I absolutely love everything science-related and will do science for fun in my free time. In starting to teach high school science, my hope was to build student excitement about all these amazing science concepts. Classes were not going to be dry with mind-numbing lectures, and students would have fun interacting with the material, applying concepts, and creating new ideas.
The students lacked my hoped-for excitement, and I must admit to falling back on direct instruction and rote memorization of vocabulary words far too frequently. This age-old issue is one that every teacher across all content areas faces but the urge to fall back on a teacher-centered classroom isn’t the answer. Rather, continue to ask and answer these two questions: (1) how do I make my content engaging and interesting, and (2) how can I make students think deeply and critically while relating it to real-world events?
After a decade of teaching, professional learning, implementation, reflection, and revision, I distilled the answers to those questions down to a core group of five instructional and planning best strategies. These strategies changed my approach to instruction, and now, I want to share them with other teachers:
• Plan backwards: Start by studying your standard. Write the unit or lesson’s assessment first and base it on the big ideas and skills the standard states students should know. Then, set your lesson objectives. This process informs the learning experiences for students and reveals the instruction needed for those activities.
• Tell a story: Everyone loves stories, so use this as your hook. A fascinating story, real-world problem, or thought-provoking question frames and anchors your lesson. Present the scenario and attach it to everything else in the lesson to support students in answering this question or solving this problem. Make sure you avoid “flash,” which is a story that grabs attention but lacks substance, connection, or follow-through.
• Incorporate complexity: Complex problems require rigorous thinking, and this step easily scaffolds real-world problem to differentiate learning for students. Embrace making learning “sticky” or complicated but provide students the proper tools and framework to dig deeply and think critically.
• Double plan: Most teachers plan lessons that include teacher talk time and add on student activity at the end. Stop and ponder what students will be doing during the lecture and what you are doing while they work through an activity. For every part of the lesson, plan both teacher and student activities, then clearly communicate those expectations.
• Show mastery: Be clear with students about success criteria and how to share evidence of mastery. Connect this evidence back to the objectives at the beginning that are directly aligned to your standard. This step completes a connected, instructional plan.
The best advice given to me as a teacher was to “be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” Let = students drive as they learn. As teachers, we are the driving instructors keeping them between the lines and headed in the right direction.
Finding and using these instructional best practices transformed my teaching, and they will improve yours as well.