Tag Archives: Observation

Observations in ELT: a quality control tool

LOGO FINALIn this podcast we talk about being observed. In our own experience observations have mostly been used for quality control purposes and as teachers we have benefited little from many of them. As a result, we suggest how we think observations could be made more useful for teachers in terms of professional development.

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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).

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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: