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

Planning: still a good thing to do first

Planning: still a good thing to do first

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.

dirt

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.

Lesson plans

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]:

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?

The Input/Output Myth: If only!

The Input/Output Myth: If only!

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.

Related posts

The Problem with Progress part 3 – designing lessons for learning
Go with the flow – the 2 minute lesson plan
Work scrutiny – what’s the point of marking books?
Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson


[1] Adapted from the Huntingdon School Lesson Progress Map

33 Responses to Planning Lessons – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught

  1. […] This is @LearningSpy’s latest blog. The first para really rang true for me: […]

  2. […] Continued in Planning Lessons – lessons I’ve learned about how to plan. […]

  3. […] Failing to plan is planning to failSmug teachers, everywhereAs 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.  […]

  4. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks, David – I thought this was terrific. I started teaching in 1980 and I just don’t remember conversations about the importance of lesson planning in that decade (the dark ages, I know – before Ofsted…) despite the fact that I’d been though the PGCE/Probationary Year (as it was called) experience.

    I was a new Head of Department in the early 1990s and remember how time-consuming I found a lot of my new HoD tasks. On Sundays (which were always a Day of Work throughout my teaching career) I always had a list of jobs to do, and planning the following week’s lessons was usually at the bottom of the list. It was a job that always got done, but depending on how long other tasks had taken, it was sometimes rushed.

    One week we had a two-day departmental inspection by a lone HMI. It was a Big Thing to this new HoD and I decided I’d reverse my usual order of doing things and plan the following week’s lessons first, when I had plenty of time/energy and I was fresher. The difference was striking – my lessons had always been fine (these were biddable students) but having spent considerably more time and thought on what I wanted to do and what I wanted them to get out of each lesson, the lessons were so much better. I enjoyed them more, and I could see the students were just moving further forward in their thinking and learning.

    For the rest of my career, including when I was a (teaching) head twenty years later, I still planned my lessons before I did any other work on a Sunday. It was one of the most productive uses of my time.

  5. Harry Webb says:

    I was wondering whether you have read any of Zahoric’s research on lesson planning. I summarise some of it here – http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/we-love-it-when-a-plan-comes-together/

  6. learningspy says:

    Thanks Harry – no, I’d never heard of Zahoric before. It’s fascinating that planning could actually undermine our teaching!

    And also interesting that planning should provide opportunities for students to feedback to students. I’ve blogged about this here: http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/02/20/feedback-its-better-to-receive-than-to-give/

  7. @Teacher_TS says:

    A fascinating read, David. I am two years into the profession and feel that I have well and truly been in the time management / Planning Vs Marking quandary since September.

    Thank you for posting, will look out for more of your blogs in future.

  8. […] Planning lesson: lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught Are worksheets a waste of time? […]

  9. Catherine Donaldson says:

    David,
    Thanks for a great lot of information and reassuring thoughts. I was wondering if you’d talk more about the pen portraits. I have never heard the term before and in the past have struggled to find the right way to collect and communicate such information to help with student identification and continuity from teacher to teacher and grade to grade. Any chance you’d share more- specifically how they look/what information is recorded/student involvement. I’ve been percolating and planning how to implement, but not one to reinvent the wheel if something else is already done well. Anything you’d share would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks for all of your great ideas- keep them coming!

    • David Didau says:

      Pen portraits were developed as a way to get teachers to interact more usefully with data. The idea is that you cross reference your knowledge of a student against what the data says about them to put together some classroom strategies for use with that particular student. Teachers are asked to select 5 students from each class and to write a brief summary of the student and how they planned to cater for their needs. Ideally, this information would then be shared with the student. Does that help?

      • Stella says:

        As a new (mature) teacher to the profession, this sounds good – I am in my third year of teaching and will be moving on to a new school in September (with lots of exciting opportunities and developments). However, what have YOU done with the data you gathered – can you please give examples? I’m thinking that as the tutor for a new form, I could get the kids to do this on each other – extra info, fills a tutor time constructively and you get an insight into both the writer and the subject. Thank you for your advice.

  10. […] 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.  […]

  11. […] Anatomy of an outstanding lesson The myth of progress in lessons by Kev Bartle Lesson planning – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught […]

  12. […] NB: This post does no longer represents my latest thinking. I’ve updated my approach to planning here. […]

  13. […] I will talk anyone to death about how Twitter has transformed my teaching. Even I find it difficult to comprehend sometimes just how much I’ve gained from seeing the posts of some truly inspirational teachers. One thing that I stumbled across last year was @learningspy‘s use of DIRT for marking and feedback. I can honestly say it has transformed the way I mark and there has been a marked improvement in both the QUALITY and the FREQUENCY of the feedback I give to pupils. I am very grateful to David for sharing this and you can read more about DIRT here. […]

  14. […] year. It’s well out of date and even has a disclaimer at the top directing traffic to this updated planning post. The title itself was a joke based on the 7 minute abs gag from There’s Something About […]

  15. mrbenney says:

    I know you possibly disagree with parts of what you have written but I think this is excellent advice on the key to planning lessons. Learning not tasks. Perfect.
    Damian

  16. […] Example Posts: 1) Planning Lessons – Lessons I’ve Learnt About How to Plan […]

  17. […] “how?”‘ (see her comment on this post).  More simply, as David Didau has written, I’m focusing ‘on learning not activities.’  What I think is needed to plan a […]

  18. […] Planning lesson: lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught Are worksheets a waste of time? […]

  19. […] Planning Lessons – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught – David Didau […]

  20. […] you have the time, search the word planning. Further reading Never enough time? Lesson planning? 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 […]

  21. Thanks David, this is really clear and concise and I’m relieved to see that I’m not alone in spending much more time thinking about learning of my specific students than I do planning particular activities.

    And you do make me laugh: “…12 bitter years of experience.” – I’m sure they’ve not all been bitter! (Especially as it must now be 14 or 15)

  22. […] 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 Planning: still a good thing to do first As a new teacher, lesson planning seemed to suck up almost all of my available time and energy. 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. What if, I started to wonder, I tried to turn those percentages around? 1. […]

  23. […] Planning lessons – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught Fireworks teaching – why less might well be more Easy vs Hard […]

  24. […] “how?”‘ (see her comment on this post).  More simply, as David Didau has written, I’m focusing ‘on learning not activities.’  What I think is needed to plan a […]

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