Why lesson planning is key, especially for new teachers

Asking trainees to plan their lessons can feel like asking them to have dental surgery - and yet it is worth it, writes Sam Jones

Sam Jones

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I am a big advocate of lesson planning, although I know it can be a "Marmite" subject.  I have no particular feelings about format, although I am not keen on the five-minute lesson plans, especially for trainee teachers.  A plan can help trainees analyse their sessions and begin to move their practice forward and, for more experienced teachers, over the years it can become a repository for your pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986) – knowledge required to teach your subject.

I write detailed plans that lead me through my sessions, they highlight things that I know I can be weak on. I also use lesson plans to log things that go well, for example if someone asks a cracking question that really gets a group thinking or talking, it will go on my plan – a pearl to be "saved" ready for next year.  I also record activities that didn’t go well and note why I thought this was the case, so that I can ensure it is improved for the following year or group. This way, I can go from one year to the next, improving as I go.

Opinion: Why are we so afraid of our own knowledge in FE?

Read more: Why we must let teachers plan their own lessons

Background: Lesson planning: Three objectives? No, no, no

Root canal surgery

With the trainee teachers I teach, asking them to go through this process sometimes feels like it is about as popular as asking them to voluntarily undertake root canal surgery. This is especially the case with those trainees who have experienced mentors who now no longer plan in this way, but maybe use a PowerPoint presentation to guide them. 

This may be fine if you are an experienced teacher – although it wouldn’t work for me – but in my experience, it certainly won’t work for a trainee.  Trainees, especially at the start of their teaching careers, have a lot to think about, from how they express themselves, to the words to use, where they stand and how to deal with the mobile phone they can see under a table.  Everything is new, nothing has, as yet, become an automatic response. 

Billett (2004) proposes that as tasks become familiar or routine at work, they become almost unconscious or automatic, which in turn frees up working memory for other tasks.  For a trainee teacher everything is new. The trainee teachers’ head can be a noisy space.

A calmer space

The lesson plan, by comparison, is a calmer space; a space to remind, to prompt, to organise. Easy to solve problems can be solved in this space and larger problems can often be analysed in this space. Want to understand why your students can only explain and not analyse the impact of a recession on a business? Look back at your planning and whether your session got your students to explain or analyse. What kind of questions did you ask around this subject? Did you recap it in that session or following sessions? Did they just not "get it" and might you need to reconsider how to approach this subject? Your lesson plan can really help you understand your sessions and your teaching, helping you to improve it. 

Mentors for new staff are so often time-starved, but I would urge them to take the time to look at your mentees' planning. Check that the tasks meet or work towards the grade descriptors, or try talking them through your planning, flow within lessons or between them. Better still: try planning a lesson together.  

Teaching is a cognitively complex task, development of this "craft" takes time and consideration. In FE, we are sometimes hard on new teachers, expecting development and high levels of performance in ridiculously short periods of time. I believe planning is a development tool for the inexperienced and old hands alike, but especially so for those new teachers who need calm spaces to support them in a demanding job. 

Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE Teacher of the Year at the Tes FE Awards 2019

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