The problem with lesson planning

Time brings all things to pass.


Because the curriculum is divided up into units – terms and lessons – our thinking about how to teach is constrained. The school year is sectioned into six more-or-less equal terms and so it’s become law that each year be split into six self-contained units. Similarly, the school day is divided into units of delivery – lessons – and for the entirety of my years in classrooms the lesson has been viewed as a self-contained unit of learning; the lesson has been the ultimate expression of teaching quality.

My resistance to the lesson as the apogee of teaching as been a liminal process. It grew with the dawning realisation that learning cannot be seen, only inferred from students’ performance. Whatever students might appear to do in lessons, learning takes time. If we rely on learning taking place within neat hour-long blocks then the complexity of what can be learned is necessarily limited. That might be fine if all we wanted to impart were superficial, atomised blocks of knowledge or mechanistic procedures for writing essays or performing calculations. If however we want students to grasp the complex and troubling nature of the underpinning concepts of the subjects we teach then an hour is not going to be enough.

Teaching sequence

These slow apprehensions led me to conceive of teaching as a sequence. I’ve written extensively about the Teaching Sequence for Independence which can, I think, be adapted to allow students to master most anything, but it wasn’t until reading Bodil Isaksen’s post, A lesson is the wrong unit of time, that the final piece of the puzzle dropped neatly into place. She says:

Thinking about an individual lesson leads us down the wrong path to the wrong solutions. Inspiration is not something cultivated by a one-off lesson. It is the product of day-in day-out ethos and teaching… Our planning is weakened by lesson-based thinking. It makes it too easy to forget about cohesion and natural progression over time.

As ever, when a thought has been simmering away in the back of your mind, someone else’s clear articulation of exactly what you think seems suddenly obvious. But in terms of my own learning, it’s taken me several years and a good deal of hard work to arrive at this inspiration.

Lessons always will be the unit of delivery in schools – there’s probably no other practical way to carve up the curriculum – but they do not have to be the unit of planning. Dividing schemes of work into individual lessons distracts teachers from concentrating on what is to be learned over time.

But what about planning lessons? As a young teacher, I was naturally preoccupied more by what children would do than what they would learn. I became more and more skilled at turning out polished, crafted lessons in which students did a little bit of everything. I explained something new, provided success criteria to guide their performance, got them to grapple with these ideas in groups and then got them to spend 5-10 minutes practising individually. At the end of these lovingly prepared, pedagogical gems, students would feel confident that they had learned something. But, as I slowly came to see, they often forgot what they had appeared to learn. Is this progress?

With experience, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with stripping out as many activities as possible to really isolate exactly what it is I want children to learn. I’ve come to understand that some concepts require extensive explanation and some skills need considerable modelling. It takes time for students to become confident that they can attempt something that seems beyond their current level of competence and it takes just as long to remove the scaffolding used to generate this confidence to prevent them becoming dependent on it. And finally I hugely underestimated the time it takes for students to practise applying new knowledge until it becomes fluent, until it’s mastered.

Anyone who judges learning, or worse, teaching on a single lesson is a fool. The argument over grading individual lesson has largely been won, but we are still shackled by the constraints of a lesson.  If we expect children to make progress over the course of a lesson then will we look for and value superficialities. When we accept that anything of worth takes time then we can tell students that what we want them to learn is too hard to pick up in a single lesson – it will take them weeks, months to begin to understand what it’s taken us years to become expert in. If teachers are to be acknowledged as experts then they need to be trusted to teach in the way they judge best allows their students to grasp vital but troublesome concepts.

30 Responses to The problem with lesson planning

  1. heatherfblog says:

    Great stuff! I think the fact I teach in a school with 35 minute lessons has helped me see how the idea of perfect individual lessons constrains us. With such short lessons you cannot realistically craft perfect individual lessons. Your teaching is necessarily more of a rolling process and the balance and variety happens between lessons rather than within them. It will be brilliant for education in schools if more teachers realise that learning isn’t something that happens in bite sized lesson chunks.

  2. CraftyTeacher says:

    I have been having an ongoing conversation about a shared class I teach. Looking in their books between myself and the other teacher it was difficult to ‘tell the story’ of what we were teaching. We had necessarily split the lessons so that we taught discreet chunks and that was causing issues with students flow of learning.
    We have since planned a series of lessons that flow better and the ‘story’ is more visible in books, but it is still difficult to get students to connect what I teach last lesson a Monday with what the other teacher teaches first session on a Tuesday, especially as he and I have no time for conversation between the two sessions.
    I think we do realise that learning doesn’t happen in Bitesize chunks and that we need to be constantly referring backwards and forwards to past and future learning. Unfortunately the logistics is not always there to do it properly, and with certain observers (internal and external!) still looking for measurable, demonstrable, rapid progress within the lesson, we are still constrained by ‘expectations’, real or imagined.
    Any ideas are always appreciated!

    • David Didau says:

      I’d suggest you and your colleague try to teach in a way that doesn’t attempt to follow on from each other’s lessons but rather attempts to locate lessons within a teaching sequence. Are you explaining today? Or practising?

      Depending on how evenly your class is split it might be more useful to see if you can divide what needs to be taught into 2 separate sequences?

  3. I wonder if students ever viewed things this way? (Doubt it). Also, I guess in the primary setting there is at least the option of extending a lesson if the kids seem to be struggling, or especially fired up….even taking a whole day on something if desired?

    • David Didau says:

      Oh, I think they do! Obviously they’ll see superficial connections between content covered in one lesson and the next but they’re unable to see the deep structure of a teaching sequence because their knowledge is, as yet, too inflexible.

      The solution, as ever, is to give them as much of the puzzle as possible before expecting them to fit pieces together.

      • Interesting. I guess this is because teachers have been sharing the lesson objectives….and asking them what they have learned today…..I don’t recall this from when I was at school, more frequently being relieved that there was still time (before any exams) to revisit the lesson content and master it. Another case of unintended negative consequences.

  4. I completely agree with this. I’m currently redesigning our ‘official’ lesson plan template to make even more explicit the links to prior and subsequent learning and the relevance they have to the lesson in question, whilst trying to ‘de-formularise’ what is expected from the format of any given lesson. Essentially, the idea is that the content/format of the lesson can be anything as long as it clearly works towards the overarching learning objective and explicit links are made to this for the children to keep checking-in with.

    There is also an overt reference to ‘secondary’ learning objectives within the lesson where pupils are consolidating previous learning.

    • David Didau says:

      Top tip: do away with a lesson planning proforma altogether. Inexperienced teachers will perhaps need support in designing teaching sequences, but I find these 5 questions enough to work out what needs to be covered in a lesson:

      1. How will last lesson relate to this lesson?
      2. Which students do I need to consider in this particular lesson?
      3. What will students do the moment they arrive?
      4. What are they learning, and what will they think about?
      5. How will I (and they) know if they are making progress?

      • The best lesson planning proforma is a blank piece of paper – I get infuriated by three pages of box ticking which mostly have little relevance on the teaching in the lesson.

        Having a blank sheet means that as you plan you can think about specific interventions, expected misconceptions etc as you go . This means then that instead of having a box on page 3 with SEN, AG&T, (acronym list goes on.. ) identified and a nice twee statement – you can think ‘when they are doing this – these pupils will need’ ‘To challenge pupil x this question will be perfect when’

  5. This is gold. Where I teach high school, we’ve, thankfully, never been evaluated on a single lesson. Even beginning teachers are “observed” by at least three admin/lead teachers over at least six lessons, and even this is done mostly to see the confidence/comfort level of the teacher rather than the perceived level of learning in students.

    I fear that the model you describe is gaining traction here, though. This, it seems to me, is a function of an attempt to call into question the professional autonomy that teachers here have largely enjoyed. I, for one, can’t even imagine working under such conditions and I hope the kind of reason submitted in your post prevails everywhere.

  6. David that quote is so powerful – says it all. (Thinking about an individual lesson leads us down the wrong path to the wrong solutions. Inspiration is not something cultivated by a one-off lesson. It is the product of day-in day-out ethos and teaching….Our planning is weakened by lesson-based thinking. It makes it too easy to forget about cohesion and natural progression over time.)

    An example – reflecting on my Year 11s – their mock and subsequent discussions with them made me realise that Trigonometry was causing problems – I have been sneaking it in to Revision starters since then and I know they are now more comfortable with it and far more confident. Their improvement in this topic has had nothing whatsoever to do with a single lesson!

    • David Didau says:

      A great example! Have you considered deliberately planning in this way? Acknowledging that children will take time to grasp tricky concepts and interleaving it into the curriculum ahead of time? Maybe also trying to take advantage of the testing effect?

  7. ijstock says:

    I think you’re very right. I’ve always instinctively seen what I teach as a continuum. To some extent, I have been forced by expectations to chunk things, but more often, I think of a topic as a whole, with any number of possible stopping points. Recap and prediction are built in as routine.

    Normally it is possible to predict where a given session will stop, and things are no different from the normal pattern, but if the class moves more or less quickly, it is easy to stop at a different point instead. Decent subject knowledge and long experience means there is never a lack of homework etc. no matter where we end. This does mean that sometimes matters of understanding are left open until the next lesson – but what’s wrong with a bit of suspense?

    If you view teaching as a heuristic process, and knowledge as a continuum, such an approach ought not be seen as a problem.

    • David Didau says:

      I’d argue that unless “matters of understanding are left open until the next lesson” children will stop thinking in between lessons. I think they need to know that their understanding is necessarily incomplete.

  8. Hasten the day when ofsted catches up

  9. […] how to assess pupils now a commission is being set up to tell schools how they should assess. 2. The problem with lesson planning – David Didau on his blog The Learning Spy started the month looking at lesson planning. 3. […]

  10. […] is due to the nature of lessons, which the fantastic David Didau explains much better than I can in his piece on lesson planning. It makes perfect sense: of course not all students will progress at the same amount in […]

  11. teachwell says:

    Only just reading this. I actually spoke to the Lead Inspector the last time a school in my last school (October 2014 so still relatively recent) and told him that I wasn’t following one hour lesson chunks at all but instead choosing when it might require 20 minutes or a whole afternoon, etc. Gave him examples from the history unit we were teaching (what is the point of teaching an hour long lesson on the concept of ‘age’ in history with regards to Stone Age to Iron Age? It is a concept they would need to grapple with throughout the unit and hopefully start to understand towards the end but needs building on each year). There was zero comeback, if anything I was told he was impressed.

    While primary school teachers do have more scope to not block everything into hour long lessons, they have not been allowed to use this freedom much. The whole progress in a lesson (preferably 20 minutes – how manufactured) is just as prevalent. The literacy and numeracy hours were one of the worst things to happen to primary schools. It has not delivered in terms of learning and actually prevented teachers from teaching genuinely cross-curricular lessons.

    The creative curriculum is anything but – a central idea around which all subjects are tenuously linked. I managed to help drive the new curriculum in my previous school and move away from it. Links where they were meaningful and stand alone units if required. At least that way there was some real progression to knowledge and skills over time.

  12. […] Didau’s blog posts are dedicated to this subject – I would definitely suggest having a read of this, this and this – and I’m convinced that when I redesign the KS3 curriculum I need to think […]

  13. […] I now ‘plan less’ by ensuring that I worry about the WHAT and WHY first and the HOW much later. For each lesson, as long as I know the content and knowledge I need to pass on to my students and why they need to know or practise this particular skill or task then I can pretty much create my lesson. How I do that has come with practise. I now have an array of tasks, methods, resources and activities I can pull upon to ensure that knowledge and content is shared with students. I no longer spend ages writing out explanations or example paragraphs on PPTs for my own lessons.  I found @thelearningspy’s blog post on lesson planning formula useful when I first started to plan less: […]

  14. […] that they teach as well as they can. The question is, is the demand for planning extraneous? I see lesson planning as a straightjacket leading to more mediocre teaching – understanding how to design sequences of lessons – to have insight into planning a […]

  15. […] If instead we were to share our intention for students to struggle with threshold concepts, then we could tell them that it might take them weeks to wrap their heads around such troublesome knowledge. We could remind them that in this lesson they are making progress towards a goal and that there is no expectation for them to ‘get it’ in the next hour or even the next week. Lessons may be the unit of delivery but that doesn’t mean they must be the unit of planning or…. […]

  16. […] The problem with lesson planning via @LearningSpy […]

  17. […] is partly as a result of the thinking which Bodil Isaksen has done here and also from working with David Didau during the course of this […]

  18. […] lesson? I’ve written before about the problems with planning lessons and think this structure, while appropriate sometimes, should be resisted as a template for every […]

  19. Stuart Garner says:

    So much sense here. If only my Performance Management Team Leader had read it: Just before Xmas, I had to produce statistical evidence that at least 85% of the children in my class had made progress in a lesson consolidating something they had been taught previously because she couldn’t see enough evidence of progress in the 45 or so minutes she was in the lesson.

    I protested that maybe she hadn’t seen much progress because one lesson wasn’t sufficient time to show measurable progress and thus proving 85% of them had made progress in that time wasn’t very realistic. I knew I’d lost the argument when, in response, I was asked “Shouldn’t teachers want 100% of their children to make progress every lesson?” (A pernicious changing of the focus which called my professionalism and aspirations for my pupils into question rather than admit what I was being asked to do was absurd).

    I duly provided some numbers (all utterly meaningless and mostly made up) based on a piece of writing the children did the next day, but it satisfied the need to measure something and thus improved the grading of that element of my lesson.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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