Lay the groundwork

13th October 2017 at 00:00
Preparing what to teach can take up a considerable amount of your time. Mark Enser outlines a few simple steps that will improve your planning and take the pressure off your first term

Along with marking, planning is a teacher’s biggest source of workload – a fact that isn’t going to change any time soon. With new GCSE and A-level specifications already being taught, and changes to assessment models at all key stages, the need to plan effectively and efficiently has never been greater. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can follow to make sure that your planning is as good as it can be without overloading yourself with work.

 

Plan for learning

If you ask a comedian how they come up with their jokes, they may reply that they start with the punchline and work backwards. I’m not sure whether this is really the secret to a good joke, but it is certainly good advice for planning. Start with a clear idea of what it is that you want your pupils to know, understand or be able to do and then work backwards through the steps they need to complete in order to get there. Peps McCrea, author of Lean Lesson Planning, says that it is about “taking time to get excessive clarity about what you want your students to have learnt by the time you walk out the door at the end of the lesson”.

 

Don’t plan lessons

Once you have established that you are going to plan learning, this step follows quite naturally. One mistake that teachers often fall into is to plan their lessons in one-hour blocks, as though every objective is naturally met after this time. When you are planning learning, you might be planning something that will take 15 minutes or several hours. This way of approaching planning is far more efficient and helps to avoid the pitfall of planning “busy tasks” that are designed less for learning and more for filling up some of the lesson to take it up to the hour.

 

Go back to basics

The longer I have taught for, the more I have tried to strip my planning back to the basics of effective and efficient learning. Keep in mind the key components of a successful lesson, or series of lessons, and use these as a rough structure for your planning. Start with retrieval and a hook, where pupils retrieve previous information relevant to the new objective. This will help them to make links between topics. Introduce the new information that they need and then follow this up by getting them to apply and practise it. Finally, use formative assessment to test that this knowledge has stuck and to check there aren’t misconceptions. The details of how you do this will, of course, vary but by having this rough structure in mind, you can be sure of a great foundation to build on.

 

Plan for memory

If they don’t remember it, they haven’t learnt it, and if they haven’t learnt it, there was not a lot of point in your planning it. Psychologist Daniel Willingham makes the point that “memory is the residue of thought”. Therefore, plan activities that pupils have to think about rather than activities that will simply engage them. If you plan for engagement, they will remember the activity (“we built a shanty town out of cardboard”) and not the learning you had intended (the factors that affect quality of life in informal settlements).

 

Consult those with experience

One of the hardest parts of planning learning when you are an NQT is that you may not know which concepts your pupils are most likely to struggle with. It is worth spending some time with your mentor and other experienced teachers in your department to ask them about their experiences of teaching a new topic. For example, I know from experience that, for some reason, pupils often struggle to grasp the mechanism that leads to relief rainfall. It is something that to me, as an expert, seems very straightforward but to them, as novices, seems far more complex. This is because some ideas are based on a wide range of other knowledge that you may be taking for granted. Every subject contains certain liminal concepts without which learning can’t progress. Spend time identifying these areas and planning for them carefully.

 

Planning can be one of the most enjoyable parts of teaching but it is important that you don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees. Decide on the learning you want the pupils to walk away with and plan clear steps to help them achieve it. Keep in mind that they will need to remember this and make sure that they have mastered the key concepts before moving on. As the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “a goal without a plan is a wish”. The goal is learning. So plan it.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex

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