Out-of-tune plans should hit a shorter note

15th October 2010 at 01:00

"If I could have your detailed lesson plans for next week, that would be great. Thanks!"

Why? We plan too much. Long-term plans, in-depth plans, planning per week, per lesson, per pupil. Yet we work with unpredictable children, so we revise our plans because the lesson didn't go according to plan.

"I could plan my lessons on a Post-it note" is a great thread on the TES forums. One teacher failed an observation for correcting pupils' misconceptions and so departing from the learning objective. The verdict was that the teacher should have "stuck to the plan". Yet teaching is often about unfolding layers of misunderstanding. What else can you do if a pupil asks you, "What's a Tudor?" Or worse, "What's a laptop dancer?"

Teaching has become a plan-centred profession. The things you do are only validated by written evidence that you intended to do them. It makes no sense, yet is widely accepted. "Evidence" is a word often misapplied in this profession. If a child writes something down, it may be evidence that he or she has learnt something. If a teacher writes something down, it doesn't prove a thing about what has happened in a child's head.

Far from being scientific, as the word "evidence" implies, this faith in the written plan is almost superstitious. The "Post-it plans" thread reveals how much schools vary in their planning demands. One teacher left a school where there was "one minute planning for every two in the classroom". Another was told to "make sure you evaluate the danger of using pencils". Fear drives this plan-worship: fear of the messy vitality of school.

I've noticed a spider who keeps building a web across my rear-view mirror. His day never goes to plan. When I drive my car, his web gets blown off and he has to start again. That is what teaching is: you spin your expert web according to what is around you. The web is strong not because it has been planned in detail, but because it is amazingly flexible.

All an experienced teacher needs is one big plan and short prompts for lessons. Teaching takes place in the gap between plan and reality: when you react to situations in the moment. That is where the joy of the job lies and where we make the greatest difference. Respond to the child, not the plan. And remember: whenever a teacher types a plan merely to please management, a fairy dies.

Michael Gove wants to "reduce the bureaucracy". Good. This would clear the way for another of his aims "to introduce more and more young people to the best that has been thought and written" and spread "deeper knowledge of our shared cultural heritage". That heritage has gone from Homer reciting the Odyssey by heart to a teacher writing plans to assess the risks of pencils. Go on, Mr Gove. Make plan-centred learning a thing of the past. In the meantime, we should all plan less, teach more. Reach for the Post-its, then go to bed. If your superiors insist on too many plans, start planning to leave them. They won't like it, but they will just have to make other plans.

Catherine Paver is a part-time English teacher and writer.

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