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Education Commentary

The Myth of the Model Developmental Lesson

By Freda Schwartz — February 23, 1994 7 min read

Freda Schwartz is a teacher of high school English in the New York City schools.

Why do administrators continue to cling to the myth that the old model for developmental lessons is the only acceptable approach to teaching a high school lesson in an academic subject? The scenario is always the same: The teacher is going to be observed, and must be prepared to put on a show. Write the aim on the board, write a “Do Now’’ on the board, deliver an inspiring motivation, do a smooth transition into the development of the lesson, ask pivotal questions, do a medial summary, ask some more pivotal questions, do a final summary, and assign homework (there must always be homework). This is the teacher’s part of the script.

The students, under the smooth manipulation of the teacher, must copy the aim into their notebooks, do the Do Now, be visibly inspired by the motivation (students cannot learn unless the teacher begins the lesson with a prefabricated motivation, since they would otherwise not be motivated), engage in lively discussion, provide answers to all the pivotal questions, and dutifully copy into their notebooks the information in the medial and final summaries and the thoughtfully provided homework assignment.

The fact that many principals have not taught a group of high school students since the Flood may account for their unswerving faith in the efficacy of the old “model developmental lesson.” On the other hand, how can supervisors, many of whom are still in the classroom themselves, justify this barnacle-like adhesion to the rusting hull of the Good Ship Lilliput? Surely they do not spend the entire term doing cooperative-learning activities and formula developmental lessons; they’d never get through the curriculum!

What happens during one of these brilliant performances? The aim is written on the chalkboard, usually in the form of a provocative question. So far, so good. Or is it? What if the lesson is part of a highly routinized continuing curriculum segment, like an ongoing list of vocabulary words? For the first 10 words, the aim had to be something about as provocative as a pair of woolen gloves: “To add 10 new words to my vocabulary.” It’s all very well to ponder the prognosis of humanity when reading The Martian Chronicles or Childhood’s End, or the rewards of challenging choices in life when reading “The Road Not Taken.” Such profound philosophical discussions can provide insights and food for thought. If there is an administrator sitting in the back of the classroom, he will love it. There will be lots of thought-provoking questions, like, “Where do you think mankind is headed, Jennifer?” or “What does Frost mean by this, Peter?” The adolescent brows will knit in earnest, as the student called upon embarks on a quest for intellectual karma; the adolescent eyes will glimmer in genuine epiphany at the revelation of truth: Yes, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke are warning humanity of its folly. Yes, “The Road Not Taken” is a perfectly constructed allegory of the choices we make in life. The audience of one makes a notation in the “plus” column on his observation pad--this is great stuff!

Meanwhile, in the room across the hall--the one not being visited by an administrator today--students are practicing how to write a four-paragraph essay, or a thesis statement, or a business letter. Motivate that, why don’t you! How provocative an aim can we provide for a lesson on capitalization, or agreement of subject and verb, or the use of the dictionary? All of these topics are important and complex enough for full-period instruction, because they involve skills which which need to be taught, not just marginally “covered.” I had a principal tell me that a full lesson on vocabulary-building was inappropriate: The material should have been tossed off in a Do Now or an unreinforced homework assignment. “Look up these 10 words, and use them in sentences.”

Back to the theater. The aim is on the board, the students are diligently writing their thought-provoking Do Now--in which they pre-write their thoughts or experiences relevant to the aim of the lesson. The teacher smoothly takes attendance and pithily delivers the ever-relevant motivation. Nobody has to hand in an absence note or comes in late, and every student has two pens and plenty of loose-leaf paper; every student has also remembered to bring in his text, and no student needs to belatedly return a text and receive a new one--in short, nothing goes wrong. Students are invited to share their Do Nows, and there is a wonderfully seamless transition into a dutifully dynamic discussion on the meaning of life as reflected in today’s literature assignment.

There are “thought” questions and “comprehension” questions about the literature, and the answers are elicited from the students, usually eager to show off for the visiting dignitary. Between answers are inserted the ever-evocative pivotal questions, strikingly illustrated with perhaps a graphic chart on the board, comparing one side of the central question to the other. The students obligingly copy all this dazzling boardwork into their notebooks, and the audience makes a few more entries into the “plus” column. (In a couple of weeks at worst, perhaps a student will come across those notes in his notebook and puzzle over the cryptic configuration of phrases and words which now float on the page meaninglessly, cut from their pedagogical moorings by the lack of any specifically fixed frame of reference. At best he will remember the references, but will be unable to articulate any substantial knowledge or insight gained.)

In the room across the hall, the students are learning how to compose a sentence with a vocabulary word they have just entered into their notebooks, along with the definition, elicited through the use of carefully conceived context clues. There is no “aim’’ on the board, because they are up to word number 101, and they have had this same vocabulary lesson almost every Friday since the beginning of the term. The simple, mundane aim is noted at the top of the list they have been compiling all these weeks. Any one of those students could recite the aim in his sleep; besides, there is no room on the chalkboard for an aim, since every inch is covered with vital information, mostly elicited from the students.

They have been challenged to deduce the meanings of words on the list by listening to the context surrounding those words--in sentences and in sidelights on some of the roots and phonemes. In other words, they have been forced, over and over again, to think about a puzzle and come up with a solution which provides them with knowledge and skills they will be able to use for the rest of their lives. In the middle of the lesson, there is a medial summary of sorts: “Now we have definitions for these 10 words; let’s see if you can come up with some sentences for them.” The challenge continues, frequently frustrating because high school students must dig deep to mine the recesses of their imaginations and creative reserves. Often they form sentences misusing parts of speech: “My sister plagiarismed her homework and got a zero.’' Often they compose all-purpose sentences, into which may be inserted any adjective: “My uncle is very [there’s usually a ‘very’ before an adjective] gaunt.” Often they miss the abstract nature of an adjective and use it in an erroneous physical context: “The lake was not profound enough to dive into.” Often they omit contextually clarifying clauses: “The children were raucous.”

All of these linguistic pitfalls need to be addressed, if the vocabulary is to be learned. Woe to the teacher who teaches such an uninspired lesson on an “observation” day. No matter that routines are vital and that the students are expecting a vocabulary lesson, no matter that not teaching it today would wreck the carefully planned schedule: It’s show time! Time to trot out the old model developmental lesson, because impressing the principal is more important than teaching the students.

That is why, back in the “theater,” the teacher faithfully follows the formula: pivotal questions, medial summary, more pivotal questions, final summary, homework assignment (there must always be homework). If everything goes smoothly, the curtain comes down on a perfect Model Developmental Lesson, and the audience repairs to his office to compose the Model Observation Report.

This is not to say that such a lesson has no validity. Following this narrowly defined formula can be useful in certain situations. The teaching of literature can often be most effective when using some, or occasionally even all aspects of this lockstep, traditional developmental approach, as long as we do not become so obsessed with pleasing an audience that we forget what we are really supposed to be doing.

Simply because a particular pedagogical model is easiest to observe from the administrator’s perspective, the administrator should not judge all observed instruction on the basis of this one occasionally useful model. Too much of what must be taught in high school is of a practical bread-and-butter nature for us to try to force all of our instruction into this one specialized mold. It’s time to bring down the curtain, close the theater, and start evaluating instruction by the only worthwhile measuring stick--the question of whether students are actually learning what must be taught in a practical and necessary curriculum.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as The Myth of the Model Developmental Lesson


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