Friday, August 21, 2009

Lesson Plan for an Experiential Lesson on Leadership

The following is a detailed lesson plan that I wrote this summer as part of my FAST TRAIN course work (for the course entitled "Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in International Schools"). I was part of a team of four that designed a six-week PYP unit for grade 5 students entitled "The Leader in the Mirror," and this lesson is intended for incorporation into that unit. With that said, a lesson like this could be taught in a stand-alone fashion or incorporated into any other appropriate unit of study. Note that the lesson does require a certain level of maturity of the students, and might well need to be tailored to cater to the traits of the individuals in a class.

This lesson plan represents my first experiment with the "LEARN" structure for lesson planning. The acronym LEARN spells out the sections of the lesson plan: (1) Link (to past learning), (2) Engage/Explain, (3) Active Learning, (4) Reflect, and (5) Now and Then. The last section, "Now and then," is intended to contain ideas for applying what has been learned in the lesson ("now") to future actions and learning ("then").

Note that this lesson, "Leaders' Walk," is derived from an exercise of the same name found in the book, Leadership Games: Experiential Learning for Organizational Development. See below for complete reference information.

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Lesson Plan for “The Leader in the Mirror” Unit
Lesson Title: LEADERS' WALK

Link: Lesson begins with viewing of a brief humorous but thought-provoking video on some components of leadership:
Brief discussion ties aspects of the video with leadership traits already studied, experienced, and reflected upon in the unit. Conversation segues into the topics of trust and communication, and teacher briefly leads discussion regarding students knowledge and opinions of trust and communication between leaders and followers. Key words and phrases are written on whiteboard to be brought up again during the reflection part of the lesson.

Engage/Explain: Teacher states that today's lesson will certainly focus on the concepts of trust and communication, but will also focus on whatever else comes to students' minds during and after the activity to come. Today the students will not be studying leadership, they will be living it. The ultimate goal will be to have tangible experience to reflect on, both in class discussion and in individual student journals. These conversations and writings will show their current understanding of the leadership concepts.

Teacher explains that before the lesson, two or three walking paths have been prepared (either indoors or outdoors) with obstacles placed in the paths. Today's activity will involve two students being appointed as leaders to guide two groups of the others (the followers) through it. The only constraint is that the followers will be wearing blindfolds. Each of the two leaders will have five to ten followers to guide through a course. Lead teacher offers assurance that all teachers involved in overseeing the exercise (at least one other teacher, and preferably three other teachers) will remain sighted and will assure the safety of all. It is important that at least one teacher be overseeing each group throughout the activity.

The students are divided into two predetermined groups. Each group is asked to select a leader in whatever way they choose to make the selection. After leaders for each group have been selected, blindfolds are distributed among the followers who put them on.

Leaders are then given their first task: to decide what the rules of communication will be with their group of followers. The leader may choose that (1) only the leader may talk, with followers remaining silent; (2) the followers may speak, but only to the leader; or (3) all may speak freely throughout the activity. The two leaders may set different rules for each of their groups.

At least one supervising teacher directs each group leader to the beginning point of their set of obstacles, leaving it up to the leader to provide direction for their group.

Active Learning: Leaders guide their groups, in the manner of the leader's choosing, through the walking path and through the obstacles. After no more than 15 minutes of guided walk, participants take off their blindfolds, and everyone returns to classroom for reflection process.

Reflect: A “debriefing” process begins with teacher-led group discussion in a think/pair/share format. The choice of this format anticipates that everyone will have a lot to say about what they just went through, so the pairing immediately gives each student an outlet. Students are constantly encouraged to take notes during all pair and full group conversations, notes which they will put to use when writing their journal entries. Teacher will also make notes on the whiteboard during full group sharing.

Questions focus on:

(1) What just happened?
  • What was difficult and easy about being a follower? What was most unexpected?
  • What was the reaction of the leaders to the situation? What was hardest, easiest, unexpected?
  • What did followers do to overcome constraints? What did leaders do to help overcome constraints?
  • What system of communications was developed? Compare/constrast the systems of the two groups?
  • Did followers further from the leader have a different experience than those near the leader?
(2) What are the implications?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of the communication systems chosen and used? What would be ways to improve them?
  • What accounted for each group's selection of its leader? What attributes were group members looking for when they made their selection?
  • Did any conflicts arise during the exercise; if so, how were they resolved? What were the roots of the conflict? Was it between leader and follower(s), or between two or more followers?
  • What does this exercise tell us about special responsibilities of a leader? ... about responsibilities of a follower?
Following the think/pair/share conversations, students are asked to write individual journal entries into their unit journals. Students are free to write or draw freely about their ideas stemming from the experience, but they are asked to write at least one paragraph to discuss the most important one, two, or three concepts regarding leadership and/or followership that they learned about or learned more about in this exercise, and how they might apply it in future leadership/followership situations.

Now and Then: After journal entries have been made, volunteers are sought to briefly share with the class any part of the content of their journal entries they care to share, but particularly focusing on the students' plans for future applications of lessons learned. Teacher states that there will be more experiential leadership exercises as the unit progresses, focusing on other aspects of leadership.
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The Leaders' Walk lesson was adapted from an exercise of the same name on page 127 of the following book, which is a great source for a number of worthwhile experiential leadership exercises:
Kaagan, S. (1999). Leadership Games: Experiential Learning for Organizational Development, Thousand Oaks, CA. SAGE Publications Inc.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Critique of rather questionable "research" (2 of 2)

Here is the second of two article critiques done as part of my George Mason University FAST TRAIN course work this summer. The article that I examine here makes explicit reference to the first article I reviewed, and stands in direct opposition to it, seeming to show that a hands-on constructivist approach to learning is decidedly more effective than a "direct instruction" approach. But I found that the research behind this second article seems to be just as skewed as the first, albeit in the opposite direction, in order to come to an opposite conclusion.

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Article Critique on

Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: The Long View
by David Dean, Jr. and Deanna Kuhn

As I reported in my last article review, I was disappointed to find that the research of Klahr and Nigam, published in Psychological Science in 2004, seemed to be intentionally set up from the beginning to assure that the end result would definitely be declared a victory of good old-fashioned direct instruction against new-fangled constructivism. The authors apparently went to considerable effort to produce the study, but did not think it important to familiarize themselves in even a cursory way with the basic tenets of the branch of constructivism they were claiming to test in comparison to direct instruction. Their self-professed ignorance of the branch of constructivism known as “discovery learning” assured that their resulting article would be of no use to any thinking classroom teacher (Klahr and Nigam, 2004). So I was heartened to find a follow-up study done by another team in 2006 which, in its abstract, seemed to promise to correct some of the failings of objectivity of the previous work.

Hoping to find a more intellectually honest and balanced study contrasting traditional direct instruction teaching with newer constructivist methodologies, I instead found documentation of yet another elaborate round of research which seems to have been intentionally skewed to make a preordained point, this time in favor of the constructivist method. As with the earlier study, this one focused on teaching students the “control of variables strategy” (CVS), i.e., to choose only one independent variable and keep all others constant when constructing and performing an experiment. Dean and Kuhn claimed that they were rigorously adhering to the basic setup of the earlier study, with the most significant difference being that they would be conducting the new study over a longer time frame.

The detailed description of the conditions of the study show, however, that the cards were decidedly stacked against the group of students that were purely undergoing direct instruction. The direct instruction students were given only a single 45 minute lesson which included 10 minutes of direct instruction on the topic of CVS, while another group of students (called the “practice” group) was given a slightly shorter introductory lesson followed by 12 sessions over 10 weeks of working with experiment-emulating computer software which repeatedly led them through exercises in which they were encouraged to choose a single variable to construct a virtual experiment. Unsurprisingly, when both groups were given the same assessment at the 11 week point, the group that had been practicing with the concepts for 10 weeks significantly outperformed the group that had been given the single “direct instruction” lesson, with no follow-up, 11 weeks earlier (Dean and Kuhn, 2006).

At this point in my new teaching career, my training and my natural inclinations lead me to lean in favor of applying constructivist methods in many situations. However, I am not an ideologue in this regard, and I am a firm believer that many different teaching techniques, include those involving direct instruction and other traditional teaching methods, could certainly be fruitfully put to use in a number of contexts. As a person who is open to a broad range of ideas, I long for comparative studies that are constructed so as to honestly put all methods compared in the best possible light, to give each a fighting chance to show what its strengths might be. A greatly improved future study comparing direct instruction with a constructivist-oriented approach might involve competent teachers in the construction of the study’s parameters, with proponents of both teaching philosophies represented. By involving a balanced mix of others, researchers might be able to bottle up their own predispositions and establish an air of reason and objectivity so desperately missing from both of these competing studies.


Dean, D., & Kuhn, D. (2006, December). Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: The Long View. Wiley Interscience Journal. Retrieved June 25, 2009 from

Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004, October). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological Science, 15(10), 661-667. Retrieved June 25, 2009, doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00737.x

Critique of rather questionable "research" (1 of 2)

The following is a brief article critique that I wrote up as part of my summer course work in the George Mason University FAST TRAIN program. The article that I review here (and a second that I review in a soon-to-be-added additional blog posting) seems to me unfortunately representative of a noticeable collection of social science and educational "research" that seems skewed in order to come to preordained conclusions.

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Article Critique on:
The Equivalence of Learning Paths in Early Science Instruction: Effects of Direct Instruction and Discovery Learning
by David Klahr and Milena Nigam

One of our in-class readings, “Instruction versus exploration in science learning”, by Rachel Adelson (2004), raised considerably more questions than it answered. The article's main thrust was to summarize a slightly longer article published in the journal, Psychological Science, in the fall of 2004. The original article, the work of two psychology professors, David Klahr and Milena Nigam (2004), purportedly did a clinical comparison of “discovery learning” and “direct instruction” and found that the former was much less effective than the latter for teaching crucial science process skills to third and fourth graders. However, Adelson's summary article left the reader wondering whether the researchers had a fundamental understanding of what “discovery learning” actually is. On the other hand, perhaps Adelson had completely mischaracterized the content and intent of the original Klahr and Nigam article. I decided that the only way to strip away some of the ambiguity was to get my hands on the original Klahr and Nigam text.

My main question, “Did Klahr and Nigam have an understanding of what 'discovery learning' is?” was answered in a surprisingly clear way near the beginning of their article: “... at the outset, we faced a difficult definitional problem because nearly 100 years of research had yet to produce a consistent definition of discovery learning.” (Klahr and Nigam, 2004) The only work that they cite in their article as the basis of their knowledge of discovery learning is a work written by W.A. Winch in 1913, forty-seven years before the concept of “discovery learning” was first proposed by Jerome Bruner (1961). The researchers make no attempt to explain why they did not aggressively seek out a more current working definition for “discovery learning”, but instead stake out their acknowledged position of ignorance as justification for pushing their experiment to the furthest possible extremes:
... we intentionally magnified the difference between the two instructional treatments in order to provide a strong test of the path independent transfer hypothesis. In our discovery-learning condition, there was no teacher intervention beyond the suggestion of a learning objective; there were no guiding questions and no feedback about the quality of the child’s selection of materials, explorations, or self-assessments. (Klahr and Nigam, 2004)

The fact that the researchers are so open about their premeditated skewing of the conditions of their experiment immediately absolves them of any hint of malpractice. If we also presume away incompetence on their part and on the part of the journal that accepted and published their article, then we are left with little alternative but to question the motives of all those involved, none of whom (notably) appear to be professional educators. Why did the researchers openly create their own caricature version of a rather obscure flavor of constructivism to place in comparison to their version of “direct instruction”? It is not clear to me whether there actually are any present-day proponents of discovery learning as originally espoused by Bruner (1961), which makes it even more unclear why it was chosen for this study. Ultimately, it seems most likely that what has here been labeled “discovery learning” simply serves as a convenient straw man taken up by the researchers to stand in for constructivism in general. By openly “cooking the books”, the researchers ensured that the crude stand-in for a constructivist method would not merely fail, but fail miserably.

I for one would be very interested in a study which genuinely attempts an effective comparison of one or more aspects of constructivist teaching with alternative methods. For beginning teachers like me, the jury is still (and perhaps shall always remain) out, and we are open to a broad range of ideas, thoughtfully presented. But a study like this, in which the outcome is openly preordained, serves as nothing but a case study of how not to do empirical educational research.


Adelson, R. (2004, June). Instruction versus exploration in science learning. Monitor on Psychology, 35(6). Retrieved June 25, 2009 from:

Bruner, J. (1961). The Act of Discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31(1), 21-32. Retrieved June 27, 2009, from Education Research Complete database.

Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004, October). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological Science, 15(10), 661-667. Retrieved June 25, 2009, doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00737.x

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Teacher as Flaneur

This is a video that was hurriedly assembled (in 3 or 4 hours) as the final "metaphor" project of one of my summer classes in the George Mason University "FAST TRAIN" program (

It features excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" as performed by Ars Antigua under the direction of Jerry Fuller. That work and many other wonderful performances are available on the Ars Antigua website ( under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.