Monday, March 28, 2016

Preparation Is the Plan

I am not much of a planner.

I am an engineer's son, so it's not like I don't understand planning or its value or how to do it. In particular, I get the social value of planning; it's just not helpful to tell someone, "I'll be over to pick you up sometime or other." And I believe in the value of speaking with integrity, which really does mean things like honoring the plans that you make with someone else (that sounds really deep, but it ends up referring to things like saying you'll meet for supper at 5:00 and then actually showing up at 5:00).

But still, I'm not big on planning. I am particularly not big on planning for the classroom.

This does not mean that I think I should just plop down on a chair, turn to my class, and say, "So, what do you want to do today?" The taxpayers do not pay me to just hang out in a classroom and hope that learning randomly and spontaneously erupts.

But still, I'm not big on planning.

I am, however, a huge fan of preparation.

One of my personal controlling metaphors for learning and the content is exploring a chunk of territory, a patch of geography. For me, planning is saying that we will travel across that terrain by following a specific, pre-determined path. The territory may be dozens of square miles, but we will only ever see a couple hundred linear feet of it. And if any of my students try to stray from the path, my most immediate response will be to get them back on that path. Pre-planned, scripted material? That's when someone has laid down train tracks through the territory and all of us in the classroom are locked into our seats on the train, just passengers on someone else's journey. That's planning.

Preparation is different. For preparation, my job is to know every square foot of the territory. The students and I set out together, and I have a definite destination or two in mind on the other side of the territory, and I have some ideas about how we can get there (so we don't end up just milling around in one place aimlessly). I've been walking with my students for a while, paying attention to their strengths and weaknesses, so I can gauge whether we'd do better climbing the cliff or swimming the lake. And if somebody says, "Hey, what's this over here?" my job is to know the territory well enough that we can go take a look at the This and I will still know where we are and how to make it to our destination from there. That's preparation.

I'm no purist. Sometimes planning is called for. Taking the planned trail is quicker and simpler and less confusing for the students. For some material it's just easier and more efficient to say, "Okay, we're going to learn prepositional phrases and we're all going to do it like this. Let's go." Still, if I'm prepared, if a student wanders off the path and into the weeds, I'm better equipped to help her get unlost.

Too much planning gives a classroom the wrong emphasis. If I'm focused on the Plan, I will start to value the integrity of the plan over the curiosity or interest of the student. In a planning model, a good student is a compliant one who sticks to the path, not one who is interested in learning about the territory.

The effects of plan-focused teacher are worst with someone who doesn't prepare and doesn't really know the territory beyond the guardrails of the path. This is another way of understanding the failures of Common Core and high stakes testing and computer-plan flavored CBE-- these are all about the need of people who don't know the territory trying to monitor teachers and students. These are all about an attempt to manage Top Down Surveillance of teachers and students, and since we have already put the surveillance cameras in certain locations, and we don't really know the territory, the whole system is based on demanding that teachers and students show up at the precise locations that have been laid out by people who don't know the territory, don't understand the territory, have never visited the territory. This is planning as commanded by people who think they can successfully manage education by remote data monitoring-- if teachers and students will just stand exactly where the hell they've been told they're supposed to.

The preparation approach yields other rewards. No matter how well you know the territory, there are always moments when a student will say, "Hey, look at this!" and you discover something you'd never seen before. In a prepared approach, you end up learning, too, which is a nice model for your students.

I am biased toward the preparation model because life. I had a lot of plans. Most of them did not exactly work out, and I reached a point where I realized I could either freak out because I was off the path, and I could use all my energy trying to get back on the path, or I could be where I was and start looking at where I could go from there. I lean toward the latter.

It's not that I don't believe in planning at all (did I mention that I'm an engineer's son?) But too much emphasis on planning is fear-inducing and erosive to confidence. Even the best-laid plans can carry a subtext of "You must stick to the path, because beyond the path are terrible things that you just can't handle." Whereas preparation is about gathering our map, our compass, and all our best tools and saying, "Whatever we find, we will handle." Planning prioritizes the destination; preparation focuses on the journey.

I still translate my work into lesson plans, but I still value preparation more than planning. It is okay (and on some days, preferable) to step into a classroom and not know exactly what is going to happen. Most of the forces of reformsterdom, which very much favor the One True Path approach to learning, are pushing us in the opposite direction. But strapping ourselves and our students into railroad cars on pre-programmed rails is the least useful way to do education and bad for our students as human beings. The fans of the cradle-to-career pipeline believe that a full and satisfying life can be planned, but my job is not to plan my students' future. My job is to prepare them for it.


  1. Really interesting analogies. I wish I were less of a planner. I always wanted to be prepared AND have a plan, because I was scared to death not to; I was afraid I wouldn't have any idea where to even start if I didn't have a path planned. However, since I was prepared, I never worried about going off the path. And I would never want someone else to make the plan for me and tell me I had to stay on it.

    My first two years of teaching I pretty much followed the textbook because I didn't know any better. Except I thought the tests that came with it were terrible and made up my own. After that I started understanding the territory better and wasn't satisfied with just following the textbook. I started to do more picking and choosing what to use and when to use it, and bringing in things from other sources. Then I changed schools and the textbook they used I considered to be pedagogically unsound, and I completely made up my own curriculum.

    I suppose it's a little like traveling with a tour group as opposed to going off on your own. If you're not an experienced traveler and don't know the language, you might want to travel with a tourist group at first. It's a pain, though, to only be able to see the things the tour group plans, and only for the amount of time that's on the itinerary. Once you have some experience traveling, and if you know enough of the language to feel comfortable, it's much more satisfying to plan your own itinerary but be flexible enough to not have to follow it.

    (Or go with no itinerary at all, but I'm a planner because I'm too fearful something is going to go terribly wrong if I don't do all the preparation and planning I can. I figure something will always not go as planned, but I want to mitigate horrible things happening because I didn't think things out as much as I could have. But at least I'm flexible about going off the beaten path.)

  2. NIce post!

    I have the huge advantage that all my teaching is volunteer and my goal is not set in stone, but rather what I think is the best educational result of any given session. Rebecca deCoca's strategy is what I prefer: preparation, but a plan for the first few minutes of the session to get the ball rolling.

    My subject is mathematics, and the problems I like to work with are open-ended: easy entry, but possible to extend in many directions almost as far as you want to go. Thus it is impossible for me to "know every square foot of the territory," and in fact, fairly often a question will come up and I have to say, "I have no idea -- let's see what we can figure out."

    I think this is great for the students: it shows that it's ok not to know, and it's often fun to blunder ahead with the "teacher" and watch him screw up occasionally. (Actually I and my colleagues call ourselves "leaders" rather than "teachers.")

    Obviously, if I know that a discussion is headed into a dead-end, I try to re-direct it, but with no absolute goal for a session, this doesn't happen very often.

    I've been leading these open-ended "problem-solving" sessions with middle school and high school kids for about 15 years now, and it's hard to think of any of them that have arrived at exactly the goal I envisioned, but it's a rare session that I'm unhappy with.

    I know that this approach is impossible in traditional schools given all the constraints faced by teachers there, but I wish it were possible to teach (lead) like this more often in traditional classrooms.