Planning Permission

Ah planning. Some hate it and some love it. Some suffer from delusions about it (like “I don’t plan”), some suffer from perpetual agonies (“How much detail? Why? What do I put in that box?”). It’s a hard trick to master, and there is clearly a link between the amount of time spent planning and the number of years spent teaching.

It’s at the front of my mind at the moment, with lesson observations coming up, and a new format being rolled out at work this year, lots of people are worrying about this, myself included. Then I read this http://www.esletc.com/2010/07/01/how-i-plan-a-lesson/ and it got me thinking not just about how I plan but also why we do it. For me a lesson plan is an essential thing. Anyone who tells you “I don’t plan” means not that they don’t plan, but that they don’t fill in the little proforma and tick all those boxes. It’s a kind of tossing of the hair and stamping of the feet diva moment. Sometimes they even say “pah!” (always a good chuckle is when people say this).

So how? Really? I have to start with an aim. Anyone who writes without an aim (at least one) is lying to themselves. It’s not always SMART, or linked to the adult esol core curriculum http://www.excellencegateway.org.uk/sflcurriculum , but I can do this if I need to. I would question why we have to cross reference to the core curriculum (after all, who checks these things) but LOs should at least be fairly specific and achievable.

I do generally write it down. Not because the thing needs to be recorded but because the act of writing helps me to formalise and structure the ideas in my head, and highlight the really bad decisions. The other week I actually wrote a new lesson plan based on a handwritten session plan based on a previous word processed session plan, ironically on the subject of planning. For me getting this down on paper made me think carefully about it.  I favour a bullet point approach, being a linear kinda guy – start with a big blank sheet of paper and put my first idea about a third of the way down the page, generally because having written the plan with nice little numbers (1, 2, 3, 4 etc) I end up adding a zero, and then a couple of 3a, 3b type stages. I can’t say why I like the numbering, it is, after all, just a list, making the numbers somewhat redundant.

At the same time, I cast around for some materials: is there a published worksheet somewhere? Where’s that really good handout gone? What did I do with it? There’s often a moment where my memory has distorted the handout and it’s actually a bit rubbish. Do I want to design a new version of something else.? Or can i do it without any materials but the resources brought to the room by the learners – creativity, enthusiasm, life. This is my favourite thing at the moment. Creating opportunities for real genuine communication, rather than some sort of hokey role play cooked up by the teacher for the teacher, or some lame interactive activity (there’s a distinction between interaction and communication – and I’m sorry but a computer is a tool used in order to communicate, and one can only interact with a computer, despite the best efforts of AI developers – see http://www-ai.ijs.si/eliza/eliza.html for an admittedly simple example of this).

Also at the same time, and on reflection there’s no sequence here, just a lot of stuff happening at the same time from the jumping off point of the lesson aim, I look at the sequence of activities, opportunities to be exposed to, practice, make mistakes with, and generally fool around with the language I wish to teach or skill I wish to develop. I don’t think I can classify my teaching as PPP, or TTT, or ESA, ARC or anything else. I think it’s looser than that. Generally, I want to engage learners with the subject in some way, remove barriers to the learning (e.g. pre-teach tricky vocab for a reading text), then do the teaching – I like learners to discover new language, so often teach language through a text and encourage learners to notice the language. Another thing I like is to create “gaps” for students to try to fill, a situation where they need to communicate but may not have the language with which to do so. I use analogy (past continuous is like present continuous, for example) to help explain, or careful questioning to draw and establish meaning. Ss can usually work it out for themselves, which I find much more useful a process than simply being told.

Finally there is practice. Opportunities to do something with the language. Controlled, Freer, free practice are all useful concepts but all basically some sort of practice.

Then there is the why.

I’m very much thinking now about who we do formal planning for? When we do write minute by minute lesson plans it’s usually for some sort of punitive reason – a college observation or course we are doing. In these instances we are demonstrating that we can do it, and I understand this. However, producing such plans on a daily basis for a 21+ hour teaching week is ridiculous in terms of workload and demonstrates nothing to nobody except that you can fill in forms. I do plan in detail, I have all the sub aims, and micro stages and assessment activities all sketched out in my head. What I put on paper is different to what is in my head in terms of the detail but not the basic content and structure.

If you ask me about a particular section of a lesson, the whys and wherefores of that session, I can explain it to you. Indeed, take the time to ask me and I will really really appreciate the chance to sit down and reflect on a lesson and make changes to it. I can get better, and I will get better because you have pointed out the shortcomings. So please, come on in and tell me what you think…

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