Lesson planning is an essential part of a teacher’s professional life. In some cases, it consists of merely having a quick look at the syllabus and/or coursebook material a few minutes before the lesson and making rough decisions about what to do during the lesson. In others, lesson planning can be a tedious process involving thinking about the learners, their progress and their needs, the learning objectives that would be most appropriate at this point in time, the activities and materials which would help achieve those objectives, the problems that might crop up and possible ways of dealing with them – the list can go on!
On most qualifying teacher training courses, teachers are expected to draw up the latter type of lesson plan and produce a document that contains details of every decision the teacher has made and, on an advanced course like the Cambridge DELTA, the reasons why they made those decisions. While this may not be the type of lesson plan the teacher will be expected to produce on a daily basis in their professional career, compiling a detailed lesson plan is seen as an essential part of the teacher learning process and is part of the assessment requirements on many qualifying courses for teachers.
Benefits of lesson planning
The general consensus both among trainers and among teachers is that detailed lesson planning is indeed conducive to the teachers’ professional development, as it forces them to carefully consider all the parameters that can affect learning, the most important of which I would summarise as follows:
- the learners themselves and the learning context
- the nature of the language and/or skills the lesson is intended to focus on
- the methodological principles that constitute good practice in language teaching
- the materials, resources and tasks that can aid learning
I asked two groups of teachers who had just completed teacher training courses with quite a heavy lesson planning and teaching practice component whether they thought lesson planning on the course had helped them and how it had helped them. All of them, with no exception, agreed that lesson planning had helped them enormously, while the reasons the novice teachers, who had just completed a CELTA course, gave included the following:
- ‘I had to think about what was important and what not’
- ‘It kept me focused while teaching’
- ‘It helped me organise my time better’
Experienced teachers on the DELTA course also mentioned some of these points, but they also added points like the following:
- ‘I was forced to think about the learners more: what they would benefit from, what they would appreciate, what they would find helpful.’
- ‘I found the process of anticipating problems valuable; in spite of having taught for so many years, I still find it difficult to think on my feet and racking my brain to anticipate in advance what might go wrong in each lesson has meant not only that less goes wrong in the actual lesson but even when it does go wrong I instantly know what to do about it.’
- ‘The best thing about planning as meticulously as we had to on the DELTA is that the learners can tell! They knowwhen you have prepared, they can sense it, and they show their appreciation in so many ways.’
- ‘For the first time I realized that I am not a slave to the coursebook, that I can actually select what to pay attention to.’
Planning vs. teaching
And yet, during the course, the very same teachers often complained about having to plan their lessons in so much detail. And all of them were extremely reluctant, especially the first couple of times that they were observed teaching, to make any changes to the lesson plans they had prepared, but stubbornly followed the lesson plan even when it was very clear that the activity they had proudly planned was not working. In a few cases, when an activity absolutely had to be abandoned because there was no time left to do it, the teachers had a meltdown after the lesson, experiencing very deep frustration that they had invested so much time and effort in preparing materials and activities which were then not used.
This is understandable, of course; and fair. Nobody wants to spend hours preparing for something that never happens. But then, lesson plans are just plans: sometimes they can be implemented, sometimes they have to be abandoned. More often than not, they need to be adjusted. You can anticipate what may happen, but you can never know, unless you decide to teach the lesson plan rather than the learners, i.e. to ignore the learners and just stick with your lesson plan in spite of everything. Teaching an observed (and even assessed) lesson is not really that different from teaching any lesson: the important things are that the learners should learn and that the learners should have a good time, not that the teacher should showcase all of the materials they have prepared and not that the teacher should execute every iota in their lesson plan just to prove that they planned well. In fact, willingness to adapt and adjust your lesson plan to the learners’ emerging needs during the lesson is a characteristic of a professional, experienced teacher; it even forms one of the criteria for assessing lessons on the Cambridge DELTA course.
In fact, each and every one of the following is, for me, reason enough to depart from your lesson plan:
- the learners don’t understand
- the learners are not interested
- the learners are tired, anxious about something else or in a bad mood; their ‘affective filter’ is up
- the learners demonstrate that they can already produce what the lesson was intended to help them learn
What would I advise a teacher? In very simple words, I’d tell them to teach the learners, not the lesson plan, the material, or the book. It is the indirect object of the verb ‘teach’ that carries the weight, the fact that you teach someone something. What you teach them can in fact only be evaluated after you have made sure that you have understood what they need. So even though lesson planning is a valuable learning process for us teachers, it is the learners in the classroom that will ultimately dictate our final decisions as to how much of the lesson plan we have prepared is relevant and useful and how much will have to be abandoned or changed.
[first published in OUP’s newsletter ELT World in July 2022]