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.
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.