How Important Are Lesson Plans, Really?

ST5WTiw

There’s been a lot of talk lately in the tefl twitter and blogospheres about the importance (or unimportance) of lesson planning. For many of us that have been in the game for awhile we develop a sort of ‘automaticity’ to planning lessons. We know from experience what works, what falls flat, and how to set it all up. We know how to activate schematas, which display/concept/instruction check questions to ask, we can anticipate, more or less, what will be asked of us, etc. So for the experienced teacher, do we need to plan lessons every day? No. Every week? Probably not. However, I do think even experienced teachers should be doing a lot more planning than they are now (which let’s face it, isn’t much).

When I was preparing my application for my DELTA course I was asked to design an activity around an authentic text. I thought back to lessons I had done in the past and spiced it up a bit with some activities I read in “Games for Language Learning”. However when the interview came, I was floored when the course tutor asked about my aims. Apparently “because that’s what works” isn’t a good answer. The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t had to think about aims really since my CELTA. But I’m beginning to think that this was a mistake and something I should have been more conscious of all these years. And that’s what lesson planning does: It calls into question why do the things we’ve been doing for years.

After I got rejected the first time, that word ‘aims’ was burned into my brain for weeks. It still gives me the chills. After a few days of self-pity, I hit the books. “Planning Lessons and Courses” by Woodward seemed a good place to start. At the very beginning she lays out what a lesson plan is and what it isn’t. Mainly that it does “NOT mean the writing of pages of notes with headings such as ‘Aims’ and ‘Anticipated problems’ to be given in to an observer before they watch you teach” (emphasis hers, not mine). Rather she understands it to mean “considering the students, thinking of the content, materials and activities that could go into a course or lesson, jotting these down, having a quiet ponder, cutting things out of magazines and anything else that you feel will help you to teach well and the students to learn a lot, i.e. to ensure our lessons and courses are good.”

The keyword here is thinking—forethought. I see it every day. An amalgamation of materials clobbered together from the teacher’s library or a quick search on Google for “present perfect activities” 5 minutes before the next class. These lessons, though usually mediocre at best, do get the job done and a good teacher can make the most mundane activity come alive. But they also inevitably leave something to be desired. The transitions between stages/activities could have been smoother or more coherent; activities could have been more fleshed out or better contextualised; could I have done some phonology work with that exercise? There is a thought process that goes into properly planning a lesson and it usually shows. It shows an awareness of technique, theoretical underpinnings, and the why. A thorough lesson plan does not always guarantee a successful lesson but I think there is a positive correlation between the planning and the execution even though these two are not mutually exclusive. Whether we like it or not, it’s an awareness of the above as well as their conscious application that separates an OK or just coasting teacher from a good one. It’s not enough to just do, but to know why, and a lesson plan gives us the space and framework to consider possibilities. There’s a reason we spend so much time during our CELTAs on lesson plans even though we don’t use them nearly as much as we thought we would. It makes us think systematically about all of the elements that contribute to the success of a lesson. After we go into the big world of TEFL, we can take off the training wheels and start experimenting with those elements.

That being said, I don’t think it should we should plan every lesson, every day, down to every detail. But every now and again we do need a shake up. We need to sharpen our teaching blades after going through oh so many of those 45-90 minute motions. Having a lesson plan is also an invitation for critique, evaluation, and collaboration. It’s always interesting for me, to see how other teachers weave together different activities and approaches to create a coherent experience. I don’t always enjoy observations personally, but I’d rather things go not to plan than have no plan at all and just kind of see I can come up with (as exhilarating as it may be!). Even if things go pear-shaped, it’s interesting to know the rationale behind the intent.

I would agree that teaching is not “managing the delivery of a lesson plan.” We shouldn’t see them as a constraint, however, but a framework from which we can alter and deviate from as necessary. Like Howard says, “They’re not legally binding. We don’t have to stick to them come hell or high water. They are to help us shape the space, time and learning we share with students.”

Check out:

Are Lesson Plans A Waste of Time?: https://teflreflections.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/lesson-plans-a-waste-of-time/

Observations and Paperwork:  http://eltblog.net/2015/06/05/observations-and-paperwork/#more-900

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9 thoughts on “How Important Are Lesson Plans, Really?

  1. Nice post Jye! I think your comments on automaticity and thinking through the “why” really show you have already taken that first and crucial step necessary to be successful on Delta: questioning what you think already works and knowing/understand why it does/doesn’t work. Well done!

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  2. Thanks for continuing the debate. I can see where you’re coming from. Perhaps indeed sometimes we should write a detailed lesson plan. As you point out, we might look back on it to find out why things didn’t go according to plan. But if this is the only value a lesson plan has, I still think it’s a waste of time. Unless we mean it in Woodward’s term. My post was definitely a rant on CELTA/DELTA like lesson plans. We all do that all the time (to a lesser or greater extent).
    What I’m still against is that every formal observation should involve a detailed lesson plan. I just can’t see why. If you need to improve your planning skills, then fair enough. But you might have different PD goals. If you’re an experienced teacher, you don’t need to write out the rationale for each stage in detail. You know what it is and you’d be able to explain it to the observer if they query.
    And a final remark: wouldn’t it be interesting for the observer to see how the teacher normally plans the classes? The formal lesson plan reflects what the observer wants to see, but doesn’t really give you any insight to how the teacher normally prepares for their classes and whether there’s anything they need to improve about the process.

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    1. I think it would be good for the observer to see how the teacher usually plans – it would probably be very insightful.

      I think a plan doesn’t have to be so incredibly detailed: at my school we accept plans which “do the job” i.e. let the observer know what’s supposed to happen at that stage.

      However, if one my teachers said they felt that writing a detailed plan with aims etc is a waste of time because they know their stuff, I would probably think along the lines of: maybe you do know your stuff, but maybe you don’t.

      A friend (not someone from my school) sent me a lesson plan of his, quite detailed it was, not so long ago – he had thought each stage through thoroughly, justified it and given it aims. He is an experienced teacher. However, I had a lot to say about his plan, especially about the thinking/rationale behind some of the stages.

      What came out of it was this: he thought that one stage was achieving Y but I thought it was achieving Z. He could justify why he thought it his way and I could justify why I thought my way. However, he’s pretty open to reflection, took it away and had another think about it. I believe in the end he made some changes based on our interaction.

      I think what made the above possible was a combination of the detail of his plan (detailed enough to let me see what was going on/what he was thinking in each stage) and his willingness to accept it might not have everything right, that some things might still need working on.

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    2. think of it this way: imagine you’re a restaurateur and there’s a food critic coming to your restaurant. We can think of a lesson plan like a menu. The critic can see what’s on offer and if it’s a good menu, we can see what we went into a particular dish and how it was prepared. Could you imagine a food critic going into a restaurant and saying “Surprise me!” or a chef walking into the kitchen and saying “let’s throw some stuff together and see what happens!” Yeah we do it all the time and It will probably be delicious, but if the critic goes back there and says, how did you make that? And the chef says “I don’t know, I just kinda did it off the top of my head.” Even though the end result is fine, it lacks constancy and it doesn’t sound very professional. How can he/she be sure that he/she could get the same result again? I’ve done many lessons without a lesson plan with varying degrees of success but not having really thought about it, i’m not sure what those variables are and how to control for them–except through trial and error. Students, on the whole though, shouldn’t be experimented on in this way. it’s not what they pay for. Whether it’s a a restaurant or school, I think you should be able to walk through your thought process with a critic (observer) or colleague and show where considerations have been made and why certain decisions were not taken as well as those that were. But again. I’m not advocating this on a regular basis. It’s just something we should do every now and then to keep us sharp.

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      1. Yes, of course you should be able to explain to the observer why you did what you did. Still can’t see, though, why you’d need a formal lesson plan for this.
        Even if you applied the same lesson plan again, but to a different class, it’d most likely work out differently. In fact, it should, because students are different, different things might come up during the class, etc.
        So to reiterate what I said before, planning, i.e. thinking about the lesson, its outcomes, the class, jotting things down is part and parcel of good teaching practice; writing 5 page lesson plans with detailed aims, rationale, what have you, is a time consuming pain in the neck.

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      2. Still quite long 😉
        I think the whole problem is that most observers never suggest alternatives to the classic CELTA lesson plan. It’s required as a rule. No questions asked. No critique admitted.
        There are numerous other ways of planning. Why not embrace them?
        Also, can’t the observer and the teacher learn something from lessons taught without a formal lesson plan? Is Dogme completely unacceptable?

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  3. Well, Dogme in the eyes of many is completely unacceptable. I used to think it was cracking stuff, but then I came to realise that really top-notch lessons only really happen when plenty of thought and preparation goes into them. As you rightly point out Marek, that doesn’t mean a 5 page lesson plan: it means the thought and preparation.

    If we accept that just turning up and hoping for the best isn’t professional and that an element of planning is necessary (even Dogme includes planning, though it is more post-planning than pre-planning), then a plan is needed. Perhaps a quick chat with the observer to say what you are going to do would suffice, but I still think that leaves the observer open to wounding: what if something really good or bad happens during the lesson and the observer asks “did you plan for that to happen?” – a plan would show that, a quick chat might leave a lot to be desired. What if the observer leaves and thinks “well, that was just pot-luck”?

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