As the school year begins, lesson planning is probably on your mind. Some teachers are given a standard format by their administration, while others are left to choose the style that works best for them and their students. Either way, I hope to share some advice that will help you plan active and engaging lessons. First I would like to share some general thoughts on social studies best practices. I like to use the FIRES acronym to describe the kind of lessons that work best in my experience.
FIRES stands for:
Fun: enjoyable, active
Interactive: students actively communicating with each other and their teacher
Research-based: best educational practices supported by empirical research
Engaging: promotes student thinking at deeper level
Student-centered: relevant to the needs, interests, and learning styles of the student
There are many lesson plan models out there, ranging from the traditional teacher-centered lecture or the book-centered read-and-answer-the-questions-at-the-end-of-the-chapter to the extreme student centered models in which students direct every aspect of their own learning. While there may be a place for each of these as tools in the teacher’s toolbox, none of them alone are likely to yield ideal results.
Education research has recognized the need for a variety of tools to meet the needs of a variety of learning styles. These tools, or strategies, are useful for a specific part of the job, or portion of a lesson cycle. I like to think of lesson plan models as a toolbox, an organizational container for storing and organizing the tools of education. Each strategy can be placed in a drawer based on the way it is employed.
While there are several good toolboxes, or lesson plan models, my favorite is the 5E model. It reminds me of what my objectives are as I plan each phase of instruction. This model was based on the SCIS Model of Instruction created by researchers Atkins and Karplus in 1967. It was originally proposed by BSCS (Biological Science Curriculum Study) in the late 1980’s and first used in science classrooms. Its emphasis on active learning and engaging investigation make it an ideal model for use in the successful social studies classroom as well. Its components (or drawers, if we stick to the analogy) are labeled below.
The 5E Model
The first goal in the lesson cycle is to engage the student. We all know that if we don’t have their attention (and I don’t mean just their passive attention while their thoughts are elsewhere) they are unlikely to learn much. At this first stage we want to capture their interest and stimulate their thinking. We should also access their prior knowledge about the subject as something to hang their new learning on. This will set the frame for learning. A bell-ringer, or warm-up might be used to do this. Brainstorming, KWL charts and graphics, are other tools that might be used. See the Teachers Toolbox page for a list of strategies that work well in the engage phase.
The explore portion of the lesson cycle gives students time to experience, think and investigate the subject or concept. An activity that encourages them to probe, inquire, and collect information will allow them to create initial understanding, establish relationships, and make preliminary decisions. This is an ideal time to use cooperative learning or manipulatives. Analyzing a primary source, map or photo would also be an excellent strategy, as would a simulation or problem-solving activity. See the Teachers Toolbox page for a list of strategies that work well in the explore phase.
The explain portion of the lesson is where students are introduced to new content or concepts. It is the phase where the most traditional social studies techniques are frequently utilized. It is where most of the direct teaching occurs. It is not, however, a teacher only activity as in the old sage-on-the-stage model, nor is it purely the responsibility of the textbook , video, powerpoint, or research sources; although all of these can be tools at this stage. The teacher’s responsibility goes beyond presenting new information. They must encourage students to explore and communicate new understandings, make connections, interpret, draw conclusions and support them with evidence. Questioning to build understanding and discussion are vital components of this phase. In upper grades I like to use a hybrid of all of this that I call the interactive lecture. I will describe this strategy in a future blog. The jigsaw technique is a good cooperative learning strategy for reading that works well as an explain activity. See the Teachers Toolbox page for a list of other strategies that work well in the explain phase.
After students have learned some content knowledge, the next goal is to have them elaborate. Students’ thinking is expanded or solidified in this phase. It is their opportunity to apply their new learning to real world situations or extend the concepts and skills to new situations. Synthesis activities can be provided to bring chunks of learning together to create deeper understanding, form conclusions, or make decisions. This can also be an impetus to stimulate new learning and enrichment activities. Teachers serve primarily a consultant role. Typically students will produce a new product. I frequently used role-play activities or debates, but there are many other options. Variety keeps your class fresh and your students engaged. See the Teachers Toolbox page for a list of strategies that work well in the elaborate phase.
The 5th E stands for evaluate. Notice that I didn’t say the final stage. All of the 5E’s do not have to be done in a fixed order. There may be times when you want to explain a little and then explore, for example. Evaluation is something you’ll want to do all through the lesson cycle. It is not limited to the big summative test at the end of the unit. There are formative evaluations along the way to help you make educational decisions. You will check for understanding frequently along the way and then reteach or clarify as needed. You certainly want to catch incomplete or misunderstandings early—well before the big test. You will probably use both formal and informal evaluations throughout the lesson. Informal checks-for-understanding can be as simple as observation, thumbs up/down, pair/share, exit slips or open-ended questions. More formal evaluations can range from graded assignments to projects to tests. The key is to form student learning with a lot of opportunities for practice before their summative evaluation.
I have included a list of activities that might be used in each phase of the lesson cycle in a document called the Teacher’s Toolbox. I have collected them over the years from many sources, including other great teachers that I have worked with. Please forgive me for not properly attributing them—because at this point I have no idea who to attribute. But that’s what we teachers do isn’t it? We borrow good ideas so that our kids can benefit. That’s what I hope to do with this blog. Share ideas that I have developed—or collected—for the benefit of all of the kids we touch, hoping to make a difference and ignite that love for learning.
If you would be willing to share some of your favorite activities or strategies in the comments below, I would love to add them to the Teacher’s Toolbox and post them. Maybe they will inspire others.