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Planning a Demo Lesson: Critical Thinking Is Key

 
This is my second post in this series. Check out the first one here.

Two years ago I was a member of a hiring committee at my school. Along with two administrators, one other teacher, and a parent, I was—for the first time—on the receiving side of resumes, cover letters, interviews and demo lessons for a single open teaching position. The range of personalities, levels of experience, and teaching styles in the many candidates was wide, and like all teachers do, they showed varying degrees of strengths and limitations.

Yet, despite their striking differences, I noticed some trends in how applicants presented themselves, and the ways that they ultimately fell short. Based on these observations, I thought I'd put together some advice for job-searching teachers.

Tip #2 for landing a teaching position...

In a demo lesson for a teaching position, make sure to create opportunities for students to think critically. This may sound obvious, but two out of three lessons we saw turned out to be lacking in this area, and it became a deciding factor.

I know how overwhelming it is to plan a demo lesson. When I've planned demos, I've generally focused on the following priorities:

1) Catch students' interest and keep a good pace, so that they will be motivated to participate in the lesson, even though it doesn't "count" like their real class does.

2) Be exceptionally well organized, prepared with all materials, including back up plans for anything that may go wrong with technology. (Spotty internet connections are, unfortunately, the rule in high-pressure situations.)  

3) Be clear in my objectives and what I really want students to "walk away" from the experience understanding, even if other skills and concepts are embedded in the process.

Personally, this is what I have to work hardest on, because in my classroom, I often stretch a single objective across several days or even an entire unit. The task of arriving at a satisfying conclusion of an aim I've only just introduced, within the allotted time (sometimes as little as 20 minutes), is a struggle.

With these points being so crucial to surviving a demo lesson, it's entirely possible to overlook the importance of what kind of thinking students are doing in the lesson. But our audience in a demo is not focused on all of the preparation we put into the lesson. In the moment, they are watching us interact with their students, and they are hoping to see them engaged in meaningful thinking and learning.

I'm going to share two ways I saw teachers inhibit students' critical thinking in a demo lesson and then share a few suggestions.

Critical Thinking and Lesson Design

Teacher A: This teacher had an impeccably planned lesson that was extremely engaging for students. In fact, students were on the edges of their seats the entire time. The text was classic and not something you would expect teens to gravitate toward on their own. I'll add that Teacher A didn't have a particularly dynamic presence--not one you would expect to captivate students. Yet this teacher did just that, keeping a fast pace, mixing various modalities expertly, and surprising us with interesting twists and turns. It was impressive and fun.

So why wasn't this a slam-dunk?  The design of the lesson didn't leave room for students to think for themselves about the text and topic. The sequence of activities fed students ideas about the text, so that students just needed to follow along with the teacher's thinking to access a single interpretation of the text.

While this approach definitely chafed against my own student-centered pedagogy, I wasn't expecting others on the committee to have strong reactions to this. But they did. Everyone recognized the lesson as "awesome," in a way, but even the students noted that Teacher A "made it too easy" for them. 

Was this always how Teacher A designed lessons? That was unclear, and I wasn't privy to the debrief conversation. I can imagine that this might have been an attempt to create a plan that would be foolproof under the bizarre circumstances of a demonstration lesson—it's an understandable thing to do. However, the lack of student higher-order thinking gave us pause enough to keep looking—and ultimately offer someone else the job.

Critical Thinking and Delivery of Instruction

Teacher B: This teacher had a strong presence with students, a sense of ease in the classroom, and seemed able to build relationships immediately. Teacher B had a well organized, but no-frills lesson plan around analyzing a complex text. The students didn't seem thrilled with the text itself, but I could tell they were putting their best foot forward.  There was definite potential here. 

What happened next was that a number of times, when Teacher B posed questions to students about the text, students didn't immediately answer. This can happen in the classroom for so many reasons. But instead of adjusting the question, or asking students to talk it over with a partner first, or giving additional wait time, the teacher jumped in with suggestions, directed students to write these down in the designated spaces on the graphic organizer, and moved on. The more this happened, the less students felt compelled take the risk to share their own thinking. Though the lesson design was fine, the teacher's delivery relied too much on feeding students "answers;" we could not see evidence of students thinking for themselves.  

Again, I can imagine Teacher B's approach might have been an in-the-moment response to the pressure-filled situation of teaching a group of students you don't know in a short period of time. However, this demonstration was all we had to go on, and we were disappointed enough to keep looking.

The third and final demo lesson we saw was from a teacher who had been very specific in the interview (Tip #1), and had even brought a teaching portfolio. I wouldn't say the demo lesson was mind-blowing, but it had one key ingredient: students were the ones doing the work. Everyone on the committee was confident that students would learn in this teacher's class, and that was what made the difference.  

 

Suggestions for Critical Thinking in Demonstration Lessons 

Assess your lesson design. Does it include multiple opportunities for students to think critically about the topic or text? To problem solve or use creativity? Does your lesson allow for multiple interpretations of the material or multiple methods of solving a problem? Being mindful of time, where can you create a little space for this work?

Resource: Bloom's Taxonomy provides key words to encourage critical thinking at several levels. Don't go overboard with it, but don't forget it either!

Envision your instructional techniques. How will you encourage students to think for themselves, even if it's hard, and even when you don't know them as learners? What words will you use? If your initial task is too difficult, how can you break it down into smaller parts, without solving the problem for them? 

Resource: Check out Coach G's tips on engaging students in "productive struggle."

Stay tuned for tip #3!

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