Bad Form

I have, I believe, finally found the perfect lesson planning form. It’s genius, I tell you, and you will never find a better one. It’s so good, I’m going to share a picture of it.

Told you it was good. It is, of course, a plain piece of paper, in this case in a notebook, for ease of filing and rucksack storage. Lined or otherwise, I don’t mind, but these days, well, pretty much every day since I finished training, I use a page in a notebook. I used to like those big spiral bound notebooks, sometimes with dividers in (although that was a bit too organised), but more recently I’ve taken to using A4 size exercise books, preferably the ones with the non-glossy covers which can also act as a handy space for meeting-based doodling. They’re also lighter,which makes for easier velocipedic transportation: believe me, the weight of a change of clothes, an iPad, a notebook and assorted repair stuff can add up: not the only reason I avoid marking at home, but the main one. I like plain paper, rather than lined, but lined will do. I can be fussy about pens too: for preference, a black bic “crystal” ballpoint or, better, a Mitsubishi uni-ball pen, fine, not medium, also in black. In fact I’ve genuinely considered buying both pen and paper in bulk off Amazon, although that doesn’t allow me to indulge my stationery shop geek, during which I toy with buying alternatives then chicken out.

You will, I’m sure, have noticed the absence of boxes saying things like “starter” or “stage” or “differentiation” or “assessment” or “Embedding most recent government/ofsted/SLT fad”. Don’t be misled: this isn’t because I think this sort of thing is unimportant, although it’ll be a cold day in hell before I give more than a token damn about embedding British Values (and thus by exercising my democratic right to free speech, explicitly do this). No, rather it is because most of these things are built into the way I plan anyway, and even when they’re not, or when I’ve gone wrong with these things, including during formal observations with the boxes filled in, the presence of the boxes on a form haven’t helped.

There, then, is the key word: “help”. The whole point, point, in my mind, of a lesson plan form is to help a teacher to plan and organise their thoughts, and to bring them together in what should be a page, maybe two of concise notes to remind them what they are supposed to be doing, or rather (my top tip for novice teachers) what the students should be doing, why and in what order. I long ago stopped worrying about timing: it’s all about sequence for me. Lesson plans should help you to think about what you are going to do, think through your reasons , and then serve to support you during the lesson. For en experienced teacher, the plain sheet of paper may be enough for this, and for a less experienced teacher some sort of form may help with this.

All too often an institutional or teacher training course lesson plan goes beyond this simple requirement, and not always in a good way. I get it, I think, with the teacher training lesson plan. In this context, there is an explicit assessment element to the lesson planning and teaching part of teacher training, so there is a need for you to provide evidence to your observer/tutor that you have done certain things, as well as functioning as a tool to develop your planning skills, not to mention an aide-memoire, etc. during the lesson. It’s an assessed assignment, in effect, and like any assignment, it’s a chance for the learner-teacher to show their learning.

But what about the institutional lesson plan? This is where it all gets a bit split personality. On the one hand, the people arguing that the lesson plan form they are asking you to use will be telling you that “no, no, the lesson plan is to help you and make sure you remember all these key things, that’s all.” Unfortunately, there is almost always a subtext here of “…and we are also going to use it as a means of assessing whether you have remembered those key things”. Failure to include those key elements becomes a major issue, because, they will argue, you haven’t planned for them, even if they occur in the lesson. This is where, like so much to do with observation, it all starts to go a little bit Schrodinger. If you have observed, say, effective differentiation but it’s not written down, is it therefore the case that this is ineffective or less valuable differentiation? Is the implication here that the observer has no faith in the teacher? Can you extrapolate from this single point that therefore they don’t do do it all the time? This is surely guilty until proven innocent. Of course unplanned differentiation isn’t worse than planned differentiation, and is certainly a key aspect of live teaching and formative assessment. Indeed, any planned action is not always better or more effective than an unplanned one because of the planning

This leads me to the “support” argument for the standardised plan. Let’s say a department or even an institution has had “differentiation” identified as an area for improvement. The senior quality leader/manager/dude is likely to be a believer in an institutional lesson plan, and will believe, perhaps rightly, that their preferred form is the best for ensuring that differentiation happens. Therefore, they will decide that in order to make sure that differentiation is happening, all teachers must use the same lesson plan that has lots of room for differentiation. But again, the presence of a box on the plan, completed or not, doesn’t necessarily ensure that appropriate differentiation is going to happen. The same goes for a detailed group profile. I mean, I can write all sorts of stuff down on a piece of paper, but the presence of those things on a piece of paper doesn’t mean I’m going to any better at using said information. In fact, in more than one observed lesson, I’ve had differentiation notes written down and yet made a pigs ear of the differentiation. I’m ok at differentiating most of the time, I’d say; not brilliant, perhaps, but tend to rely on in-class observation of learning, monitoring and feedback, rather than extensive pre-planned differentiation, but whether this is good or bad is not the point at this stage. The point is that if there are any changes to be made, the changes need to be made to me, not the plan I’m using. Changing the nature, size, or number of boxes isn’t likely to change the way I think about planning, instead I need support and training.

The other argument for the institutional plan is consistency. It’s funny really, because I’ve always accepted this stance and never thought to question it, but it’s often cited that a department or institution needs to be consistent in its approach. Thinking this through, I find myself wondering how this works, exactly. My only thought, I suppose is that the consistency of planning format makes it easier to compare different lessons, and easier for an observer to make sense of what is happening because they aren’t spending time trying to work out what goes where. Otherwise, we are once more talking about supporting teachers to improve: everyone uses the same to make sure they are all doing certain things “right”, and again, the same problem arises: changing or insisting on a particular form may not achieve the change in or improvement in the teacher.

An institutional lesson plan form has one purpose and one purpose only: to help teachers of all ranges of experience, with a range of different contexts and students, to plan a lesson. Unfortunately, they so often fail in this regard because they are so full of the “reminders” about embedding various bits and pieces, not to mention some fairly clear underlying statements about the structure of a lesson and the attendant pedagogy that they are not a help at all. Lesson plan forms generally have a clear underlying stance on pedagogy and “what works”: even the much shared five minute lesson plan is pretty explicit in what it says constitutes a “good” lesson, regardless of whether you think it is right or wrong. The trouble with this sort of thing is that it s

So what then? It’s easy to throw stones, my own glass house notwithstanding, but what do we do? Is there a definitive answer? I’d argue for a free for all. Rather than having a single, one-size-fits-all set up, you have a range of different formats, including a blank piece of paper, from which you can select. Speaking personally, I’d probably like a great big poster on the wall above my desk saying “have you remembered..?” and will, once I have a proper desk again, be preparing one. Whatever; this way you’ve got word processed boxes for them as like it, the rather-more-than-five minute plan for the halfway houses, some sort of super individualised plan for workshops, as well as a couple of other options which departments can draw up themselves, with the option to use a blank sheet of paper if you want to. And you allow anyone to use anything. As long as it makes the learning in the lessons better, improves the student experience, and all those things, then to hell with consistency, compliance and all the rest.

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3 comments

  1. Agree entirely. Lesson plans are a frustrating piece of documentation that seem to be exclusively about forcing compliance from people who would have been pretty compliant in any case.

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