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Learning That Lasts: Chapter 1: Planning and Delivering Lessons That Challenge, Engage, and Empower

How can the design of lessons serve to challenge, engage, and empower students?

The lesson is the basic unit of instruction. It is the package in which we wrap curriculum and the vehicle we use to deliver content and skills. Lessons that challenge, engage, and empower students must be carefully crafted and skillfully delivered to maximize deeper learning. This chapter describes such lessons, including three specific lesson formats—the workshop model, protocol-based lessons, and discovery-based lessons—as well as the essential elements of any lesson, no matter its name or format, and shows what they look like and sound like in action in classrooms representing all types of students and schools.

Planning the 45, 60, or 90 minutes of each lesson is some of the most challenging and important work a teacher can do. from Chapter 1, Learning That Lasts

Learning Target

  1. I can describe how the lesson formats I use challenge, engage, and empower my students.

Read: Planning for Challenge

Ensuring that students experience challenges that will lead to new learning is complex work that requires, more than anything else, careful planning. Chapter 1 of Learning That Lasts explores what it takes to design tasks that promote students’ deep conceptual understanding. One tool explored in this chapter is Hess’s Cognitive Rigor Matrix (see table). This matrix can help you analyze the level of rigor of student tasks so that you can plan for increasing levels of challenge across an arc of lessons.

Knowing where a task falls on the matrix can inform backward planning, helping you ensure that the learning targets will scaffold students’ learning appropriately through an arc of lessons. Perhaps on Monday recall is important, but by Friday you want students to be able to analyze the interrelationships among concepts, issues, or problems (Analyze on Bloom’s and Level 3: Strategic Thinking and Reasoning on Webb’s). Using the matrix can be especially helpful for considering tasks that fall in the Extended Thinking column, emphasizing real-world application, cross-disciplinary connections, problem solving, and creative thinking—all important aspects of deeper learning.

After reviewing Hess’s Cognitive Rigor Matrix, look ahead to your lessons for the next week and consider the following questions:

  • Where do the tasks you’re asking students to do map onto this matrix?
  • Are there ways you can increase the cognitive rigor of the tasks?

Read and Watch: Planning for Engagement

Too often engagement is confused with attention. If students are paying attention or not acting out, we assume they’re engaged with the lesson. Students may be complying with the teacher’s directions, but to assure that they are engaging with the content and skills in a lesson we need to delve deeper. When lessons are designed to feed students’ curiosity and connection— compelling all students to work collaboratively and to grapple with real problems—we see students engaged in active and intentional learning.

Chapter 1 of Learning That Lasts explores the power of three lesson structures—the workshop model (especially what we call “Workshop 2.0”), protocol-based lessons, and discovery-based lessons—to engage students in thinking and doing during the majority of the lesson. Here we offer a brief description of each and videos to help you see what they look like in action.

The Workshop Model
When new college- and career-ready standards were first introduced, one of the first things we did was revise the traditional workshop model to address the demand for new capacities for students. We call it Workshop 2.0. Workshop 2.0 for reading and math features a small but important shift in the basic workshop instructional sequence, putting individual grappling with complex text (or, in mathematics complex problems) before a mini‐lesson, peer discussion, or group work. Updating the classic “I do, we do, you do” sequence of Workshop 1.0, Workshop 2.0 prioritizes time for independent, productive struggle with complex text or problems.

Watch the video Grappling with New Concepts during a Common Core Math Workshop to see how Workshop 2.0 engages fifth-graders in grappling with new concepts in math. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  • What evidence do you see that students are engaged in a challenging task?
  • How does the lesson structure support this engagement?

If you wish, reference the Indicators of Deeper Instruction on p. 9 in the Introduction to Learning That Lasts.

Protocol-Based Lessons
The value of a protocol-based lesson is in its “rules.” Students work productively and can fairly share roles because protocols follow predictable and clear guidelines. A protocol-based lesson gives students a structure that levels the playing field for engagement so that all students can embrace the challenge of the content or skill being taught. Protocols don’t rely on the teacher being center stage; instead, once students have mastered the protocol, they are empowered to manage their own reading, thinking, talking, writing, and doing about the topic.

Watch the video Thinking and Speaking Like Scientists through a Science Talk to see a protocol-based lesson—a Science Talk—in action in a tenth-grade biology classroom. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  • How does the structure of the protocol engage students?
  • How does it empower them as learners?

If you wish, reference the Indicators of Deeper Instruction in the introduction to Learning That Lasts.

Discovery-Based Lessons

The label “discovery-based” covers a range of lesson formats that have in common an inductive approach to teaching. Essentially, the teacher provides neither the answer nor direct instruction in how to find the answer. Instead, students are given only the materials they will need to solve a problem, conduct an experiment, or meet a challenge. Students, often working in teams, marshal their prior knowledge and critical thinking skills to discover their own methodology and answers to the problem. The discovery-based lesson concludes with students explaining their process and product and generalizing from this specific task to draw conclusions about “how things work” in other similar domains or tasks (see Figure).

Figure 1.5 below, from Chapter 1 of Learning That Lasts  shows the general flow of a discovery-based lesson.
After reviewing the figure, consider the following questions:

  1. How might the process of the Discovery Cycle foster a growth mindset in your students?
  2. Not every topic is conducive to this lesson format. Can you think of any opportunities in your classroom to design a discovery-based lesson?

Read and Watch: Planning for Empowerment

Chapter 1 of Learning That Lasts explores instructional strategies that support the development of strong habits of scholarship in students. From debriefs that help students articulate what and how they learned so that they can connect it to past and future learning, to structures that help students track and own their progress toward learning goals. The focus here is on building academic habits that will help students become college- and career-ready.

Watch the video Debrief Circles to see a debrief in action in a sixth-grade math class. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  1. How does this debrief circle help students synthesize and solidify their understanding of mathematical concepts?
  2. How does it help them reflect on their process as learners and prepare to transfer their learning to new situations?

If you wish, reference the Indicators of Deeper Instruction in the introduction to Learning That Lasts. Also consider watching the video Students Own Their Progress for ideas on structures that help student track and take ownership of their learning.

Read and Watch: From Planning to Delivering Great Lessons

In this section we shift from the planning of challenging, engaging, and empowering lessons to what it takes to deliver them. There is no doubt that there is an art to delivering lessons well, but this art can be learned. It is not something bestowed on great teachers from birth. It is something that comes from practice, willingness to learn from others, and a belief that improvement is within our control. Primarily we focus on a few key lesson components—no matter the design—that are essential for the success of any lesson:

  • An opening that hooks students into the worthiness of the work with which they are about to engage
  • Time for students to grapple with concepts, ideas, texts, or problems
  • Frequent checks for understanding
  • A debrief or synthesis

Watch the video Redirecting a Lesson with Exemplars and consider the following questions:

  1. What instructional moves allow teacher Anne Simpson to “flip the script” of her planned lesson?
  2. What is the result for her students?

Dig Deeper

Education Leadership’s Questioning for Learning issue: This issue is packed with great articles about how to use questions to drive deeper learning.

Help Student Read and Think Like Scientists: This MiddleWeb article breaks down the instructional moves that challenge, engage, and empower students during a two-day lesson about electricity.

Staying Focused When Lesson Plans Fall Apart: This MiddleWeb article explores the ABCs of Deeper Instruction: Ask strategic questions; Balance teacher talk and student talk; Challenge your students to grapple with texts, problems, and ideas.


For Teachers…

  1. In the Introduction to Learning That Lasts we introduce the Deeper Instruction Framework for challenging, engaging, and empowering students. What impact does the format of a lesson have on deeper instruction?
  2. Think of a lesson format that you use regularly. Does it afford you the opportunity to challenge, engage, and empower your students? If not, are there changes you can make to maximize these opportunities?
  3. What elements of effective lessons (e.g., an engaging hook, time to grapple, checking for understanding, debriefs) do you find most challenging to implement consistently? Are there one or two steps you can take to gain more consistency? Consider the steps highlighted in The Who, What, and Why of Lessons that Challenge, Engage, and Empower, from Chapter 1 of Learning That Lasts. What entry points will make sense for you in your setting?

For School Leaders…

  1. In the schoolwide implementation section of Chapter 1 of Learning that Lasts we highlight the Japanese lesson study as a model for professional learning. What structures do you have in your school for reflecting on and improving the quality of lessons?
  2. What criteria do you use for classroom observations? How do you identify and reflect on instruction that challenges, engages, and empowers students? You might be interested in our Deeper Lessons Tool if you don’t already have a tool for this work.
  3. Do you have a theory of action (i.e., if we do X, then we expect to see Y) for improving the quality of lessons in your school? If not, what process can you put in place to develop one?