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Why Are Lesson Plans Always Incomplete?

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets].


Kenneth R. Conklin, "Why Are Lesson Plans Always Incomplete?" EDUCATIONAL FORUM, XL, 1 (November, 1975), pp. 67-71.


Why Are Lesson Plans
Always Incomplete?

Kenneth R. Conklin

EVERY teacher knows that a lesson can never be repeated exactly. Even with the aid of a detailed lesson plan, a teacher cannot repeat his own lesson given only an hour earlier. When a teacher knows he will be absent, he feels an obligation to leave lesson plans for the substitute; but both the regular teacher and the substitute understand that the lesson actually given by the substitute will be a rough approximation of what the regular teacher had in mind, and an even rougher approximation of what the regular teacher would have actually delivered. Lessons are unrepeatable performances. From this it follows that a lesson plan is interpreted into action diferently every time it is used, even by the same teacher.

Although teachers intuitively know that lessons are unrepeatable and plans are unavoidably incomplete, few understand why. If teachers did understand why, they could not support such practices as behavior modification, behavioral objectives, peformance-based teacher education, or strict accountability. These practices are components of a rapidly developing technology of control in education. The technology of control is based on a set of assumptions about human nature, teaching, and knowing. If these assumptions were correct, it would follow logically that lessons could be repeated and plans could be complete. By examining the reasons why lessons cannot be repeated and plans are unavoidably incomplete, we can discover why the technology


Kenneth R. Conklin has been assistant professor and associate professor of Foundations of Education for eight years at Oakland University, Emory University, and until recently at Boston University.

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of control has inherent limitations. By examining why it would be silly to want to repeat lessons exactly or plan them completely, we can discover moral arguments against the rigorous application of the technology of control, even within the bounds of its inherent limitations.

Suppose we make a film or videotape of a lesson and play it back. This would seem to be a way to get an "exact repetition of the lesson," according to our commonsense definitions. Showing a film is not the same as giving a live performance, but showing a film for a second time is the same as showing it for the first time. Yet inluential philosophers and educators (notably John Dewey and his followers) would say the second showing of the film is not a repetition. They would argue that a lesson is not only what a teacher gives, but also what the pupils take. A lesson is an interaction which can be repeated only if teacher, pupils, and the environment begin the second lesson in the same condition and undergo the same actions and reactions as in the first lesson. To repeat a lesson would thus be impossible, if only because the first lesson changed the participants' thoughts and feelings so that they do not enter the second lesson in the same condiion. Starting the second lesson with fresh participants would not help either, since different people always have different thoughts and feelings.

Suppose we forget about Dewey, the pupils, and the passive environment, and deine "lesson" to mean merely what the teacher does and says and what he actively sets in motion in the environment. Now can we repeat a lesson? Obviously we can, provided that the "lesson" is not a live performance. The second showing of a film is exactly the same as the first showing. But if we are talking about a live performance, then a lesson cannot be repeated exactly. There will be human error when a teacher tries to follow a lesson plan, no matter how detailed it may be. Even if a teacher tries to repeat a lesson he planned and delivered himself only an hour ago, he will have different thoughts and feelings caused by teaching the lesson the first time. He will interpret the same cues diferently, in addition to accidental or spontaneous errors of replicaion.

The factor that makes a lesson unrepeatable is the involvement of human beings. If a recorded message is played to an audience of recorders, the lesson can be repeated. If a recorded lesson is played to a live audience, it can be repeated only if we construe the term "lesson" as what is given apart from how the audience takes it. Finally, if a lesson is given by a live teacher, it cannot be repeated exactly, no matter who or what the audience is. What makes a lesson unrepeatable is the process whereby the human mind interacts with concepts either in teaching or in learning.

A concept does not remain unaltered when it enters or leaves the mind. If a speaker has an idea he wishes to describe, he must break it down into words and tell the words one by one. The listener hears the words one by one, and must assemble them into a joint meaning. Contrary to McLuhan's catchy phrase,[1] the medium is not the message. There is a complex act of cognition which takes place between the message and the medium. A mind must impose a perceived organization on the chunks of medium in order to cognize or recognize a message. Likewise, a message is not sent telepathically from mind to mind; rather, the sender employs a symbol system consisting of chunks of medium,

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the substance and form of which designate the message. The interaction between mind, message, and chunks of medium is deeply personal and changes all three of them: this explains why lessons are unrepeatable and plans are unavoidably incomplete.

This analysis of the interaction among mind, message, and medium is an extension or elaboration of a more basic analysis of the relation between wholes and parts.[2] When someone receives or expresses a message, the concept in the mind bears the same relationship to the perceivable chunks of medium as a whole bears to its parts. By examining the relationship between a whole and its parts, we can discover not only why lessons are unrepeatable and plans unavoidably incomplete, but also why the entire technology of control in education (including behavior modiication, strict accountability, etc.) has inherent limitations.

According to Polanyi's "theory of tacit knowing,"[3] a whole is more than the collection of its parts. When we focus attention on a whole, we lose sight of the parts and are aware of them only subsidiarily or "tacitly." For example, in recognizing a face we do not pay speciic attention to the nose or eyes. Of course we can shift attention to one or more parts, but then we lose sight of the whole, the context of which provides meaning to each part. Attention can shift back and forth between whole and part, but cannot focus on both simultaneously. The integration of parts into a whole is a personal act of cognition which takes place within the mind of the learner or perceiver and which invests the parts with a contextual meaning. Likewise, the breakdown of a whole into its parts is a personal act in which a teacher selects parts on which to focus and in what order, while holding awareness of the whole tacitly in mind.

Neither the integration of parts into a whole, nor the breakdown of a whole into its parts, can be controlled or guaranteed by anyone other than the person who is doing it. The timing and content of whatever emerges depends upon the distinctive characteristics of the individual mind. That is why learning and teaching cannot be repeated exactly or planned completely. It is also the reason why the entire technology of control in education has inherent limitations. Teachers cannot guarantee whether, when, or how students will integrate the parts being taught into conceptual wholes, thus there are limits to a teacher's accountability. Merely delivering stimuli or reinforcements cannot guarantee how students will assimilate them, thus there are limits to the effectiveness of behavior modiication.

A whole may be broken into parts in more than one way; a given educational objective can be stated in terms of different sets of behavioral descriptions. Each part of a whole may be broken into subparts, and the process may be continued through as many layers of breakdown as desired. This means that each behavioral objective can be restated in terms of smaller behaviors which contribute to it, and the process of restating in terms of smaller behaviors can be continued through as many refinements as desired. Any finite set of behavioral objectives in a lesson plan, therefore, is bound to be incomplete and inaccurate.

Lessons cannot be repeated exactly and lesson plans must always be incomplete. The entire technology of control has inherent limitations. The existence of these limitations is reassuring, for it reafirms the unalienable freedom of human thought and action. Yet the inherent limitations of the technology of control are

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subtle and tend to be more like theoretical limits than practical ones. We know from experience that the technology of control can be extraordinarily efficient and effective. Behavior modification succeeds well as a tool for classroom management, and the typical teacher would neither notice nor care about the subtle inefficiencies and incompletenesses that fascinate psychologists and philosophers.

There are practical and important moral arguments which make us reluctant to use the technology of control even within the bounds of its inherent limitations. To approach these arguments in the most simple way, we might consider our commonsense reasons for thinking it would be silly to want to repeat lessons exactly or plan them down to the smallest detail. Exact repetition is useful only if we desire standardized results. If we are teaching low-level skills or speciic responses to speciic stimuli, then standardized results are desired. But as the content of instruction becomes more complex and more dependent upon human intellect and emotion, we begin to value uniqueness of response. We praise creativity and condemn unimaginative or rote response. Detailed planning is needed when we are afraid to forget minor points or when we fear that students lack the intelligence to make reasonable inferences, but detailed planning tends to focus attention on the details at the expense of broad or deep understanding. When we recall that focusing on a whole and focusing on its parts are mutually exclusive, then we recognize that exact repetition and detailed planning may actually prevent students from grasping important ideas or generalizations.

The technology of control is helpful whenever it is important to guarantee student performance to the maximum possible extent. Thus, we may feel it is proper to use behavior modiication to control the behavior of prisoners, military trainees, or psychotics. Exact repetition and detailed planning can be helpful when the content of instruction is simple, when precise performance is the main objective, or when the pupils are slow learners. But the attempt to control student behavior and standardize performance will focus attention on the most mundane details, thereby interfering with higher-level cognitive and emotional functioning. Students will learn to work for immediate material rewards or praise rather than intrinsic rewards or long-term self-satisfaction. Students will learn to submit to authority and await orders. We also know that the teacher sets an example of good behavior in the eyes of the student. If the teacher believes it is normal and proper to manipulate other people's behavior by systematically dispensing goodies, praise, and love, the students will come to feel that it is normal and proper to manipulate other people by offering material bribes and unauthentic tokens of love.

In view of the fact that the technology of control tends to prevent higher-level cognitive and emotional functioning and tends to produce undesirable attitudes and values, we must be careful to use it only under appropriate circumstances. Temporary, short-term use would probably not be detrimental and might provide a way to solve immediate, acute problems. Even long-term use of the technology of control may be justiied in dealing with students who have special needs: the negative consequences of the technology of control might be an acceptable price if we can overcome the worse consequences of learning disabilities, emotional aberrations, or violent anti-social

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behavior, for example. The great danger is that the technology of control may become widely accepted for general, routine use because of its efficiency and convenience for administrators and teachers. Such routine use of the technology of control in education would worsen the present social situation in which people who cannot rise above mundane levels of awareness routinely do unethical things at the bidding of superiors who offer material reČ wards and status.[4]


1. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Message (New York: Random House, 1967).

2. Kenneth R. Conklin, "Wholes and Parts in Teaching," The Elementary School Journal 74 (December 1973): 165-71.

3. Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1966).

4. This article tries to show some practical and moral shortcomings of the technology of control. But it should not be construed as an argument against planful teaching. For arguments in favor of planfulness, see Kenneth R. Conklin, "Developmental Psychology vs. the Open Classroom," The Educational Forum 39 (November 1974): 43-47. For a deeper analysis and attempted synthesis of the technology of control and the open classroom, see Kenneth R. Conklin, "Scientific Control vs. Humanistic Freedom: A Synthesis With Regard to the 'Discipline Problem'," Focus on Learning(forthcoming).

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