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LessonApp: developing a mobile lesson-planning tool for teachers

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Note: The authors of this article work for LessonApp, an education technology company offering a product for teachers.

Designing quality lessons is one of the cornerstones of teacher education in developed countries. For example, in Finland, lesson planning is based on the latest scientific research on learning and how to foster it. Achieving a versatile ‘toolbox’ of different methods for choosing the best possible pedagogical solution for different groups and situations is also essential (Lonka, 2018; Sahlberg, 2015). While teachers can always be flexible and change their plans during the lesson, planning lessons in advance helps to build more meaningful and beneficial lessons for one’s students.

However, this is not reality for all the teachers around the world. Teachers in emerging countries do not always have access to proper teacher training and quality pedagogical knowledge, and therefore lack versatile models of carrying out lessons. For many of these teachers, the only pedagogical model known to them is the ‘teacher talking and students listening’ model. Although teachers are doing their best, they might not find a way to create better lessons without having knowledge of different possibilities.

Correspondingly, teachers from countries with  more developed educational systems have different problems. Finding new ideas can be challenging even with in-depth background knowledge of learning and teaching: the problem is not the insufficient number of pedagogical methods, but the scarcity of available time. Thus, teachers need easy-to-use tools that help to plan quality lessons and provide easy access to new ideas and methods.

We saw this as a challenge that could be solved by using smart technology. Indeed, it seems incomprehensible to us that during this era, a time of an unlimited flow of information and efficient communication technology, we cannot offer basic pedagogical knowledge and tools for every teacher around the world. Even in some of the most remote, deprived areas, teachers very often have mobile phones. Smartphone ownership has risen substantially in emerging countries since 2015 (Poushter et al., 2018). Even though many teachers lack the basic resources needed for teaching, they probably still have a smartphone in their pocket. So, could we bring the teachers the necessary knowledge and tools together in the simple form of a mobile app?

Moreover, could the very same solution provide answers to the challenges of the teachers in developed countries, too? Could we devise an easy-to-use tool that is based upon latest research on learning and provides teachers with new ideas for quality lessons?

The socio-constructivist view of learning

As our team had a background in teacher training, we wanted to focus on the pedagogy element: which concept of learning acts as the basis for quality lesson planning? How do we apply this learning approach to the design of a mobile tool? These were the key points of our work.

Modern educational research has revealed many factors that promote learning: learner’s own activity, motivation, participation, collaborative learning (learning with and from each other), reflection, connections to prior knowledge, physical activity, using versatile methods, etc. (Lonka, 2018).

This contemporary learning theory, which has been the basis for teacher training in Finland for years, is called the socio-constructivist view of learning (Lonka, 2018).

The socio-constructivist view of learning rests on the following principles:

  • Learning is perceived as an active, not passive, process through which knowledge is constructed by the learner
  • Knowledge is mutually built and constructed in the social contexts of learning
  • Prior knowledge, understanding and experiences are relevant to learning new things
  • The teacher’s role is to support and nurture the learning process: teachers are facilitators who enable students’ development and learning (Lonka, 2018).

Finnish teachers base their work on the socio-constructivist view and apply it daily in various ways. The approach can manifest in many diverse ways in the classroom:

  • engaging learners in activity, discourse, and reflection;
  • frequent use of discussions and participation
  • giving learners an opportunity to present their own questions and construct their own models
  • encouraging independent thinking: students test their ideas, synthesise the ideas of others, build deeper understanding of what they are learning and develop reasoning skills
  • using various activating and co-operative teaching methods (Lonka, 2018; Walker, 2017).

The socio-constructivist approach to learning not only produces excellent learning results but also promotes the acquisition of useful skills for life. The approach encourages learners to be active in constructing their own knowledge and to collaborate to solve problems together with other learners. It fosters important life skills, such as self-regulation, self-determination and perseverance. The approach also promotes collaborative skills, such as respectful communication, negotiating, compromising, tolerance, ability to encourage one’s teammates, appreciation of diversity, working constructively with different types of people, etc. These skills, especially analytic reasoning, complex problem-solving and teamwork, are prerequisites for deeper learning.

Students’ wellbeing can be increased by promoting their own activity, participation and involvement. Student wellbeing is as important as the learning outcomes. A stress-free and engaging atmosphere in the classroom promotes learning and enhances the general wellbeing of the children, young people and teachers alike. It is possible to achieve excellent learning results and feel the joy of learning simultaneously (Walker, 2017).

Designing the mobile lesson-planning tool

We were confident that we wanted to apply this modern, research-based view of learning to the lesson-planning tool that we were designing. However, we faced two major challenges:

  1. How could we incorporate these basic principles – learner’s own activity, learning with and from each other, the importance of prior learning, etc. – into the application in a meaningful way?
  2. How could we make the users active agents in designing their lessons instead of passive receivers of pre-chosen models?

For the first challenge, we decided to devise a tool that shows, in a simple way, what kind of actions during lessons really promote learning. We wanted teachers to have a simple instrument for planning efficient and relevant lesson structures, and thus created a tool with ‘building blocks’, which the teachers can use to plan versatile and purposeful lessons.

The building blocks include the key elements of the socio-constructivist view on learning:

  1. Warm-up and grouping – safe atmosphere for learning
  2. Orientation and mapping pre-existing knowledge – what learners already know about the matter
  3. Acquiring new information – constructing one’s own knowledge
  4. Practising – learners being active themselves
  5. Reflection – learners deepen their learning via conscious thinking processes.

Each building block represents a phase or a function of a lesson. The idea is to construct lessons by using these blocks according to the goal of the lesson: not all blocks are necessary in each lesson, and their order can vary depending on the purpose and objective of the lesson.

Furthermore, we wanted to give teachers plenty of different practical ways to actually put these key principles into practice and carry out lessons based on them. We therefore included over 100 different activating, collaborative and reflective teaching methods in the app. Each method is specifically dedicated to certain building blocks, i.e. functions or phases of a lesson.

The second challenge – how to make the users active agents in designing their lessons – was crucial for us. It would have been possible to build ready-made models for the teachers to apply, but it would have rendered them passive receivers instead of active actors, which would have strongly contradicted the principles of the socio-constructivist view of learning, in addition to undermining the creativity and talent that so many teachers possess. We believed that creating an easy-to-use lesson-planning tool would give teachers unlimited possibilities to create better lessons for their students – better than we could ever have created. Coming from a certain culture, history and background, we can never know what kind of lessons would be the most beneficial for learners in a completely different context. On the other hand, the local teachers have all the necessary knowledge of the situation of their own school and their own students.

What we can do, however, is to provide teachers with tools that are designed to promote learning and let them use these tools the best way they can. To summarise, we wanted the teachers to have a better understanding of the learning process and how to plan efficient and inspiring lessons themselves. We wanted them to have the latest knowledge of the factors that actually promote learning, and therefore included a short introduction to modern, research-based pedagogy in the app (explained in short videos).

In addition, we wanted the teachers to be able to share their ideas and learn from each other. To incorporate the collaborative learning approach, we decided to include the possibility of sharing one’s own lesson plans and browsing the database of other users’ lesson plans.

LessonApp, a free application, will be launched later this year, and we hope that it will provide help for many teachers around the world. We want every teacher to feel competent and the children to experience the joy and flow of learning.

References

Lonka K (2018) Phenomenal Learning from Finland. Helsinki: Edita.

Poushter J, Bishop C and Chwe H (2018) Social media use continues to rise in developing countries but plateaus across developed ones. Pew Research Center. Available at: http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/06/19/2-smartphone-ownership-on-the-rise-in-emerging-economies/ (accessed 19 June 2018).

Sahlberg P (2015) Finnish Lessons 2.0. What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.

Walker T (2017) Teach Like Finland. 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. New York: WW Norton & Company.

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