I used to plan my day-to-day lessons like this:
Jot notes on what I wanted to teach each day of the week.
Amend as needed.
Let’s be honest. Who’s got time to write full lesson plans? For every class? Five days a week? There’s no way to know what’ll happen Friday when so much changes on Monday. So I kept my plans flexible. As a veteran teacher, I know the topics to hit. And for the past several years, I’ve been doing the same at the college level.
The problem is that my notes were all over the place—replete with reminders, a question or two to ask, or a video link to show.
Enter the one-sentence lesson plan. With it, you only need to answer three things: The WHAT, the HOW, and the WHY.
First, WHAT do you want your students to know (or do) by the end of class? Here you identify the content or skill to be learned. For example, I want students to be able to evaluate the credibility of online sources. That’s a skill.
Next, HOW will students reach this goal?
In other words, what method, strategy, tool, or activity will you employ to make sure they get it? Here’s where students wrestle with the content/skill. The HOW is typically hands-on.
Using the previous example, I might use one of the following:
Students will be able to evaluate the credibility of online sources by “triangulating” information.
Students will be able to evaluate the credibility of online sources by asking critical questions such as, “Does the author cite or provide links to research?”
Students will be able to evaluate the credibility of online sources by discussing in groups the pros and cons of each source.
The first two versions focus on a strategy, whereas the third uses an activity or method.
Finally, WHY are students learning this content/skill?
This is the “so what?” part. Why do students need to know or do this? What’s in it for them? How do they benefit? Knowing your students is key to answering these questions.
The WHY may start with the prompt, “so that…” Continuing with the example of evaluating sources, I could state:
Students will be able to evaluate the credibility of online sources by “triangulating” information, so that they make better decisions.
The WHY is the most important part of the one-sentence lesson plan. It drives behavior, according to marketing and leadership consultant Simon Sinek. In his bestselling book, Start with Why (as well as in his immensely popular TedTalk), Sinek argues that top organizations understand that people won’t “buy into” whatever is being sold unless they understand why they’re doing it.
For instance, Apple clearly defines and communicates their purpose: to challenge the status quo in everything they do and to think differently. It explains why their products are simple, intuitive, and user friendly—and why they have wildly succeeded in a competitive industry. Other companies may push out bigger screens, longer battery life, or higher resolution, which, while nice to have, do not necessarily set them apart. The WHY is the emotional pull.
In teaching, we also need to define our WHY—for ourselves and for our students. Yet we forget the larger purpose in our dash to cover the curriculum. No wonder students keep asking, “Why do we need to know this?”
Another advantage of defining a WHY is that it can sometimes help you figure out your lesson opening. For my lesson on evaluating sources, I could start by activating students’ prior knowledge: “With so much out there, how do you decide what information to trust online?” Imagine the rich discussion that follows. And research is clear that students learn better when new content is “anchored” to existing knowledge and experiences. I start all my lessons with the WHY.
Putting the Plan into Action
Based on my one-sentence lesson plan, here’s a simple outline for a high school class period:
Opening: Ask students about their experiences searching for information online.
Mini-Lesson: Teach them how to triangulate information (or better yet, start by asking them better ways to find information).
Guided Practice: Model your “think-aloud” process for triangulating information by searching online for “Is climate change real?”
Activity: Students apply the same triangulating strategy on another topic (e.g., “Do vaccines cause autism?”).
Closing/Assessment: Discuss why good judgement is important in the information age.
All that from a one-sentence lesson plan.
Let’s look at a different example: the causes of the American Civil War.
WHAT: Students will be able to identify the main causes of the American Civil War
HOW: By researching historynet.com and pbs.org in pairs using iPads
WHY: So that they can learn to settle differences and avoid war
Put together: Students will be able to identify the main causes of the Civil War by researching historynet.com and pbs.org in pairs using iPads, so that they can learn to learn to settle differences and avoid war.
Notice I left the WHY bolded—to remind us of the point of all this. Why else are we asking students to learn the causes of the war? It’s not just to know history; it’s so we don’t repeat them. So we can appreciate our ancestors’ experiences and become a better society. Learning about the things that divided people—i.e., states’ rights, slavery, and the election of a new president—will resonate with the current generation growing up in a polarized political climate.
An expanded outline for one lesson might look like this:
Opening: Ask students, “What causes fights?” Ask them to share experiences where they couldn’t resolve a conflict with a sibling or parent. Introduce the American Civil War, where brothers often fought brothers.
Activity: Students will conduct research online to find out what led to the War.
Closing/Assessment: Students will share their findings and discuss how these causes might mirror their own experiences or observations.
Concerns and Questions
1. What if I’m required to write and submit FULL lesson plans?
There is no better way to develop your lesson plan than to draft a one-sentence summary defining your WHAT, your HOW, and your WHY. It simply becomes your lesson objective. Once established, it’s fairly straightforward to flesh out, as I did with the evaluating sources example above. Remember to bookend your lesson with the WHY.
2. Isn’t the one-sentence lesson plan really just a lesson objective?
Yes and no. The one-sentence lesson plan is much more robust, because it pushes you to consider the HOW and the WHY. This makes it easier to plan your lesson opening, your class activity, and your closing. Also, having the HOW and the WHY pushes you to think from the student perspective. The traditional lesson objective doesn’t necessarily force that kind of reflection. However, an ideal lesson objective would incorporate all three elements.
3. What if I have to write lesson plans based on certain standards?
Then your WHAT is already done. I can take an 8th grade Common Core standard such as, “Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision,” and turn it into a one-sentence lesson plan:
Using Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, students will analyze how lines of dialogue propel the action, which will help them understand archetypal story structures that engage readers.
Here I used a tool—the book—as my HOW. It is not always a strategy or activity. I also switched the order (i.e., from WHAT-HOW-WHY to HOW-WHAT-WHY) and used more natural language (e.g., by substituting “so that” for “which will”).
4. What if I’m having trouble figuring out the WHY?
One way is to root out the underlying idea (or theme) of the topic. For example, what is at the heart of just-in-time (JIT) operations management? Efficiency. How about the 1989 protest at Tiananmen Square? Injustice. The key is to open your lessons with that underlying theme, rather than with the strict definition. With the JIT example, you can relate the idea of efficiency to how students prioritize reading assignments—that they often read on an “as-needed” basis when the workload increases.
Another way to figure out your WHY is to search for the common human experience behind a concept. WHY, for instance, do students need to identify chemical reactions that involve oxidation? You have to get creative. What do we all experience related to oxidation? How about seeing a half-eaten apple that’s turned brown? That’s oxidation at work. Learning about it might help students understand why certain foods go bad and to avoid it (the WHY). That’s something we can all relate to.
A major reason we learn what we learn is to help us understand the world and improve our ability to judge or make decisions. Isn’t that why we learn JIT, Tiananmen Square, and oxidation?
Finally, a third way to figure out your WHY is to…Google it. Yup. Honestly, there are just too many valuable ideas online to not take advantage. I actually typed in, “Why do we study slope?” just to understand its real-world application outside of math. (I’m surprised by how often people don’t pose questions whenever they’re unsure about something. Forum sites like Quora and Reddit are perfect for this.)
Even if you can’t figure out the WHY, you haven’t wasted your time. It’s the student-oriented mentality that matters—something a traditional lesson objective does not necessarily foster.
That’s the beauty of the one-sentence lesson plan. Not only does it organize your lesson, it also puts the focus of teaching where it should be—on the students. Try it! ♦
If you found this post valuable, click here to access Dr. Norman Eng’s FREE 5-Minute Teaching Makeover—two videos designed to help you re-engage and motivate your students. Also, check out my podcast interview with Dr. Eng, where we talked about strategies for teaching college students.