What’s the point of planning?

Planning has been on my mind a bit recently. Not long ago I had to produce a full lesson plan for the first time in ages (a British Council Inspection). It took almost as long to write as the lesson (a 3 hour lesson) took to teach. If you’re curious, or fancy trying out a lesson from my secondary course book, Real Life, the  plan (Lesson_Plan_RRoberts-10-7-12-Adv) and the materials are here. Real Life Advanced Page 1.1 Real Life Advanced Page 1 Real Life Advanced Page 2 Real Life Advanced Page 3

What’s the point in spending nearly three hours on a lesson plan? Surely, that’s just a colossal waste of time? Well, actually I think there was a point. This was an inspection in which someone who had never seen me or the class before was going to parachute in and make an assessment (it’s another argument whether that’s an effective way to assess learning and teaching). Given the circumstances, I needed to show the inspector not just what was happening in the twenty minutes they were in the class, but that I had an overview of what we were trying to achieve, and that the decisions I had made were based on sound underpinnings. In other words, that I knew what I was doing, and more importantly, why I was doing it.

Now, I should say right now that I am not and never have been in favour of teaching the plan rather than the students. A good plan is simply that- a plan. And plans can and should be changed according to circumstances.  If you planned a surprise party for your partner and no-one else turned up to wait for the guest of honour, would you still jump out from behind that sofa?! On the other hand, if you didn’t plan anything at all for that special birthday, but just decided to go with the flow, you might have a great time, or you might have a very disgruntled partner.

So I nearly always have a plan when I walk into the classroom, though it may well be more of the back of an envelope type than the full plan described.

After twenty years in the classroom, I don’t feel the need to write a full plan, not because I don’t think I need a plan but because most of it is in my head.  Tessa Woodward has a great way of describing this:  Fluent speakers are fluent because they are able to string together chunks of pre-prepared language, providing what Thornbury refers to as ‘islands of reliability’. Woodward makes the point that more experienced teachers also have practised sequences or chunks that they know how to string together to make a lesson. This doesn’t mean that every lesson should be the same, but that we are automatically able to do a lot in the classroom without having to consider each action too carefully. It’s the same as learning to drive. At first you can’t think how you are ever going to manage to slow down, change through the gears, signal and look in the mirror at the same time, but soon it’s second nature.

[Having said that, it isn’t a great idea to get so comfortable with your routines that you aren’t even aware of driving, and neither should we get too comfortable with our teaching routines.]

When I first started teaching I did use to spend a LOT of time planning, and as a CELTA, and DELTA tutor, I would positively encourage teachers to do the same, within reason. It’s going through that process that helps you to start to put these chunks together (CELTA), and pull them apart and consider exactly why you’re doing everything (DELTA).

There was an interesting exchange about planning recently on Tony Gurr’s excellent blog . I’ll let you check it out the debate for yourself, but the quote that stuck for me [i.e. agreed with my point of view 😉 ] came from Brad Patterson, who said:

‘’I have to admit that most of my lesson planning is in my head – don’t think I’ve written one down on paper for 15 years. But the planning I do in my head is still influenced by the planning I had to do on paper in the past. In my head, I can still hear the voice of my dip tutors asking me to think about why I’m planning on doing something, what the students will learn/practice – getting me to focus on objectives (or learning outcomes) rather than just on activities. Hated having to write out lesson plans at the time, but looking back I’m glad I did.’’


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Planning, Teaching methodology

9 Responses to What’s the point of planning?

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Really enjoyed this blog post and the lesson plan. The color coding for types of students targeted in the task is a great idea. I’m not a great lesson planner although, like you I used to spend a lot of time on detailed lesson plans. Now I find that ‘private time’ and ‘work time’ have blurred so that if a good idea for a lesson comes to me I on the train or in a conversation I can mentally file it away and use it without writing it down. But when it’s evaluation time I prepare a detailed lesson plan and find that I do enjoy the act of creative imagination it entails.


    • Thanks, Kevin. Yes, I’m the same- though definitely wouldn’t want to spend that long as a matter of course! I think that specifically thinking about how to support or stretch different students is one of the best things I learnt from ESOL teaching.

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  6. Shumila Malik

    It was good to read your thoughts. I am convinced that lesson plans have something positive to offer. However, I have never made a lesson plan myself, not a detailed one at least! Everyday I plan what I’m going to teach and how but it’s all in my head. I do write the topics/ chapters in my diary though. I firmly believe that a lesson plan is a requirement to facilitate school management and has nothing to do with teachers’ skills and capabilities. A good teacher is someone who knows her lessons and syllabus well and can teach with or without a lesson plan.

    • I certainly wouldn’t write a plan in this much detail every time I taught. Usually a lot of what I am planning to do is in my head, and my plan is just a skeleton guide, which I will adapt or even throw out altogether depending on how the lesson progresses. However, I think planning in detail is sometimes a very useful process as it forces you to really think about what you’re doing and why.

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