Explicit Planning vs Explicit Teaching

Planning is like…..

How would you finish that sentence?

As a facilitator, I use this sentence starter to open Illustrative Mathematics’ 5 Practices Professional Learning. To be completely honest, when I designed the PD I was a little hesitant of using it because I was nervous it was opening a can of worms within the first 5 minutes of the day.  I am, however, always surprised with all of the beautiful analogies participants share and feel challenged each time to come up with something new and better than the one I used in previous sessions. When I first delivered this PD, I started with analogies like a marathon or really hard workout – something that is exhausting, a lot of work, but ends with something I take pride in. While these analogies were accurate representations of how hard I think lesson planning truly is, I was continually unhappy with where students’ ideas fit into my analogy.

Planning is like putting together a puzzle.

When sharing my reasoning with participants for the first time, I included a lot of beautiful words around mathematical connections but in the middle somewhere I used the phrase “making connections explicit” in relation to the puzzle pieces and saw an immediate reaction from a few people in the room. Of course, I had to pause and ask, “Was it the word explicit?” – answered by many nods in the room.

For a long time, the word explicit in relation to teaching held a negative, cringe-worthy connotation for me as well. If ever asked to paint a picture of what explicit teaching looks like in the math classroom, I would describe scenarios in which a teacher is either at the board telling students how to solve a problem or showing a struggling student how to solve a problem because they are stuck or “taking the long way there.” To me, being explicit meant telling students a way to do something in math class – typically in the form of a procedure.

Through teaching a problem-based curriculum [Investigations], designing and implementing math routines such as number talks, and reading Principles to Actions5 Practices and , I realized that I was guilty of making mathematical ideas explicit every day in my classroom, but not in the way that made me cringe.

I was explicitly planning, not explicitly teaching.

To me, those two phrases indicate a big difference in how I think about structuring a lesson. I have found when teaching a problem-based curriculum, it is easy for ideas to be left hanging and important connections missed, forcing me to explicitly teach an idea to ensure students “get it” before they leave the class period without any understanding of the mathematical goal for the day. Many days, I would find myself frustrated because students would completely miss the point of the lesson, however now I realize this was because I was expecting them to read my mind of what I wanted them to take away from the problem. On the flip side of that coin, however, not teaching a problem-based curriculum and explicitly teaching students how to do the math in each lesson is not an option (and is a topic that could be its own blogpost).

This is exactly why I find the 5 Practices framework invaluable in planning. The framework forces me to continuously think about the mathematical goal, choose an activity that supports that goal, plan questions for students toward the goal, and sequence student work in a way that creates a productive, purposeful discussion toward an explicit mathematical idea. I have learned so much using this framework over and over again in planning for my 5th grade class, collaborating with other teachers and coaching teachers across different grade levels.

Explicit planning is how I would describe the new, open education resource (OER) by Illustrative Mathematics. As a part of the writing team, I explicitly planned warm-ups such as number talks and notice and wonder activities to elicit specific mathematical ideas that play a purposeful role in the coherent plan of the lesson and unit. But not only are the warm-ups explicitly planned, but each lesson and unit tells a mathematical story in which students arrive at a specific mathematical landing point. While they may not all arrive at that landing in the same way, the problems and discussions are structured to ensure students do not leave the work of the day without any idea of what they were working toward.

While I would love to think my blog posts paint a clear picture of explicit planning, I am not that naive. So, what does explicit planning look like in a 5 Practices Framework?

This lesson from Grade 7, Unit 2, Lesson 2 from Illustrative Mathematics’ Middle School Curriculum is one of many in the curriculum. (All images are screenshots from the online curriculum that is linked at the bottom of the post)

Practice 0: Choosing a Mathematical Goal and Appropriate Task

Lesson Learning Goals

With the goals in mind, the lesson begins with a notice and wonder warm-up that engages students in thinking about tables, followed by two activities that build on those ideas and support the mathematical goals. While both activities demonstrate explicit planning, I am focusing on one for the sake of space.

Practice 1 and 2: Anticipating & Monitoring

Activity Narrative

Practice 3 & 4: Selecting & Sequencing

Activity Synthesis

Practice 5: Connecting

Activity Synthesis

So..Planning is like putting together a puzzle. It is hard, takes time, and is sometimes difficult to figure out where to start. We know all of the pieces connect in the end, but making a plan for all of those pieces to connect takes an understanding of the final picture – the goal. There will be missteps along the way and some parts will take longer than others, but we know it is important to carefully connect each piece to another as one missing piece will leave unconnected ideas and the final picture unfinished. As you work alone, the way the pieces connect to form the final picture may not always be obvious, but as others help us see the pieces in different ways during the process, connections become explicitly clear and the final picture is something in which you can take a lot of pride.

The ‘others’ in my teaching journey have helped me see a difference between explicit teaching and explicit planning. Through explicit planning I have seen the importance in understanding the mathematical goal in a way that enables me to structure activities and lessons that enable students to make important mathematical connections through their own work and discussions. It is so exciting to see IM’s curriculum be a model for how I think about explicit planning in such a coherent, purposeful progression.

8 thoughts on “Explicit Planning vs Explicit Teaching”

1. xiousgeonz

I hate that “explicit” became a dirty word. I reflect on the assorted stories I’ve read and movies I’ve seen where the hero or heroine finds out that they’ve been being “cultivated” by some sort of elder. They *weren’t* totally “in charge of their learning,” but were being led by an explicitly planned path of discovery. Then they could save the world!

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2. math on the edge

I love this post, Kristin. There IS a difference between explicit teaching and explicit planning. Your post got me thinking about work. I used to think that teaching was about working really hard during class – I was the doing most of the talking and trying desperately to make connections FOR kids. Now, I do most of MY work before class – during my planning time – with my colleagues so we are ready to navigate the kids towards making the connections. I still work during class, but it is a different kind of work – more observational and reflective.

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3. Ann N.

I love this! Thank you so much for this post. I was fortunate to take part in a PD opportunity this summer for two weeks that modeled this idea through their presentation of math problems to us. I am preparing for the new year, and have been thinking about my lesson plans and this was a great reminder of how important the explicit planning process is… I am searching for and trying to create my own tasks for fifth grade – I agree with Nili, I wish there was something for K-5 similar to what you just did for 6,7,8!

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4. Anonymous

I’m shifting my teaching this last year too. The work this year was more observational and reflective. I still am guilty of asking, “Guess what’s on my mind questions,” but I’m slowly understanding how to get kids to connect in a better way. A way that doesn’t start and end with me, but challenges students to become more engaged, have protocols that support discourse, and get great engagement in the classroom.

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