October 9, 2011 13 Comments
Lesson Planning is familiar to all teachers as an essential part of our jobs. It helps us organise our classes and shows our directors that we are prepared and know what we are doing. Detailed plans help break down our lessons visually into sections and include step-by-step activities, timings and even interactions. They can also include sections on anticipating problems and developing possible solutions. But are there any disadvantages to this high degree of planning? Anthony Gaughan recently suggested one:
“it’s curious though, that no standard lesson plan pro-forma contains sections asking learners to look out for opportunities and leverage points. The closest we get is asking, “what if this is too easy? (ie PROBLEM)”
With an extremely rigid plan that takes account of every minute and activity we can be faced with a difficult dilemma when a spontaneous learning opportunity arises: should we ignore it or seize it? The latter option will obviously mean diverging from the plan or even worse, abandoning it all together. For those of us who have been raised on a diet of daily lesson planning this thought could be petrifying.
When it comes to pro-forma planning, could there be a more effective system of lesson planning available to help with flexibility when faced with changing variable factors in the classroom? While I intend no disrespect to a well-planned lesson, I wonder if prospective planning makes us even more rigid in our profession and less willing to respond to these emerging phenomena in lessons?
Here are some examples of a few changing variables that I have come across in my class:
- Learners request some work on X grammar point in a lesson or want to know more about X topic for lexis
- A topic of conversation emerges from an activity that interests the class
- Homework designed to be integrated into the lesson is not done
- Half the class are absent
- Lesson aims turn out to be too easy/difficult for learners
- Not enough materials/activities planned for the lesson
Sound familiar? Of course, the seasoned teacher can easily react to these classroom interactions using years of knowledge built up from previous experience. With less experience though this is tends to be a bit trickier or even impossible.
If the path ahead is not clear, then why is planning so linear?
One thing I found particularly helpful in increasing the flexibility of my approach to teaching was creating a loose framework of a lesson to act as a guide. Adding potential avenues which the lesson could down to the plan made me feel more confident and better preapred to respond to classroom interaction. A month or so ago, I started a section of my blog called ‘lesson skeletons’, which is designed to be a space for lesson ideas that allow for deviation and include room for lesson interactions. What would a lesson skeleton include?
Here is an example of a lesson skeleton I use with classes:
|An activity that encourages discussion on a topic/language area||Sit in a circle count, stopping every 2/3 and say something about the public transport in the city you are in. Remove the stabilisers (counting) and allow discussions to run and questions to flow.|
|Consolidation of ideas to focus onto language||Ask learners to make a ‘good points’ and ‘room for improvement’ to consolidate and extend|
|An extension of language activity||Ask learners to write their ideas on one half of the board under ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Elicit some corrections and add related language on the other side of the board.Discuss as a class, pushing students to express their own standpoint.|
|Change of skills focus||Write a newspaper article supporting or criticising/letter to the mayor to suggest improvements|
|Change of language focus||Role-play a question and answer session in conference/political debate on the future of transport in the city.|
The left hand column represents a very simmered-down version of a lesson skeleton, stripped down to stage aims. The right hand column includes the introduction of a topic but not a language aim.
This skeleton would be useful either in preparation for a lesson with an initial language aim or with a focus on emerging language. It could be used to take a topic off the page of a course book and make it more engaging for a lesson. Alternatively, during a lesson it could be drawn upon to focus on a topic that has interested students.
As and when learning opportunities arise in the lesson, a skeleton allows deviation from the original aim or plan and for focus on what is immediately difficult or important for students. The space is there for making the most of learning opportunities and the teacher has the freedom to deviate, with ideas in mind to do so and exploit these moments.
Once having a skeleton in hand, I start to anticipate the sorts of language and difficulties that may emerge from it. If I have a lesson aim, I consider how quickly students will achieve it and the types of extra language related problems associated with it. Pre-lesson brainstorming in this way helps me predict, using what I know of teaching the level/using the skeleton/needs-analysis and makes the inevitable emergence of other classroom interactions easier to deal with when they come up. To aid me I have found it useful to put my ideas on paper in the form of a flow diagram containing extra stages in the lesson to deal various changeable variables.
Retrospective lesson planning – filling in the flesh
In a recent post, I looked at some of the advantages to teachers of keeping a reflective journal. I am a firm believer in the benefits of keeping a teaching journal and much of what I write in mine concerns the ‘flesh’ of the lesson – what was the language, how did I fill in the skeleton what would I do differently if given the opportunity to repeat the lesson. This raises four questions:
- Was the language suitable for my lesson aims/student difficulties/level?
- In each stage did I teach according to X-norm or Y-methodology or Z-belief about language learning?
- What have I learned about X-lesson skeleton/idea that I would include for the next time I use it?
- Did my lesson unfold as I had planned it to, if not then what type of classroom interaction made me deviate and how did I deal with this?
Reflecting in this way not only makes me more prepared for the next time I teach, but it also helps me identify my own teaching behaviours in the classroom, putting them under the microscope and forcing me to think about them in terms of learners and language.
Why lesson skeletons then?
- Let’s take it as cyclical process, in this way it stocks up your teaching ideas with a store of instantly retrievable lesson plans not only helpful for planning, but also during the lesson, as and when interaction opportunities arise. Since there is space for deviation within a lesson skeleton, it provides a blank canvas that can be applied during a lesson in response to classroom interaction.
- Much less necessity to administer a lesson plan has given me more chances to listen to students, take into consideration what they produce and anaylse it for how it can be extended and what there is to work on.
- Less time in front of the photocopier or resource book selecting and copying activities to pad out lesson time and supplement the course book because extra classroom time can be dedicated to extending language and reacting to interaction.
The syllabus and work records, how do the fit in?
Work records, aims, pages of the course book, language points to tick off on a syllabus – these are parts of daily life for many teachers. In fact, far from hindering, retrospective lesson planning and lesson skeletons may even provide a more accurate record of learning outcomes, skills covered and language covered during a course; it takes into account the fruits of harnessing the power of classroom interaction.
So instead of abandoning our lesson plan, a few minor tweaks to the structure and the mindset of planning a lesson mean that we make room space for deviation, making it less of a plunge into the deep end when responding to learning opportunities. With retrospective planning, there is always the chance to look back over things and learn from each experience, modifying the original plan and reflecting on how learning moments were harnessed to their full potential.
After all, if it goes wrong, you’ve just come across a learning opportunity…