I have previously argued that university teacher-training programs and district-level induction programs must change if the next generation of teachers is to successfully incorporate the common core standards into their classrooms.  There are two institutional barriers to implementation.  The first I have already described:  the teaching standards.  California has done an impressive job of institutionalizing these standards.  The unintended consequence of this success is the creation of essentially teacher-centered classrooms wherein the teacher is the prime mover and all directions and most content area knowledge disseminates from him.  In these classrooms the vast majority of learning is transferred orally from teacher to student.  

The second institutional barrier is the multi-step lesson plan, which has been around at least since Madeleine Hunter and is more entrenched than the teaching standards themselves.  The lesson plan template dovetails nicely with the teaching standards because it supports a teacher-centered classroom where the teacher is the main actor and learning is something he does to students.  From a student’s perspective, education is something that happens to him.  The traditional lesson plan has a rather fixed structure, although the labels change according to the subject area.  The lesson may begin with a warm-up activity, or bell-ringer.  This supports the idea of bell-to-bell instruction and is a way of immediately engaging a heterogeneous class of students.  Such warm-ups can be used for multiple purposes.  For example, the warm-up may review previous learning or forecast the day’s lesson, or even activate the student’s prior knowledge on a subject. 

The next step usually involves a review of the homework.  The teacher may collect it, or walk around the room giving on-the-spot credit, or ask if there are any questions students might have about it.  This is very common in math and science classrooms.  The teacher then moves to the main activity of the day, the introduction of new learning.  This is often preceded by an anticipatory set.  This is a brief activity wherein the students are prepared for the new learning.  This is the step in Hunter’s lesson design I have always objected to the most, and for a variety of reasons.  It assumes an incurious and disengaged student, it assumes the writer cannot do his job, which is to engage his reader and activate his prior knowledge, it is redundant and a serial waste of valuable classroom time.  It ironically has the opposite of its intended effect on many students, who immediately disengage and wait for the actual learning to begin.

The main learning of the day is often occasioned by direct, explicit instruction.  Here is where the teaching standards really take over and the teacher kicks it into high gear, delivering the new content in lively fashion, often accompanied by bullets on power point slides and streaming video, with problems solved on smart boards, step-by-step in a typical math lesson.  Teachers routinely check for understanding using various methods, such as questioning, offering sample problems, or placing students into cooperative groupings.  This is a general part of the lesson known as guided practice.  The teacher will often circulate through the room, checking student work, answering questions and checking for understanding by asking his own questions. 

The final part of the typical lesson is termed independent practice, often referred to as homework.  Here is where the student will take the new learning and practice with it until mastery.  In math classes, the student is often given time during the last part of class to begin his homework.  Whatever he does not complete becomes actual homework.  This is an incentive for students to work until the bell to reduce the amount of work left over at home.

This formula teaching is repeated lesson after lesson, day after day, subject after subject, throughout a student’s K-12 education.  A secondary student might be exposed to 10,000 or more anticipatory sets during his years in school.  It’s quite mind-numbing when you think about it!

If teachers do not alter these practices, then it is theoretically impossible for these new standards to actually enter the classroom.   What I fear is that districts will pay outside firms to examine their current essential standards and do an alignment with the new standards.  Teachers will then be trained to write new numbers on their white boards and use new labels in their objectives.  This is certainly not the intent of adopting the common core.

What is called for, I think, is a new lesson design.  

When I returned to the classroom in 2002-2004, after my first of two 3-year rotations as a full-time released mentor to new teachers, I experimented with a radically new lesson design.  The common core standards did not exist yet, nor had the ACT done the research that would lead to the College and Career Readiness Standards upon which the common core were based.  But my own observations of hundreds of hours of instruction, based on the latest lesson design models promulgated by university teacher-training and new teacher induction programs, convinced me that teacher-centered learning, what I termed ‘forward teaching’ needed to be turned on its head.  I labeled this new approach ‘teaching backwards’ and decided the solution was to turn the lesson plan on its head.  The net result of this new lesson design was to turn the learning over to the writer and to place the teacher in a far different role, one who connects writers and readers and supports the process. 

I have demonstrated this approach in multiple workshop settings and allayed teachers’ fears that I have removed all scaffolding, basically seized their bag of tricks, turning them loose in classrooms with no effective strategies.  What I have actually done is to gather up the most effective teacher strategies and encourage their use as scaffolds in the true sense of the term.  After all, a scaffold is intended as a temporary support.  Scaffolds should be used in a targeted fashion, only for those students who need them and only for as long as they need them.  Teachers should assume an independent learner, offer scaffolds only when necessary and test continually for independence.  There should be no default scaffolds.  And scaffolds, once erected, should eventually be taken down.

Most of the front-loading teachers engage in during lessons is dedicated to a successful first-read for students.  I have had teachers tell me that their first goal is to avoid a frustrated reader.  This is the major reason they engage in so much prior discussion, including a summary of the main ideas in any piece of writing and the definitions of any problematic words.  When they turn a student loose in a text, they anticipate a smooth ride through the text and a successful first-read.

If students spend twelve years in classrooms where most texts require only one reading because teachers are so effective at front-loading the text, then how are they to survive in college, where nearly all reading is complex in nature and independently mastered?  How are they to survive in a workplace environment of job manuals, contract language and government regulations?  This is the conundrum uncovered by the ACT research in “Reading Between the Lines.” 

This is what happens when you turn lesson design on its head.  The lesson begins with independent practice.  As much as possible, all learning, regardless of subject area, begins in text.  Teachers begin with the assumption that students can independently master text.  Students are encouraged to give texts multiple readings and to mark up texts on subsequent readings.  This task will frustrate a certain percentage of students in any class.  The number of frustrated readers will vary depending on the subject area and the complexity of the text.  But students should be encouraged to get as far as they can with a text before the teacher offers scaffolds.  There is nothing wrong with a frustrated learner.  A frustrated learner stands in the doorway of the academy.  Most scholars spend a great deal of their careers in a state of frustration, only intermittently relieved by periods of true understanding and great insight, only to be followed by new intellectual challenges accompanied by their own frustrations.

A backwards lesson design would call for guided practice to follow independent practice.  It is here that the teacher checks for understanding and offers temporary supports to students.   This is a wonderful opportunity for the teacher to display at least a portion of the text and model how an academic works with it using critical reading strategies.  After all, there should be two main goals here.  One is the new learning occasioned by the text and the other is the development of skills sets for future use.  In this regard, the main purpose of mastering any text is to become a better reader of the next text.

The final step would be the application of this new learning to the next text.  In this way, the last step of a lesson becomes the first step of the next lesson.

A backwards lesson design turns the responsibility of content acquisition over to the writer and perfectly aligns with the underlying structure of the new common core and helps students meet the over-arching goal of these new standards: students will independently master an increasingly complex staircase of grade-level calibrated, literary and informational text.