Thursday, September 20, 2012

Learning from a "Failed" Lesson Plan

Sixth grade history always begins the year with an overview of European geography.  In addition to memorizing the location of countries on a map, students create an Keynote presentation for an assigned country covering basic information.  This year I wanted to collaborate with my teachers to create a lesson plan that introduces some of the terminology we use when discussing nations, like GDP per capita, literacy rates, human development index, and system of government.  I also wanted to teach the students how to collaborate with their classmates to enter data into a Google spreadsheet that they can then sort to answer questions about Europe as a whole.  You can view the lesson plan here with the accompanying worksheets here and here.

Creating the shared Google spreadsheet was easy and the first day of this two day project went very well.  Students came to the library knowing which country they had to research. Teaching them how to use Culturegrams and the CIA World Factbook to find information was a breeze.  Two classes worked on this project, and all the students were able to find the 11 facts and figures for their country and enter that data into the spreadsheet in a 45 minute class period.  We collected data for 42 countries.  Some students entered their information incorrectly.  I was able to catch most of those errors while the students were still working; though, I had to fix a few problems myself at the end of the day.

The second day of the project required students to sort the data and answer questions about the continent as a whole. This did not go smoothly with my first class. Students had to create a copy of the spreadsheet before they could sort, but many of them forgot this step.  They started to manipulate the shared spreadsheet, which caused all kinds of problems for their classmates.  They also failed to highlight the entire range of data before sorting, which caused even more headaches.  I had to restore the original spreadsheet and then get students to make a new copy (three times!).  Then I found myself circling the room to show them how to use the revision history to fix their own mistakes.  At the end of the period, only 3 very tech-savvy students had finished the activity.  Everyone else left a little frustrated.  I was convinced that the lesson was a disaster.

The next day, we started class by discussing what went wrong.  I was amazed that the students were able to pinpoint their problems. I gave those who did not finish 15 minutes to complete the activity after we discussed how to avoid our mistakes; everyone finished in 10 minutes.  That little bit of reflection was all it took.  What I thought was a failure actually turned out to be quiet successful.  In addition to learning how to collect data and use spreadsheets, the students figured out how to troubleshoot their own technical errors, which is a much more valuable real-world skill. 

I definitely want to do this lesson plan again next year.  I will make sure that all students show me that they have made a copy of the spreadsheet before they are allowed to sort the data, and I will spend more time showing them how to undo mistakes and restore to an older version.  We will be able to use this data later in the year to do higher order thinking about geography, government and economics.

This lesson plan reminded me of the importance of learning from mistakes.  Having the class as a whole reflect on what went wrong and how we can do better next time maybe the most important lesson you can teach.

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