What is the difference between planning for learning and lesson-planning? (Sponsored Article)

From the start of their training, teachers are told to create lesson plans. But that kind of thinking may be counterproductive, argues head of geography Mark Enser – and here’s why

Mark Enser

Mark Enser

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The idea that teachers need to plan their lessons is so ingrained that it seems almost beyond challenge. One of my earliest memories from training is being given a lesson plan pro-forma to fill in. The importance of doing this for every lesson was carefully explained, with threats of poor behaviour, lack of learning and being labelled a “bad teacher” if I didn’t.

Whether we create a plan, make a note of what we are doing in a planner or create a PowerPoint for each class the effect is the same: we continue to plan our lessons as we have always done.

Lesson plans fill the time available – whether you need to or not

Sadly, this whole process is built on a lie. Consider the following questions. How long does it take to teach a class the different wave processes? How about the causes of migration across the Sahel? The causes of the Indian wet monsoon? All take one hour. Unless your school has 50-minute-long lessons, in which case it magically takes less time.

If we plan lessons in this way it encourages us either to fill the time with one idea when it doesn’t need it, or to rush through it so we can start fresh with another topic when we see our students next.

Planning lessons in hour-long blocks also encourages a misguided view of how learning takes place. Learning doesn’t happen in neat little segments of time; it happens because we are introduced to a new concept, then start to forget it, then are reminded of it again. We struggle to recall, we apply the information, and we make a link between one idea and another. However, by creating individual lesson plans we start thinking of learning as something that has been “done” in that time.

Focusing on individual lesson plans is inefficient

It also increases workload. The Department for Education-commissioned independent report on reducing workload burdens around planning is clear: “Planning a sequence of lessons is more important than writing individual lesson plans.”

Planning is essential for good teaching, but when we try to fit learning into a block of time we start putting too much emphasis on the structure of a lesson. We spend time worrying about a starter, then about finding enough activity to fill 50 minutes so that there is time for a plenary in which they will simply mimic what they have just heard. This is a time-consuming process that is not only ineffective but also inefficient.

Planning for learning goes at a natural pace

Instead of planning lessons we need to plan learning. Ignore the constraints of the lesson block and just focus on what it is you want your pupils to learn and what will make a difference to them learning it. Don’t worry if it’s going to take 10 minutes, 60 minutes or 300 minutes.

This soon reduces workload as you are not trying to force something into an artificial structure that it just doesn’t fit. It is much faster to plan a sequence of learning that takes place over a series of lessons than it is to break a scheme of work into hour-long pieces and plan each one in isolation from the rest. You are in effect teaching your scheme of work as a whole piece or in chunks of your own choosing, unshackled from the clock.

Tips for planning for learning

  • Start by writing down everything you want your pupils to know by the end of the sequence. Identify the threshold concepts – what do they need to learn first to make sense of the rest? For example, a sequence on coastal processes would start with the action of waves, then weathering, then mass movement, then landforms, then management strategies.
  • Plan how you would teach each of these areas but don’t worry about fitting it into a time block. At the end of a lesson just make a note of where you got up to. At the start of the next lesson begin with a quick quiz of the previous one; this will help with recall.
  • If you finish one key idea before the lesson has ended just move seamlessly on to the next.
  • Plan in formative assessment where it works in the sequence of learning, not just because it is the last five minutes of the lesson.
  • Remember that if it isn’t learned, it isn’t done. Focus on the learning and not on covering content. Plan for plenty of opportunities to go back and link what pupils are doing to what they have done before. Planning learning as a sequence makes this much easier to do.

The hour-long lesson plan has been a millstone around our necks for too long. It is increasing our workload and making our jobs harder. It is time to change our mindsets and start planning for learning, not lesson planning.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex and blogs at Teachreal.wordpress.com

Read more about the government’s policies on reducing teacher workload here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teachers-workload/reducing-teachers-workload

Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: An essential guide to effective and efficient teaching is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark

Find me on Twitter @EnserMark

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