Lesson plans – a waste of time?

I realise I haven’t written anything for this blog for quite some time, so I’m really glad that a recent conversation on Twitter about observations and lesson plans with @ashowski and @getgreatenglish, who following our chat wrote a post too, motivated me to write a new post. The conversation was prompted by a blog post by @ashowski which you can read here. In a nutshell, Anthony argues that from the point of view of the observer a thorough lesson plan is essential as comparing it with the decisions made by the teacher during the lesson can “reveal the most interesting features of the teacher’s pedagogic abilities”. Without this it would be impossible “to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities”. What?!

You know a great planner when you read their lesson plan, but you know a great teacher when you see them. While the lesson plan might reveal some interesting things about the decisions taken by the teacher, I don’t think it is necessary “to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities”, because the only thing it does determine is the extent of teachers planning abilities. And is just one of many skills of effective English teachers. What I definitely object to, though, are the incredibly detailed lesson plans we are obliged to write for formal observations.

First, they do not reflect how we plan on a day-to-day basis. Let’s be honest, any good teacher will prepare and plan for their classes in one way or  the other, but when was the last time you wrote a CELTA/DELTA like lesson plan? Probably for your last observation, and only because you were obliged to. On a day-to-day basis we might write down the main aims on post-it notes, draw a flow-chart with main stages on a piece of paper, or make notes in the teacher’s or student’s book (for an overview of various approaches to planning read this post by Adam Simpson) . Personally, I will often visualise the different stages, interaction patterns, lesson aims and go over the various options I could use in the class without writing too much down. The best decisions often come to me on the spot. They depend on students, on their mood, on what happens in the class, and on countless other unpredictable factors.

6-11. The butterfly effect

Which brings me to my second objection: you can’t plan for the unpredictable. And what happens in class is to a lesser or greater extent unpredictable. While thinking about the lesson, its aims, possible interaction patterns, predicting setbacks and devising solutions to them are all part and parcel of preparing for a successful lesson, I can’t see how writing them down in the form of an ever more complex and detailed lesson plan will help you effectively respond to what happens in the classroom. As Steve Brown wrote here, “Teaching is not about managing the delivery of a lesson plan”. Unfortunately, though, both teacher training courses, as well as in-house observations place great importance on thorough lesson planning.

Because, as we’re told, there’s a direct correlation between a good lesson plan and a lesson success. Really? When preparing for my last observation I spent several hours writing the plan and preparing materials. According to the feedback I received, the lesson went well, but I didn’t feel the hours of prep paid off. I didn’t feel it was a particularly outstanding lesson. And I’m pretty sure I would have taught a similarly effective lesson with 10% of the time put into planning. And would have been much less stressed about having to stick to the lesson stages. So might have responded to students’ immediate queries and needs better too.

So why are we told by trainers and observers to prepare detailed lesson plans? Perhaps because “they [the lesson plans] provide comfort to the novice and to the person required to certify the novice’s ability” (the Secret DoS in this post). Perhaps because “it is part of what most teachers are expected (and paid) to do” (ibid). Perhaps because the observers/trainees actually believe that how the plan looks reflects in a way how the lesson is going to pan out. It shows that the trainee is diligent and has carefully thought about the lesson. This belief, though, is underpinned by “the misconception that [through planning] teachers can control what students learn” (Steve Brown in this post).

1410227652_e0f5cf7f0e_b

But the paramount importance that is placed on producing neat, organised, detailed and long lesson plans is misguided, because it doesn’t really prepare the trainee for the daily teaching and planning routine. It teaches us a skill that we never use. It dupes trainees into thinking that they can anticipate every problem that might come up in the lesson. It also seems to suggest that only by following a pre-planned sequence of activities can we teach a successful lesson. And it takes teacher’s attention away from what really matters: the students and what is happening at a given moment in class.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel that planning IS important. It is essential. But not in the form of hours spent stressing over a detailed CELTA-like lesson plan, which most likely will end up accumulating layers of dust somewhere on a forgotten shelf in the DoS office. Such planning leads to little meaningful PD.

Stack of Paper 050

It is stressful, time-consuming and not environmentally friendly. It also emphasises the lesson plan as a measure of teacher’s abilities. Yet, we all agree that successful teaching is much more than a well-written lesson plan. So what I would like to see is s shift towards that “much more”, towards the actual teaching. I would like to see the observer and teacher discuss teacher’s PD needs and focus the observation aims accordingly. I would like the observer to see the real, everyday teacher, not the artificial machine conditioned by the one-off 10 page lesson plan.

This, however, would require a change in what the observations are used for, which at the moment is quality control and assessment. There’s little pre and post-observation reflection, let alone a meaningful and personalised PD action plan whose aims would stem from the observation. Surely, though, this is how observations should be used. For example:

  1. Pre-observation meeting where teacher and observer discuss teachers strengths, weaknesses and PD needs
  2. Observation
  3. Post-observation meeting where teacher and observer reflect on the lesson and agree on PD goals
  4. Teacher develops an action plan with the help of the observer and agree on the time frame, goals, action research tools, etc.
  5. Teacher carries out the action plan with support from the observer
  6. Observer and teacher meet to discuss the results of the action plan (possibly preceeded by an observation)
  7. Teacher continues working on all (or some of) the same developmental goals OR go back to point 1 to start a new cycle

So, no, I don’t think that a lesson plan reveals pedagogical abilities, nor that it determines the extent of teacher’s abilities. What it does do is reveal a profound detachment from how real planning is done. It overemphasizes a skill that we never use on a daily basis; a skill whose correlation with a successful lesson is yet to be proven. Long lesson plans are a fruitless, artificial, stressful and time-consuming exercise which rarely result in meaningful PD.

Our attitude to lesson plans is full of hypocrisy too. On the one hand, as teachers we produce long lesson plan each time we’re observed, because we are required to by the observer, even though we doubt whether they help us develop professionally, or deliver a more effective lesson. On the other hand, as observers, we expect adherence to one and only true attitude to planning, even though we know that it’s neither the only one, nor the best, nor the most practical or realistic one.

While the ability to plan is important and needs to be cultivated, we mustn’t forget about the countless other skills which a successful teacher needs. And to help the teacher develop them, we don’t need to see an agonizingly long lesson plan every time we observe a class.

Further reading:

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43 thoughts on “Lesson plans – a waste of time?

  1. Reblogged this on Victorhugor ELT and commented:
    I think that lesson planning is a good thing to plan ahead for what you want to accomplish, and to give focus and structure to your daily work.
    Do you think that it is not possible to plan in detail what your students will learn even some days before?

    1. Thanks for the comment and the reblog, Victor,
      It is, of course. We all plan, and as I said in the post I’m not against planning, which I think is a vital skill. What I do object to is the pointlessness of writing several page long lesson plans for formal observations, for various reasons which I expressed in the article.

  2. As an English teacher planning a lesson is something substantial . Still we should always have a magic wand (something special) to substitute the fore prepared lesson plan .as often as not the filter is high hence the degree of understanding becomes low accordingly lesson plan is highly weigh less.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Abdel. Of course planning is important, but how we respond to emerging language, student immediate needs and adapt our approach that makes lessons really successful.

  3. I think lesson planning is a key skill of any teacher and going through the process on paper every now and again has its value in reinforcing planning principles and assisting in continuous professional development, as well as in preparing teachers who are yet to take higher qualifications for what will be expected of them. That is why I wrote the below:
    “The Art of Lesson Planning: A Handbook for Pre-Service and In-Service Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages”. Follow this link for more information plus reviews: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3044

    1. Of course it is a key skill. I never said it wasn’t. But there are numerous other important teaching skills that are given nowhere near as much prominence in observations as lesson planning. I also think that the extent of detail expected from a CELTA, but especially DELTA lesson plan is outrageously over the top.

  4. My post, that sparked all of this debate and then this post, was born out of a little experiment with a colleague. It was good and insightful. Why don’t you try a little experiment yourself; here’s what I suggest:

    Ask your last observer (this person who you mentioned in this post who you wrote a lesson plan for) to come in and observe a regular lesson of yours. You could give him any planning you have done (post it notes, materials) or not – totally up to you. Get him/her to observe and evaluate the lesson. It would be interesting to see how they feel about the lesson without all the observational paperwork.

    If they end up feeling the lesson was much better than the previous one, then I think this takes a step in the direction of proving your point in as far as your own skills as a teacher are concerned: lesson planning is a hindrance and not useful for someone at your level/ability of teaching.

    Give some thought – it would be a interesting experiment. We certainly enjoyed doing ours. 🙂

    1. So, you are saying that as we gain experience, not only is less planning needed, it actually becomes a counterproductive activity? Just want to make sure I understand before I disagree. And then, I am not familiar with CELTA lesson plans. They must be perfectly monstrous.

      1. Hi Thom! Are you asking me this question or Marek? I’m in the camp of that lesson plans are necessary and very important for observations, no matter how experienced you are. I’ve been in this job for a while and I still plan thoroughly, as I feel this makes my lessons much better. My thoughts on planning and observations, which started this whole debate, can be found in this post: http://eltblog.net/2015/06/05/observations-and-paperwork/

        Marek is in the other camp: I think he thinks plans, especially for observations, are a waste of time and a hindrance to effective CPD.

        1. Hi Anthony, thanks for clarifying, which shows me how good it is to “hold your horses” before jumping on and running off…I would have missed the point. I have been reading this discussion too casually. And as Marek seems to clarify, his is really a take on the planning Celta/Delta is famous for. I haven’t done either, but I might agree with him, if I were. I got to read this blog because of the title to the post. Maybe it is a bit misleading because it is not lesson planning the we question, but Celta lesson planning for observation purposes.

          The thing what makes me think is the idea that as we gain experience, we would plan less. This is probably true, but is it true and we are proud of it, or is it true and we blush? Being new to the trade novice teachers tend to over-prepare. But what about the experienced teacher that has stopped preparing?

          1. I personally don’t feel there is any such things as “overplanning” but rather “ineffective planning.” So, for example, if a teacher spends 2 hours planning a 45 minute lesson, then this lesson will probably be well-prepared but the teacher’s time management hasn’t been so well handled. That’s something that comes with experience.

            What also comes with experience is teachers planning less and less. This is where I think mine and Marek’s opinions differ: I feel a lot of experienced teachers underplan, thinking they know what makes a good lesson, when in fact if they thought it through a little more they would see some of the issues for themselves.

      2. To an extent, yes, naturally, with experience, we plan less, as we develop an increasing array of activities, methods, approaches, etc., which allows us to respond to emerging language and students’ immediate needs on the spot. However, I’m not saying that we should plan less. Nor that planning itself is a waste of time. What I am saying is that preparing a several page long lesson plan with detailed description and rationale behind each lesson stage (as you would for a formal observation, or CELTA/DELTA) is in most cases a waste of time. To give you an idea, for my last formal observation (used solely for quality control on a 6 week EAP course which meant I’d never see the observer again), I was obliged to submit a lesson plan for the whole 90 minute class. It was about 4 pages long and I spent several hours preparing it. However, as I said in the post, I got nothing in terms of PD out of it, or at least nowhere near enough to justify the effort. The feedback from the observer was excellent, but I didn’t feel it was a particularly outstanding lesson, even though I spent so much time preparing for it.

        1. I see.

          Maybe the benefit was not as much in the performance but in the thinking. The link between lesson planning and teaching performance is a loose one. I think this follows the rationale of lesson planning does not lead to teaching which does not lead to learning. Each step takes a leap of faith. But each step has a logic and a purpose of its own. I think the act of planning has merits beyond the teaching that should be informed by it. I have asked students to plan lessons that they would actually never teach, because I was after the thought processes: what input, activities, what staging, what pre-while-post, etc.

        2. Marek,

          This is a great blog post and I agree with you completely. Every once in a while, we are asked to prepared those CELTA/DELTA type of lessons for class observations and I find it extremely pointless having to waste 2 hours on a 45-minute class. More importantly, I also feel my strength as a teacher lies in spontaneity. When I ‘overplan’ things, I mostly fail to do them as I had hoped.

          That said, I’d certainly like to improve myself in the field of writing effective lesson plans, so, if you don’t mind, would you share your detailed lesson plan that received constructive and positive feedback from the observer with me? I’d like to see it.

          Thanks for this great blog, Marek!

    2. Thanks for taking your time to comment, Anthony. I’ve been really enjoying our discussion. Judging by the flurry of activity on social media, it’s been long overdue.
      I’d love to try a little experiment. Will see if I can pull it off during the summer. Having said that, it would proof very little. We’d need a far bigger sample. Not impossible, but a full time project. A very interesting one, mind you.

  5. Hi Marek,

    Although I’m not a fan of thorough planning, I must agree with Anthony. As I see it, his point was not that a great plan makes a good teacher or that our plans should always be terribly long and thorough. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think he was trying to say that we should plan on a daily basis either. I think the focus of his post was the outcome of the comparison of what the *observer* can see in the plan and what is happening in the actual lesson. And I agree that the deviations from the plan and all the unexpected decisions the teacher/observee makes on the spot reveal a lot about their skills and abilities. And it is also the teacher’s ability to afterwards justify and explain all the deviations which prove their quality and/or experience. And you say it yourself at the end of your post: ‘While the ability to plan is important and needs to be cultivated, we mustn’t forget about the countless other skills which a successful teacher needs’.

    1. Yes, that was his point. I can see where he’s coming from. Certainly, there could be some interesting insights to be gained from comparing the plan and the actual decisions made in class. I don’t think, however, that we need a several page long lesson plan for this. And there are numerous other ways we plan our lessons, which are in no way worse in my view, and much more realistic, actually. Why insist on the CELTA like approach to planning?
      Also, by requiring to produce a formal lesson plan each time we’re observed, places paramount importance on planning, arguably limiting every observation to a comparison between the plan and the actual lesson. If lesson planning was a teacher’s main PD aim, then fair enough. Otherwise, it seems like an unnecessary effort, which takes the focus away from the actual PD goals a teacher might have.

      1. but don’t you feel from your teaching experience that well-planned lessons are the ones which are the most successful? I feel that I couldn’t have produced the high-calibre lessons I delivered during Delta without having planned them first (obviously minus the essays ^_^)

        1. I’m not that sure. I find the CELTA or DELTA like lesson plan very limiting and stressful. It’s also so long and detailed that can be more difficult to follow than a simple flow chart, for example.
          I definitely feel my DELTA lessons benefited a lot from thorough planning, i.e. thinking a lot about all the procedures, goals, outcomes, etc. However, I’m not sure whether writing it all down and producing a 10 page lesson plan made the lesson any more successful. It was just a cumbersome addition which took forever to prepare.
          So planning is beneficial. But writing long and detailed lesson plans, if not a complete waste of time, then an unnecessary pain in the neck.
          I must say I’m really enjoying this conversation. How about we write our exchange down into a blog post? Could be interesting, argument, counter argument. What do you think?

        1. Marek, how can you say/know that it might be the wrong nail? In my previous comment, I was only elaborating on Anthony’s ideas, i.e. I was not trying to disprove any of your theories. I actually agree with you. Judging by Anthony’s reply to my comment, it seems he’s confirmed my interpretation of his post. I just wanted to say yours was an unnecessary remark, and rather dismissive to my taste, even though you put a smiley face at the end of it. 😉 But I’m not angry – I still like what you’re doing for the ELT world. 🙂

          1. Hi Hana,
            I’m sorry if you’ve taken my comment the wrong way. I wasn’t being dismissive at all. Just sarcastic. I rarely treat the world (or myself) in a serious way. Just the way I am. But apologies if you thought I was being dismissive of your comment.
            Re disproving my theories, I always enjoy a bit of a debate. World would be a really boring place if we all agreed.
            Have a lovely Sunday!

            1. No problem, Marek. I can be sarcastic too, but I try hard to bridle my tongue, especially in the virtual world, where lots of misunderstandings can occur. As I said, keep doing what you’re doing for the ELT world. Lovely Sunday to you too!

  6. Wow, I am really glad you wrote this. You covered all of my points, so now I don’t have to write this myself. You are dead on about what I have always said about lesson plans. Truly, a great teacher can think about a topic, make mental notes about things he might want to discuss, and the remainer depends entirely on interaction with the students in the classroom. Making a highly detailed lesson plan is like making a detailed plan of what you will discuss on a coffee date. Not only would I feel ridiculous doing it, but I could not possibly predict which direction the conversation might go. I totally agree with you about the certication programs, which is one reason I have avoided getting certified in my seven years teaching ESL abroad. Though I feel like there are some valuable things that can be learned in the program from other teachers who have had experience, interaction with my students has been the best teacher for what actually works.

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