Classroom practice - Avoid a sinking feeling with perfect planning

29th November 2013 at 00:00
It may seem like a chore, but detailed lesson preparation will help you to stay afloat no matter what your class throws at you

Some teachers do it in front of the television, or save it up for a Sunday afternoon with a bit of music on in the background. Others do it daily, in concentrated silence and with copious, meticulous research and complicated layouts.

Those trying to maintain a distinction between their work and home life, meanwhile, do it sitting at their classroom desks with the distant sounds of after-school clubs permeating the walls. Then there are those teachers who don't do it at all and just make something up afterwards if anyone asks.

However teachers do their planning, it can safely be said that the majority dislike it. Planning is, to put it simply, boring. Teachers get into teaching to teach, not to explain why and how they teach.

Admittedly it is difficult, sometimes, to see the point of planning. The students don't ask to see it and observers only view the final product, which you could be improvising as you go along anyway. There is also a strong argument to say that overly prescriptive lessons lead to inflexibility, with teachers unable to react to what is happening in front of them.

Yet planning clearly has a point to it. The concept has not been devised as a form of punishment, nor to keep teachers occupied so that they haven't time to cultivate thoughts of rebellion against whichever new curriculum is being dictated that week.

Every teacher is expected to plan lessons because it is common sense to do so. Planning brings many positives, to both teachers and students, which are hard to achieve in any other way. But those benefits are accessible only with "good" planning. So it is worth trying to ascertain what exactly that means.

- First, good planning means that you can make the most of lesson time, maximising learning and ensuring a good mix of techniques, activities and student talk. It gives you the paddle with which to propel and direct your lesson.

- Second, ensuring maximum progress means planning for that progress by working out in advance how different needs in the class will be met. Attempting to do this off the cuff leads to your confused class spending most of their learning time watching you work out the variables. It is impossible to differentiate properly "in the moment".

- Third, effective planning enables you to be more flexible and responsive. This is because, when you have a plan, you don't have to fret about what is coming next or what is still to be done during the lesson: you already know. Instead, you can respond to what is in front of you, listening and watching rather than worrying.

These benefits do not automatically arise from all forms of planning. The difference between having a good plan and a bad or non-existent plan is similar to a builder having a detailed 3D architectural drawing or a rough 2D sketch that someone has scribbled on the back of an envelope with a blunt pencil.

If the builder is a professional who has built many houses before, they will make a good fist of bringing the sketched plan to life. But the result is unlikely to meet the client's expectations, it is unlikely to have all the elements required and it is unlikely to look like anything other than a make-do, slightly ramshackle building. To construct a proper home, you need a proper plan, one with detailed specifications, multiple perspectives and in-depth explanations of what to do and when.

The same goes for teaching. Without a plan, or with a badly thought-out plan, you will still be able to teach a lesson. And teachers with lots of experience will be able to do so with skill. But that lesson will never be as engaging, productive or useful as one that is underpinned by a comprehensive lesson plan.

Good planning requires a lot of detail, but that does not necessarily mean copious hours tied to a desk. Target your energies at the most important areas.

Begin with a title for the lesson. This will help you to focus on what you are trying to achieve. Everything else can flow from this title. Set your objectives, decide on a starter and plenary, and choose your activities - referring all the while to that title.

Then take a step back. Has your lesson got the right balance of activities and teacherstudent time to be engaging? Is it paced correctly? Have you anticipated potential detours and questions and thought about how you would respond? Is the language you have used to plan concise and understandable? (If not, then your lesson is unlikely to be so either.)

With practice, this process will become easier and quicker, and you will get used to the mindset. The most time-consuming aspect of lesson planning can often be the creation or sourcing of resources. Honing your approach can bring benefits in this area. With a decent plan, you can assess exactly which resources are contributing and which are not, saving time on preparing unnecessary handouts, slide shows or similar.

Steering past difficulties

One of the beauties of planning is that it can be a helpful wake-up call. If you find it is taking too much time, that's a good indication that you are preparing too many resources, or doing too much of the classroom work yourself.

What about criticisms that prescriptive planning prevents spontaneity and flexibility, and stops students having a say in the direction of a lesson? These are valid concerns, but the solutions do not require you to abandon detailed planning.

First - counter-intuitive as it sounds - you can plan for flexibility. By anticipating students' questions or the tangents they might follow, you can facilitate these new directions rather than facing them with inadequate information or make-do activities. Good planning adds value. You can't plan for every eventuality, but having a rough idea of potential diversions is both possible and advisable.

Likewise, you should have fallback activities in case the one you planned does not work, or is finished early.

As for spontaneity, planning should encourage you to take risks, not hinder you from doing so. It gives you a clear focus for the lesson, so you can incorporate any risks into the context of your objectives. Taking a risk on the spot with no forward planning can mean that students get nothing out of the lesson, because you have not kept your main aim in focus, or you do not know what that focus is.

It is important to note that this is not an argument for following plans to the letter. A lack of rigidity is crucial if a lesson is to work; for example, set timings are rarely successful, and trying to stick to them can be a hindrance, not a benefit.

A good lesson plan should be a guide that enables a teacher to get to grips with what they are trying to achieve and why. Ask any successful businessman or sports star for the secret of their success, and they will reply, "Good planning." As teachers, why should we be any different? You can get away without planning for a while, but soon enough you will be shown up by students, observers or colleagues - or all three.

Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published a number of books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect. His booklet Planning Brilliant Lessons is the latest in the Teaching Compendium series available to members of TES Pro. Find it at www.tesconnect.complanning


What will the students be doing in each part of the lesson?

How will the learning move forward?

What opportunities have you given the students to lead their own learning?

How are you meeting their needs?

What is the purpose of the lesson?

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