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  • Writer's pictureLisa

A Research-Based Approach To Student-Centered Lesson Planning

teacher writing a student centered interactive science lesson plan

In recent posts, I’ve been discussing portions of the text, Visible Learning in Science: What Works Best to Optimized Student Learning. Actually, I didn’t get any further than page 20 in my review of the ideas presented in that text which were most transformative for me in my practice.

What Learning Should Look Like In The Classroom

I presented the ideal of visible learning, this notion that learning shouldn’t be visible or apparent or obvious only to the teacher who’s been trained to be diagnostic in his or her instructional efforts. Instead, it plants the seed that when active learning is planned for, students also recognize when they are learning, how they are learning, and how to optimize their own learning. For me, this idea was instrumental in encouraging me to challenge my students to do more than act as sponges that absorb the information I was force-feeding them.

Why Effect Size Is An Important Factor When Choosing Instructional Strategies

Then, I wrote about effect size as an indicator of effective instructional strategies. According to the authors of the Visible Learning text, an instructional strategy with an effect size of 0.40 produces one year of learning. Those with effect sizes below 0.40 produce less than one year worth of learning, and those above 0.40 are capable of producing multiple years worth of learning. Most of us are thrilled to have students score proficient on their annual assessments or even on summative unit assessments. But . . . multiple years worth of learning?! Isn’t THAT what we want to be going after?

Some instructional strategies with effect sizes far above that standard 0.40 value include:

  • teacher clarity ~ 0.75

  • teacher expectations for/of students ~ 0.40

  • student expectations of self ~ 1.4

  • real time teacher feedback ~ 1.13

Instructional strategies with an effect size as high as 1.4 constitutes, according to the Visible Learning authors, more than three years worth of learning!

I don’t know about you, but I never even considered some of these to be instructional strategies! In my mind and training, examples of instructional strategies might include something uber-specific like “think, pair, share”. For me, the idea that there are basic, fundamental decisions I can make and planning I can do that will drastically affect student learning was another ah-ha! moment. As an admitted sometimes-control-freak, I was so excited about this!

That’s all not to mention that these instructional strategies related to setting expectations and providing feedback are all completely relevant, pretty foundational, and understandably absolutely necessary to students’ active learning in any framework or lesson structure.

Differentiating Science Instruction

Most recently, I shared with you what has been worth its weight in gold for me …. the Visible Learning approach to differentiating science instruction. That approach to differentiation has been the only one that’s ever made any sense to me. In fact, all the training I’ve received on differentiation always included a thorough discussion on what it is and why I should do it but not how to do it or what it looks like when it’s done. Then, of course, differentiation comes in three flavors, right?! We’re told we can differentiate the content, process, and product of science lessons. YIKES! It always felt too big for me. Plus, since I was doing a lot of lecture and encouraging a lot of note-taking, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What is there to differentiate?!” I just couldn’t figure it out.

Differentiation according to Visible Learning principles is entirely about what the students are charged with doing:

  • How many tasks must students complete to accomplish a goal?

  • How thought-provoking or challenging are those tasks?

  • In an active learning classroom where student centered lessons are planned and presented, differentiation becomes an absolute no-brainer!

Research Forms the Foundation of the Lab In Every Lesson Methodology

That pretty much catches us up to today where I stop talking about research. I don’t want to be your source who’s constantly citing a graduate school professor’s perspective or various graduate school texts. I want you to read this blog, listen to the corresponding podcast, and share in the Lab In Every Lesson community because I have used and continue to use research to realize positive outcomes. I’m able to share with my audience which research-based ideas I’ve tweaked to make my own and how they’ve worked for me.

Of course, we learn a lot from what our education researchers share with us about learning theory. But, dare I suggest that as teachers – the boots on the ground, so to speak – we know the most about best practices? After all, research is just an idea if it’s not implemented and refined in actual classrooms.

That’s why I’d like to spend the remainder of this article describing how I took those first 20 pages of the Visible Learning text and allowed them to form the foundation of the Lab In Every Lesson 5-Element Framework for planning interactive science lessons which I’ve used to prepare a complete, college-prep chemistry curriculum.

Visualize What Students Do In Traditional Classrooms And In Student-Centered Classrooms

So, indulge me in a little visualization exercise. (This is actually what I did to determine how I was going to put those few, simple Visible Learning ideas into action . . .)

Imagine you are walking through the hallways, passing classrooms. Feel free to visualize yourself as a teacher, a principal, or even a parent. You first walk past a traditional classroom led by a teacher who is using digital slides or manipulatives or demonstrations at the front of the room to narrate a conceptual story to the students. This teacher is trained in all sorts of taxonomies and relies heavily on instructional verbs related to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge in an effort to continually encourage students to go deeper in their understanding. The teacher is working on the board listing, calculating, graphing, classifying, organizing, problem-solving …. all sorts of action verbs are going on at the front of the room. What do you see the students in that classroom doing while the teacher is performing?

Now, imagine the next classroom you walk past looking very different. In this student-centered classroom, the teacher has prepared a lesson according to all the Visible Learning ideals mentioned earlier. A list of expectations has been very clearly presented on the board for all the students to see. In fact, on the board there are a few different avenues listed as options students can choose to meet or exceed those listed expectations. Yet, you don’t immediately see the teacher! The teacher isn’t at the front of the room! The teacher is walking around talking to individual students or maybe small groups. Perhaps the teacher is just standing off to the side observing the students. Clearly, the teacher is trusting them or challenging them to take ownership of their learning. In this scenario, what do you see those students doing?

Compare what the students were doing in each of those scenarios.

The first of those scenarios resembled how I had been teaching for 9 years.

The second of those scenarios reflected my new goals for the next year and for the remainder of my career as a teacher.

The simplicity of this exercise allowed me to realize that student-centered learning didn’t have to be difficult or complex. After all, in my situation, I had already been teaching for 9 years when I made the switch! I had done the heavy lifting of planning to make learning interesting. I had curated boat loads of visuals, videos, manipulatives and models for students to use. I did lots of demonstrations for the students using technology-based simulations (Remember, I’m a cyber school teacher in a distance learning model!). I just rarely asked students to use those resources to learn. Once a month or once per unit, our team assigned a “lab activity” on “lab day” which relied upon web-based technology apps because that’s all we have reliable access to.

I simply asked myself, “Why are “labs”, these activities where students explore to learn something new and express what they’ve learned, relegated to such infrequency in our science classrooms?! WHY AREN’T THEY DOING “LAB WORK” EVERY SINGLE DAY?!”

That was the moment when “Lab In Every Lesson” was born.

Planning For A Student-Centered Classroom Is Not The Same As Planning For a Flipped Classroom

Let me clarify something quickly. This approach shouldn’t be confused with what is commonly referred to as a “flipped” classroom. The “flipped” classroom, from my perspective, puts the onus on the student for isolated activity outside the classroom. My approach just flips the responsibilities during class time:

  • Students practice mastering DOK verbs related to science content and standards.

  • The teacher listens and responds with praise or redirection.

  • During the time students work toward accomplishing specific and strategic success criteria, I’m able to guide them, learn about their unique areas of struggle, and support them through both the academic and emotional aspects of learning complex material.

It’s kind of like being a TV show host! Think Ryan Seacrest of American Idol fame, Terry Crews on America’s Got Talent, or even Kermit the Frog from The Muppet Show! While they are stars in their own right, they are not the main attraction. Like those show hosts, teachers create the schedule for our students, we line up the acts (or, the activities in our case), and allow the spotlight to shine on our students as they showcase their abilities.

In my interpretation of a student-centered classroom, the students and their work, their learning outcomes, are the main attraction. And, while this may sound simple, know that execution did take some more careful thought.

It's Time To "Bookmark That Blog"!

(Chanted to the rhythm of Ty Pennington in Extreme Makeover, "Move That House"!)

Over the next few weeks I’ll post a series of articles which highlight the Lab In Every Lesson approach to planning for student centered learning. In each article, I’ll thoroughly describe the what, why, and how of each element in my 5-Element Framework for creating interactive science lessons.

If you’d like a sneak peek, I’ve prepared a guide for you to download and use for reference as you plan student-centered, interactive science lessons for your classroom. The guide is called “5 Elements to An Effective Interactive Science Lesson for Student Centered Learning”. It contains the exact formula I use to plan and prepare my chemistry lessons for virtual delivery, and it certainly could be used for traditional face-to-face delivery, as well. In fact, I use it myself if or when I ever decide to leave my cyber charter school in favor of a traditional brick and mortar model.

This 5-page guide describes what is contained in each of my interactive science lessons, and how you can build them yourself! I mean, what good is professional development if you don’t leave knowing how to implement what you’ve learned?! Also, though I’ve had success using this framework to teach chemistry, my growing passion involves assisting all middle school science teachers, high school science teachers and beyond. I can’t wait to see what you create!

Download the guide at And, as always, I encourage you to send me your ideas and questions directly via email at OR post them publicly in our community at .

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