Infidelity and intentional vagueness

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

                                                                                                                Antoine de Saint-Exupery


I have to confess I have never been faithful. Ever. Over 25 years and I never adopted one planning, teaching schema or framework with 100% fidelity. Moreover I have never taught a course or unit again, in the same order, in the same way. Lastly, I am vague with instructions. Intentionally.

It didn’t start this way. As I began teaching, I saw senior teachers with course binders which they would open and say: “here is today’s lesson.”  I thought: when I have binders like that I will be a great teacher! I also saw examples of elaborately detailed unit plans (many prepared by teachers I never met in person). I thought: when I get going, I am going to make units plans like those and then I will be the teacher I need to be! Lastly, I made sure I knew how to give clear and detailed instructions. I knew exactly when to say “Get your microscopes out!” to avoid confusion. I knew how to organize the bodies of 30 teenage bodies with military precision.

The closer I got to each of these goals, the more uncertain I became they would get me where I wanted to go with my teaching practice. For a long while, I felt guilty about all of this! I thought I was somehow deficient as a teacher in my unwillingness to give in to one planning model or teaching philosophy, in being “unable” to follow the same plan twice and in choosing to give ambiguous instructions.

Making Something My Own is the Making Sense Part

UBD? POGIL? Inquiry? PBL? UDL? So many frameworks and so little time. I wish I could say I had a form to end all others, I wish I could say I had THE recipe. Over time, I realized it wasn’t the form I did or did not use or the framework, I did or did not use.
What mattered was the schema I built, in my brain. And please don’t get me wrong, I thinking planning frameworks and teaching paradigms are both valuable and useful. Planning frameworks (such as UBD) and paradigms have informed me. The act of following someone else’s instructions to the letter on how to design a unit or course did inform and me; it was in the time and effort of churning through to make sense of it in my own brain in conjunction with observations and reflections. The work, the thoughts, the mental lifting which happened within the neurons helped to guide my teaching practice. Over time I have become comfortable with my “always hybrid” approach and the continuous development of my practice.

Planning is Important but Adapting the Plan is More Important

I used to think plans were a script to create in advance to ensure my lessons would be perfect. Now I know plans are not as important as what they become and what they allow for. The act of planning was not to create a script to follow, like actors do on a stage, but to create conditions in which students could write their own lines. The plan is important and valuable but how the plan is liberated and given a life of its own is more meaningful than the plan itself. Lastly, I came to understand that plans would look different each and every time they came to life. I came to understand that responding and adapting to students at a particular time was about teaching students instead of a teaching a course.

Vague Instructions Leave Something to the Imagination: Ambiguity is Good

I used to think good instructions were those when students did exactly what my words said. Now I know good instructions are those enabling students to figure out what they need to do to address their learning.  When I got good at giving detailed instructions, students became really good at following the details but this did not necessarily impact what was going on in their brains. Just because I could get students to do what I instructed them to do did not mean learning was going on.
When I was filling in all the details, students were unused to ambiguity and reading between the lines for themselves. My so called “good instructions” made students rely on me more and propagated the “let’s play school” mindset. Instructions are not about getting kids to do what I say (compliance), instructions are about inviting, invoking and awakening.  I would much rather a student sit an activity out and then later decide for themselves to take part. I realized I wanted structures and strategies to help students move to the deep end of their learning (and did not want strategies that relied on highly prescriptive instructions) rather than strategies and structures that kept them in the shallow end where it was easy for me to “watch them.”


How about you? What are you faithful to? How do your plans come to life? How do you see and use instructions?

2 thoughts on “Infidelity and intentional vagueness

  1. Thanks! Reading your post has both reassured me and got me thinking. Even though I don’t have your experience (this is my seventh year as a teacher), I am like you: I don’t follow a clear path, or a super straightforward plan for my classes. Sometimes, I stress at the idea that it might hurt my students. Sometimes I am glad I do it this way because of all the treasures I am led to discover along the way (students’ participation, spontaneous inclusion of an article I just read or a video I just watched, new activity I want to try and I ask students for feedback about). I do not have a binder. I have a messy folder in which things like articles, drawings and journal logs are thrown in no particular order and an even more disorganized Bookmark tab that I love to dive in regularly.
    I am a French teacher and as passionate as I am about teaching my students about the language and culture that I have grown in since I was born, this is still anecdotal to me. It is an “excuse” for me to be in the same room as my students every day. It is not the main reason why I interact with them every day. My students are persons that are learning about things and that are teaching me about things. Their reactions to what is presented to them, and what they choose to do with the material I offer them to explore is the reason why I get out of bed every day. Children and teens’ brains are like a busy construction site. As teachers, we are given the chance to contribute to that, to help them plan for what’s going to happen next.
    I don’t like the “let’s play school” mindset. And I don’t want it. It made me think of these articles and visuals that I shared with my students this year about what a fixed mindset and what a growth mindset are. It sparked some great conversations! Hope you’ll find them interesting too!

    • Hi Magali, thanks for the comment and links, love the step by step outline (the last one) on Growth Mindset. Have you read the book? By far one of the best reads for me in the past 5 years!!
      I hear your passion and dedication to your craft and it sounds like you are finding your way (all be it with some long hours). I think the tinkering approach you describe is the way to discover your practice. I think when you keep your passion alive, as you are, it is contagious for your students. I love your description of the student mind as a construction site, how perfect!
      Keep exploring and so great to connect with you out here!!!

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