Have you ever had a defeated feeling after you taught a lesson you thought was perfection, only to be met with blank stares and confusion from your students? If we’re honest, most teachers are well acquainted with that disappointment. For me, I taught my seniors how to write a research paper with citations, and every year I sat with the stack of finished compositions and realized most of them failed. The problem was that I lacked teacher clarity in my lesson planning.
You see, for all students to learn the desired content, teachers must plan effective lessons with clarity. One research study defined teacher clarity as “a measure of the clarity of communications between teachers and students in both directions.” (Fendick 1990)
The problem with my research paper lessons was that I focused on activities and only used one-way communication. But if I had mastered the four dimensions of teacher clarity when I was planning instruction, I would have saved a lot of time and frustration. Let’s explore these four dimensions of how to create a great lesson!
1. Clarity of Organization
To begin with, learning tasks should align with TEKS-based learning intentions or objectives and success criteria. However, developing this skill is more challenging than it might first appear.
Most of us look back on some of our early teaching efforts regretfully because we realize that we were more often activities directors than teachers. Clarity of organization requires a logical sequencing of tasks that demonstrate mastery of our learning objectives and success criteria.
To do so means avoiding the expert blind spot, a phenomenon that occurs when the teacher’s subject matter expertise eclipses their ability to recall what it was like to learn as a novice (Nathan & Petrosino, 2003). The tasks we create for students need to serve as stepping stones that advance them on a learning path. They know what success looks like, and they direct their learning.
2. Clarity of Explanation
We’ve all found ourselves in situations when an explanation is muddled and confusing. At times, we’ve been the ones doing the muddling, especially when we see our students look back at us with puzzlement.
Clarity of explanation is signified by cohesiveness and accuracy. It is crisp and precise, which means the teacher needs to have a thorough command of the subject being taught. However, the teacher’s knowledge of the content isn’t sufficient (recall the expert blind spot). The explanations need to be developmentally appropriate and highlight difficult concepts.
Pacing is also essential. Too much too soon can result in information overload for the learner. Clarity of explanation is filled with lots of checks for understanding. We don’t mean simply asking, “Does that make sense?” which usually results in silent nods of naïve agreement, but rather active opportunities to try out their understanding. Ask students to explain a concept you’re teaching to a partner, and then listen. The gaps or misconceptions you’re hearing are feedback to you about what needs to happen next.
3. Clarity of Examples and Guided Practice
Students need illustrative examples in order to link concepts to application. They also need non-examples to contrast when a concept or skill does not apply. Additionally, providing guided practice can move students toward increasing levels of independence.
The questions, prompts, and cues we offer students can help scaffold their understanding and deepen their knowledge. When we hear those gaps or misconceptions, we can ask robust questions that hopefully spur their thinking. For example, you might ask, “How might you find out if you’re correct?” If they need further prompting, follow up with, “How does [a previously learned concept] relate to your explanation?”
But questions and prompts don’t always advance their thinking. That’s when guided instruction gets a bit more explicit. We can shift their attention to an information source. “Take a look at the diagram on page 32, and see if that lines up with your explanation.” Of course, we can always furnish them with the answer, but only after we’ve allowed them to explore their thinking.
4. Clarity of Assessment of Student Learning
Finally, formative assessments are the key to teacher clarity. It’s how we are able to be responsive to learning needs, and in truth, it is woven throughout the other dimensions of teacher clarity. We listen, adjust instruction, check for understanding, and guide our students’ thinking.
Ultimately, great lessons ensure students can answer the three clarity questions (Fisher & Frey 2017):
- What am I learning today?
- Why am I learning this?
- How will I show I’ve learned it?
As the example above shows, a student can easily understand the learning objective (I can read and write numbers up to 1,000) and the steps towards mastery. Coupled with a discussion about why students need to read and write numbers, this teacher hits the mark on a great lesson plan!
All in all, thinking through the four dimensions of teacher clarity when lesson planning can ensure that student learning sticks.