Why I can't stand set lesson plans

Any one-size-fits-all structure imposed on classroom teachers risks removing the joy from learning, says Megan Mansworth

Megan Mansworth

Woman, squeezed into cardboard box

The current Ofsted inspection framework does not, thankfully, advocate any particular lesson structure beyond stating that teachers should explain subject content clearly, promote discussion, check for understanding and provide clear feedback.

Unfortunately, however, a number of schools and academy trusts continue to implement set lesson structures that they expect teachers to use – such as particular three-part, four-part or five-part lesson plans containing key elements. 

Many teachers are being told, for instance, that any good lesson must be designed to a rigid formula, including the elements of retrieval practice, direct instruction and independent silent work. 

These are all methods I use regularly and value in my own teaching, and the use of each in different circumstances can be supported by research. However, it is inaccurate to suggest that learning can be reduced to a checklist of approaches that should be used in every lesson or situation, and schools therefore should be wary of advocating just one particular structure of lesson or style of teaching. 

Set lessons plans: removing the space for alternative approaches

It can be tempting to think that, if a pedagogical technique is supported by research, it must work well in every circumstance. If independent silent writing is useful for extended practice, then why not have it in every lesson? If direct instruction works well, why not do it constantly? 

Well, unfortunately, whenever we make anything universal and obligatory, we remove the time and space for alternative approaches that are also research-informed, useful and productive in the right circumstances. And, conceivably, we may reduce some of the impact of certain pedagogical methods when they are used without moderation – and could even detract from deep learning by using a predetermined set lesson structure.

For example, in English, it might occasionally be appropriate to spend an entire lesson reading a book and discussing deeper meanings and concepts, or listening to the delivery of students’ presentations, which they have carefully prepared. 

In history, sometimes it might be fitting to devote a whole lesson to facilitating a critical debate or to extended research. In French, perhaps students need an hour to complete a challenging translation task they have built up to throughout a unit, or to work on a speaking and listening carousel. 

In one lesson, it might make sense to have 10 quick-fire activities to suit your learning objective while, in another, it may be better to focus on just one activity to allow students to apply their prior learning. 

Perhaps, occasionally, it is not appropriate to begin a lesson with retrieval practice but, instead, it is preferable to engage students with a big question that the lesson content hinges on. Maybe, instead of direct instruction, it is sometimes productive to draw out the key messages of the lesson through Socratic questioning. 

There are probably many examples you can think of in your own subject or setting where a typical structure of retrieval practice, direct instruction, student silent learning and then plenary might not be the best course of action or the most appropriate methodology. 

Above all, be adaptable

It also vital to remember that a particular lesson structure or pedagogical approach does not necessarily lead to learning. For instance, if not implemented at a challenging level, the retrieval-practice-based “Do now” starter or settler task could become the more acceptable word search, where students answer simple questions that they, in fact, already know the answer to and do not necessarily need to revise. 

In other words, we should not mistake research supporting the use of certain pedagogical methods for incontrovertible evidence that a certain technique must be used in every lesson we have or is always the preferable technique. 

Professor Dylan Wiliam has written in Tes, arguing that teachers need to be “critical consumers of research”, who recognise that the validity of a particular approach or study depends heavily on their individual context. We should, first and foremost, be adaptable in our approach, thinking carefully about what technique or pedagogical approach might work best in a certain lesson and why. 

The minute that senior leadership teams or academy trusts impose set structures, they not only reduce teachers’ professional autonomy but they also discourage us from being critically reflective consumers of research in our own classrooms. Such policies may impose consistency but consistency is pointless if it acts as a reductive straitjacket for learning. 

Also, take a moment to put yourself in the position of the student who receives exactly the same style and structure of teaching in every lesson they encounter during a school day. It’s hardly likely that this will increase their engagement. 

Rather than imposing particular pedagogical methods or lesson structures, if leaders want teachers to improve, they should give them time to develop and expand their subject knowledge alongside the space to critically consider how to apply elements of educational research in their own classroom. 

Reflecting on how we can improve learning is vital but any approach must be applied with nuance – and teachers must be trusted to judge which method works best in different circumstances. Any one-size-fits-all approach imposed on classroom teachers risks not only removing much of the joy, excitement and magical variety of teaching but, more importantly, harming long-term learning. 

Lessons, like buildings, can be structured in myriad ways, as long as they are built on the foundations of strong subject knowledge and on a critically reflective, thoughtful pedagogical approach. 

Megan Mansworth is an English teacher and PhD student. She tweets as @meganmansworth 

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