Planning Lessons – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught
This is a summary and a drawing together of several earlier posts. I consider it a refinement of my thinking and something which is painstakingly (and grandiosely) groping its way towards a total philosophy of planning. It does also attempt to offer something new but is this enough to deserve a new post? You decide.
“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
Smug teachers, everywhere
As a new teacher, lesson planning seemed to suck up almost all of my available time and energy. Looking back over those frenetic early years it’s become increasingly clear that I wasted an awful lot of effort designing activities rather than considering what my students needed to learn. That is to say, I put most of my effort into things that had only a marginal impact on students’ learning.
The Pareto Principle, or The Law of the Valuable Few, suggests that in most fields of endeavour, people spend 80% of their time on those activities that produce 20% of the impact. Or to put it the other way, what I spend 20% of my time on will account for 80% of the impact I achieve.
What if, I started to wonder, I tried to turn those percentages around? What if I were to spend more of my time on those parts of my job that have the most impact and stop bothering with the guff? Well, in my increasingly obsessive quest for efficiency, I’ve arrived at the 5 (fairly obvious) principles below.
1. Time is precious
So, how can teachers’ time be most profitably spent? Research suggests feedback is top of the list and, for me at least, this is closely followed by absolute clarity on what, exactly, my students need to learn. Instead of planning individual lessons, I want to invest my time in medium term planning to break down the skills and knowledge they will need to learn to arrive at their destination. And as for feedback, there may all sorts of really efficient ways to give feedback during lessons, but for me nothing beats marking their books. Sitting on a pile of unmarked work for weeks is useless though – to have impact it needs turning around as quickly as possible. If I can set up lessons so that I’m marking while the students work then so much the better. But when that’s not possible I need to make sure that whatever time I have available is time spent marking.
2. Marking is planning
Which segues neatly into my second principle: every time you mark students’ work should be time spent working out whether they can do what you think they can and what they need to do next. Instead of just writing them feedback, I ask them individual questions, and set focussed tasks for them to complete in Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT). I’ve also argued before that marking is the purest form of differentiation.
3. Focus on learning not activities
I consider myself the enemy of activities! Loading lessons with things to do actively gets in the way of students learning whatever your clear, thoughtful objective was. Time spent planning card sorts, writing worksheets and lovingly crafting resources is, by and large, time wasted. Or at least, time that could have been spent doing something more profitable. If you’ve followed the first 2 principles, this one’s a no-brainer. Does the evidence in books match the expectations of your medium term plan? If not, remediate. If it does, move on but beware that what you think students have learned may well be forgotten by the time they need it, so ensure you plan to revisit this learning multiple times. Top tip: ask yourself, what will students think about during the lesson? What they think about is what they will remember.
4. Know your students
This sounds insultingly obvious but is easily forgotten. It’s a widely accepted truism that good teaching is founded on good relationships. Good relationships are, in their turn, founded on detailed knowledge and understanding of the kids you teach. At Clevedon School we use a system called Pen Portraits. Every term we write a mini ‘portrait’ of 5 students in each class based on the data we collect and our knowledge of their personalities, backgrounds and potential. By the end of the year you will have written a portrait of every student in every class you teach. This is all fine and dandy, but what gets done with this information? I try to work out how exactly I might be able to help these particular pupils and make sure that every student I teach gets at least one (but in practice more) lesson which has been planned just for them. And I tell them. Today you are my Pen Portrait student and this lesson is yours!
Also, knowing your students makes you bullet proof! You are the indisputable expert on how these students learn in your classroom, and woe betide anyone who comes in shouting the odds about what they would do differently!
5. The ‘1 in 4’ Rule
Let’s be realistic, churning out Outstanding (TM) lessons five or six times a day, every day is probably unsustainable. Working yourself into the ground benefits no one. In any given week I’ll spend a disproportionate of my planning time on one or two lessons, but most will be put together in 5 minutes or less. My formula is that if every fourth lesson for every class is a corker, all will be well. Students are forgiving creatures. They will happily dine off a barnstorming lesson for a week. Plus, if the lesson’s worth its salt it ought to produce work that is marked and then becomes next lesson’s menu anyway.
Like many teachers, I have utter contempt for planning pro formas. The often descend into a pointless round of box ticking and planning for planning’s sake. This immediately falls foul of my first planning principle. Happily though, Ofsted have stated explicitly that there is no need for written lesson plan; all they’re interested in is “evidence of planned lessons”. Therefore, my lesson planning consists of considering the following 5 questions:
1. How will last lesson relate to this lesson?
All too often the skills and knowledge learned in one lesson is not revisited the next. This assumes that if students have performed they must have learned. This is not the case. (See question 5 below.)
2. Which students do I need to consider in this particular lesson?
If I know my students then this is a darned sight easier. And if you’ve written ‘pen portraits’ for the students in your class it’s a cinch! Simply decide who you’re going to focus on, what their particular needs are and let them know when they arrive that they’re the lucky beneficiary of all your expertise and wisdom for today. Unsurprisingly, this has an enormous impact on the motivation of said student; you can see ‘em start glowing. And really, is there any better evidence of differentiation or personalised learning? I think not.
3. What will students do the moment they arrive?
Lesson time is too precious to waste having students sitting around waiting for tardy classmates to arrive – give them something that they can get on with immediately. This can be as straightforward as putting a question on your board, but can be used to build anticipation for the lesson ahead by projecting pictures or playing music. Of the biggest mistakes new teachers make is spending too long on bell work. Take quick feedback from one or two students if you must, but then move on. Never lose sight of the 4th planning question.
4. What are they learning, and what activities will they undertake in order to learn it?
I don’t care whether you refer to them as objectives, outcomes or intentions, but you do need to have considered what it is the students are in your classroom to learn, and how this will help them achieve within the big picture of your medium – long term plan. Most planning time gets wasted on activities rather than learning. Think about the Pareto Principle here and spend 80% of your time planning the objective. I’ve grown to love the Learning Outcome and in particular the way Zoë Elder suggests splitting it with ‘so that’: we’re learning X so that you can do Y. This then makes Step 5 much clearer.
The activity is largely irrelevant. What’s really important is what students spend the lesson thinking about. As Daniel Willingham says, “Memory is the residue of thought”: they will remember what they think about. So if you want students to learn about, say, osmosis, it won’t help for them to be asked to write rap or perform a short play. This would distract them from the idea of osmosis and make them think about rapping or acting. These might well be fun and interesting activities but they won’t help students learn what you want them to learn.
5. How will I (and they) know if they are making progress?
If you’ve designed your Learning Outcome well then it will be straightforward to check progress. If students have learned then they will have produced the desired outcome. Or will they? We should be wary I what I’ve termed The Input/Output Myth: what we as teachers put in, students will, de facto, learn.
Not so. Graham Nuthall talks about the belief that “engaging in learning activities…transfers the content of the activity to the mind of the student”. But “as learning occurs, so does forgetting.” In fact “learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible here-and-now of classroom activities.”
Dylan Wiliam says, “Learning is a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos.”
And Robert Bjork tells us that we need to disassociate learning from ‘performance’. Just because students have been able to respond to cues that they will have retained what has been taught. Instead we should consider ways of slowing down performance so that students are more likely to retain knowledge in long-term memory and transfer it to new domains.
True progress cannot happen in a single lesson but if everyone knows the learning destination we can judge how close we are to arriving.
‘Break’ your plan
The more practised you become, the quicker you’ll be able to rattle through these 5 questions. The only other advice I’d offer is to conduct a thought experiment I call breaking your plan. Knowing your students is crucial for this to be effective but all it involves is running though your lesson and testing it for weak spots. For me it becomes like a game of chess:
I’ll say X, and then she’ll do Y. OK, so I need to…
Or: when I want them to do X, he’ll need extra support so I need to make sure I’m free to support by doing Y.
If it’s a high stakes lesson I might spend a while doing this but normally a couple of minutes spent thinking in this way is all it takes to ensure that most of the kinks you can anticipate are ironed out.
So, these are the lessons I’ve learned about planning. They are, of course, just my thoughts although they are underpinned by 12 years of bitter experience. Please feel free to use, adapt or disregard as you see fit.