Not planning to succeed

A few of my lesson plan files

The well-known and often quoted adage states that ‘to fail to plan is to plan to fail’ but by failing to plan, does it really follow that I will fail and, in any case, what constitutes planning? 

The powers that be call for a comprehensive lesson plan with detailed aims and outcomes referenced to the curriculum with a breakdown of timings, teacher activities and methods, learner activities, information about the differentiation proposed at each stage, how learning is to be assessed, the resources to be used, and then finally space for an evaluation of the session.  Personally, I like all the information to be clear and not too verbose, fitting on one side of A4 so that I can easily and discreetly refer to it during the session as necessary.  However, the information required extends to at least two pages of 9-pitch type, too small to be able to see without close examination.  The requirement to produce such a detailed plan raises a number of questions: 

1.            Who is the plan for?

2.            What is it for?

3.            Is a lesson only planned if it’s on paper? 

Events last week have led me to question the need for such a complicated and complex plan.  Let me explain why. 

Last Monday, I had a perfectly planned session on question tags for my intermediate English class, because I do know how to do this and am (dare I say it) adept at producing the required document to the highest standard.  I delivered the session, it went according to plan, and yet I left the classroom feeling dissatisfied.  Why?  It had all felt a little flat, mechanical, dull.  On Tuesday, due to personal circumstances, I hadn’t been able to write a plan – in fact, I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t even have a lesson for my elementary class.  I picked up the previous day’s resources and headed to the classroom.  I had no idea what would happen, whether they would have previous knowledge of question tags, or would be able to grasp the concept and work with it.  We did the warmer and then I asked ‘You know what a question tag is, don’t you?’ by way of introduction.  They looked at me blankly or averted their eyes.  The room fell silent.  My heart sank.  What was I going to do without the security of perfectly planned lesson?  I was adrift in uncharted territory and there was no going back.  I wrote my tag question on the board and repeated it, looking round the room hopefully.  Silence. 

Then one student piped up ‘Yes, I do.  End.  Don’t you.  Put on sentence’.  Light dawned on another learner ‘Oh, yes.  I know but not name.’  One or two others joined in, realising they had some knowledge; others became interested, waiting for this mystery to be revealed.  We were off. 

To cut a long story short, I fed off the learners’ knowledge, getting them to suggest examples, which we wrote on the board, correcting, practising and creating more examples as we went along, dealing with and then practising irregularities as they arose, doing spoken or written practice as it felt appropriate.  Basically, I responded to the learners, their existing knowledge and what they wanted or needed to know based on the questions they asked.  The lesson was lively and dynamic, the learners fully engaged and involved in this non-elementary level topic.  How could I possibly have planned for this?  

So I would say that a detailed lesson plan can look good, it can tick all the right boxes, but at the same time it can be restrictive.  If a teacher has spent a great deal of time and effort creating it, they might be more inclined or feel more pressured to follow it – after all, deviating from it rather defeats the purpose of producing it in the first place.  Does a plan really have to be detailed and in print?  Isn’t it just as valuable to have a vague idea of what you propose to cover but to decide if, when and how to do it in response to the learners’ needs and interests as the session progresses?  Surely producing a plan is prescriptive: the sign of an arrogant teacher assuming they know everything about their group of learners and can foresee what should and will happen in the classroom.  I’m not planning to fail by failing to plan – I’m not planning in order to succeed.

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