activity. She will engage students with membrane provocations using plastic bags and water, videos that discuss the importance of the cell membrane, and pictures of cells whose membranes are in tact and broken to help students infer the importance of the membrane. In guided reading, Katy has been focusing on main idea, specifically in the context of cells, so in order to both assess students’ understanding of cell membranes and main idea, she will create a formative assessment for her cell membrane lesson that requires her students to read a short text about cell membranes (1-2 paragraphs), identify the main idea (RI.4.2), and explain the function of the cell membrane after reading the text (RI.4.3). She will then use this information to determine how to support students in subsequent lessons.
Note that in both of these examples, there are three elements: curriculum, assessment, and instruction. And due to the fact that all of these three elements are present, both the macro-cycles and micro-cycles involved in the planning process are aligned to each other: the macro-levels of curriculum, assessment, and instruction align well with the proportionally smaller micro-levels, creating a well-balanced and supportive learning experience for students.
Also note that, within this loose curricular framework, that there is plenty of room for student choice, for students to ask questions, and for the educator to take the lesson or lesson sequence where she sees fit. This is, by no means, a rigid lesson plan; instead, it is a strong framework that allows for a triangulation of the three most important components of planning and preparation in the classroom: curriculum, assessment, and instruction.