Designing Lessons for When You’re Not There

empty classroom
Design lessons as if you're not there.

In college I had a writing teacher who stressed the point that

Writing represents you when you’re not there.

Alberto Rios

It was his way of impressing upon us young writers to make sure everything we mean to say actually makes it onto the page. A common pitfall among young poets is to put only hints and impressions of what they’re thinking onto the page, and then have to explain verbally what they really meant before giving it to someone to read. Rios challenged us to go the next step and keep revising until you don’t have to stand next to your work, telling people what it means. The meaning is all there, available to anyone who reads it, even if you yourself are long gone.

Writing represents you when you’re not there.

Designing Lessons for When You’re Not There

As teachers, many of us design lessons assuming we’ll be there in the room, explaining what each of our PowerPoint bullet points really means, answering any questions that arise if students don’t understand our instructions, and clarifying unclear source texts. In other words, most of the critical information that students need is still in you, and it’s inaccessible to them when you’re not there. This is the very definition of teacher-centered education, and it’s something we should be challenging ourselves to overcome.

Writing represents you when you’re not there.

I had a mentor teacher who impressed upon me that your objective as a teacher is to get students not to need you. Rather than making students dependent on us, we should be striving to give them everything they need to be successful without us.

I learned that my high school students weren’t going to listen to my just-in-case instructions until they got stuck. At that point, they wanted just-in-time answers to help them get unstuck. I started designing for this moment, when students are the most motivated to consume information, by giving them all the information they need to keep moving forward without needing me.

Taking this objective to heart, I started posting the daily homework assignments, class agenda, handouts, and lecture slides on my blog each day. Rather than taking the first 15 minutes of class to demonstrate a new digital art technique, I’d create a video screencast and post it to my blog so students could watch it when they get stuck. This helped students who missed class, weren’t paying attention, or just needed to hear it multiple times — they could consume that information in a way that worked for them, and then move on to being successful on their own time.

Rather than posting bulleted PowerPoint slides, I started writing out my comments as a full-text blog post, using the visuals of my slides as illustrations where necessary. Why force students to listen to me drone for 20 minutes when they can read exactly what I want to say and ask clarifying questions as needed?

Rather than dooming myself to repeatedly answer emailed clarification questions for each lesson, I started putting up an FAQ/Knowledge Base with my best answers to the most common questions, complete with step-by-step instructions.

This approach works great with students wtih attention disabilities, those who are still developing their organizational skills, or those who were simply preoccupied with other things. Thats’ why it also works great with adult learners and busy professionals, whose attention is divided between learning, family and work responsibilities.

It also works great when you are actually not able to be there, like when you or your students are out sick. It’s much less nerve-wracking to entrust your students to a substitute when your course materials are all laid out and easy to follow.

Writing represents you when you’re not there.

Build an Online Course for When You’re Not There

Moving into online learning, it’s doubly important to make sure that all of the information students need is available and organized clearly in the course space, ready to be accessed in ways you probably never expected. Building a course experience that does not depend on you to “make it go” means clearly communicating your expectations for what you want students to do, and then giving them an organized layout of all the tools they need to do it.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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