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A case for anti-planning

May 25, 2013

One thing that gets drummed into English teachers from the beginning of our careers is the importance of lesson planning. We need to have aims and objectives. We need to decide exactly what language will be taught, or what skills will be developed. We need to plan a sequence of logical stages. We need to know in advance what the interaction patterns will be during each stage. We need to know exactly how long each stage will take.

Trainee teachers spend hours agonizing over these things, then they get a job and discover that they only have a fraction of this time to plan their lesson plans anyway.

But aside from the practical reasons that make lesson planning difficult, there are other issues that I would like to raise in this post.

For a start, there is no direct correlation between lesson planning and lesson success. A very carefully planned lesson can turn out to be a disaster, and by the same token a completely unplanned lesson can end up being very successful. Similarly, a lesson can end up being successful because it achieves aims other than those that were in the plan. And of course, as we all know, lessons frequently don’t go according to plan anyway.

So why don’t lesson plans lead to successful learning? Well, I would like to argue that our whole approach to lessons and the concept of planning is fundamentally flawed. Lesson planning is based on the misconception that teachers can control what students learn. We might be able to control what they do, and we can certainly control what we teach, but we can’t control what is learnt. In addition, any given group of students, no matter how homogenous, contains individuals who are at different stages in learning, with different interests and motivations, and who will respond differently at different points in the lesson.

This view is widely held and has been expressed in various ways for over 40 years, since people like S. Pit Corder and Larry Selinker started writing about the Interlanguage Hypothesis. And yet, we still seem to be holding on to the misguided notion that a teacher can select items of language and plan a lesson in advance that will allow all the students to learn the same thing at the same time.

Another problem with lesson plans is that teachers become so focused on what they want to happen that they neglect to pay attention to what is actually happening during the lesson. The aims and procedure are so clear to them that this is all they think about, their only focus being to achieve the aims that they have already invested so much time in. The students, meanwhile, usually unaware of the teacher’s very fixed agenda, are trying to get what they can out of the lesson. They may identify opportunities for learning and try to pursue them, but if these opportunities don’t match the teacher’s aims their questions are frequently ignored, or brushed aside with a comment like “we’re not doing that today” or “we’ll look at that another time”. Students who try to direct the lesson away from the teacher’s plan and towards wherever they happen to be in their own learning are generally regarded as disruptive. Anything that happens during a lesson that the teacher had not anticipated is seen as a problem, meaning that many opportunities for learning (or, from a teacher development  perspective, critical incidents) are simply brushed aside.

Current theories of language acquisition do not tie in with a lock-step approach, where language is taught in a linear fashion. The fact is that lessons, learners, and learning, are unpredictable. It is therefore rather odd that we still seem to think we can predict in advance what learning will take place in our lessons. Writing in advance about what we want the students to learn isn’t going to change the way people learn.

Recently, Alan Maley and Adrian Underhill have been writing and speaking about the “dark matter” of teaching – the stuff that goes on in the classroom that our pre-planned approach to teaching doesn’t focus on. They suggest we focus less on preparation and more on preparedness, i.e. instead of assuming that a lesson will pan out exactly as we had expected, we should accept the fact that things will happen in the classroom that we couldn’t anticipate, and we should be prepared to react to these unexpected occurrences.

As teachers gain experience, they become more able to deal with students’ questions and reactions, and are able to be more responsive or more skilled at giving a quick answer so they can get back “on track”. But again we are back with this notion that there is a track in the first place, and it’s the teacher’s track, which the students must all march along.

Clearly there is something to be said for going into a class with an idea of where your lesson is going to go. But the all-singing, all-dancing detailed lesson plan with its target language, stage aims and timing is nothing more than a straitjacket for the teacher as well as the learners. It restricts and reduces opportunities for real learning to take place and acts as a barrier between the learners and the language they are actually ready to learn.

None of what I’m saying is new, or at least it ties in with plenty of other established teaching ideas (viz. Scrivener’s Jungle Path, Dogme, emergent language) and yet when I write it down it looks controversial. It looks controversial because most teachers still believe that writing a lesson plan is good practice, even though it is in conflict with what they already know. It seems that some kind of professional conditioning has taken place, which goes back to our initial training courses, and has been cemented through subsequent requirements to produce lesson plans for developmental/quality purposes.

Is it perhaps time we unconditioned ourselves?

Further reading/ideas:

  • Thornbury, S. & Meddings, L. 2009: Teaching Unplugged, DELTA Publishing
  • Underhill, A. & Maley, A. 2012: “Expect the unexpected”, in English Teaching Professional Issue 82, Pavilion Publishing
  • Brown, S. 2013: “Let there be light”, in English Teaching Professional Issue 85, Pavilion Publishing
  • Tripp, D. 1993: Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgement, Routledge
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21 Comments
  1. Hi, thanks for the interesting post. Always with this type of thing, I think it depends on what type of planned or unplanned teaching you’re talking about and, unless we can see a specific example of practice, we’ll never if we are interpreting it in the same way.

    For instance, do ‘planned’ lessons need to adhere to a strict ‘lockstep’? Do they need focus on discrete items? Why? Why can’t we plan in lots of holistic, consciousness-raising activities? Why can’t we plan general frameworks and tasks so we are prepared without specifying any language that may emerge from them?

    Is the distinction between ‘planning’ and ‘preparation’ merely semantics? Is there any evidence for the claim that ‘there is no direct correlation between lesson planning and lesson success’? Wouldn’t there be some value in some corpus-based research on the most useful and frequent chunks for a specific task, based on a teacher’s intuition about what may be useful or on which were used in an authentic model?

    I do agree that rigidly following plans while ignoring learners’ emergent needs may be common-place but isn’t that a problem of the type of planning and its strict implementation rather than planning per se?

    • Hi Chris,
      Thanks very much for these comments. You’re absolutely right that there are different approaches to planning, and it’s important to distinguish them. The approach that I have a problem with is the sort of plan people tend to do for CELTA (and DELTA?) observations, with a minute-by-minute commentary of what will happen, and language aims that are carefully worded and incredibly precise. I just feel that declaring such a narrow focus in advance makes it difficult for the teacher to maximise other learning opportunities, which are bound to come up. But you’re right, this doesn’t mean that all planning is bad. I’m currently playing about with the idea of lesson “framing” as opposed to lesson planning, but that’s for another post.
      Regarding my claim about a lack of correlation between planning and success, I was really basing this on my own and colleagues’ perceptions of our lessons. It would however be interesting to know of any research that has been done to quantify lesson success and relate it to previously stated aims/procedure. I’d love to hear about anything related to this.
      For the distinction between preparation and preparedness I think it’s best to watch the interview with Alan Maley at IATEFL (the link is in my post above).
      Thanks again!

  2. I’ve commented in response to the secret DOS’s post, but just to say thanks for the original post. Looking at Alan Maley’s interview, part of me absolutely agrees with him, but another part finds it a bit irritating. What is this dark matter that we don’t see in the classroom – students opinions and feelings? Their soiled underwear? Surely, the only thing that is truly relevant to the language classroom is the language students want to say but can’t, the language they try to say but we don’t hear, the language we choose to focus on (again!) that prevents us from seeing other opportunities. Where I depart from Alan and Adrian at this point is that that will be enabled by doing clowning, theatre exercises, or finding a 75th way to do a dictation. I would say it needs to be focused on thinking through language. A longer discussion of this is here:

    http://blog.westminster.ac.uk/celt/2013/04/22/iatefl-talk-language-focused-teacher-development/

    • Hi Andrew, I’ve looked your comments on the Secret DOS’s blog and will reply to them presently, but for the moment thanks very much for your comments on here.
      I am totally with you regarding the Dark Matter of teaching as described by Maley and Underhill. They definitely have a point that there are things going on in lessons that we don’t focus on, and I suppose one point I was trying to make in my post was that lesson plans don’t help us to focus on them – in fact they may hinder our ability to teach “in the moment”. However, when faced with the question of what to do about it, I feel Underhill and Maley (and Underhill and Scrivener for that matter, with Demand High) come up rather short of what is actually required. Small tweaks, extra checking questions, prolonged feedback stages etc don’t really get to the heart of the dark matter of learning if, as you say, it’s about how the students are “thinking through language”. Which it should. Thanks for your link – it does indeed explore this area further.
      I recently did a piece for the ETP on a similar topic – described a bit here:
      https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/the-matrix-exposed-is-demand-high-enough/

  3. Speaking as someone who for 7 years was “straitjacketed” by an over bureaucratic UK state education system this article is spot on. Excellent. Thanks for summing it all up!

    • Thank you, David. I think there are many contexts where teachers can feel restricted by the need to provide lesson plans, or teach in a certain way, or cover material that they realise is not really what the students want or need.
      State education systems, which are often keen to maintain consistent standards across the entire nation, tend to be contexts where lesson plans are used as evidence – the plans are more for the inspectors’ benefit than the teachers’, and certainly not for the students. I’ve touched on this subject in another post, in case you’re interested –
      https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/universality-and-mediocrity-part-2-everythings-ok-but-is-it-any-good/

  4. “Another problem with lesson plans is that teachers become so focused on what they want to happen that they neglect to pay attention to what is actually happening during the lesson.”

    Well, you can’t blame the plan for this. This is the teachers fault.

    I agree that on teacher training courses, the insistence to stick to a rigidly timed plan is ludicrous. For me, this is a major issue in the CELTA and especially the DELTA. I think most teachers develop planning strategies which do not involve minute by minute plans, though, for everyday teaching.

    As a mainly task based teacher, my plan usually involves two-three main tasks. Beyond these tasks I allow diversion . But I always find at least one good text (reading or listening) and a few decent tasks.

    There are a lot of potential pitfalls of not doing any planning. Sure – in a class of 4 students you might be able to adjust to their needs, but what about in a class of 25? When you ‘adjust to their needs’, is it all of their needs, or just the needs of the student who asks the most questions? It’s difficult to make sure that you have a balance of activities which appeal to different types of learners when you are making it all up as you go along.

    “It restricts and reduces opportunities for real learning to take place and acts as a barrier between the learners and the language they are actually ready to learn.”

    I think this is just a bad plan. A good plan involves opportunities exposure to new language of the right level, the opportunity to notice new language features, record and reuse them. For me, a good plan involves engaging texts and topics which will motivate learning.

    “Lesson planning is based on the misconception that teachers can control what students learn.”

    Not true. Lesson planning can be based on the belief that we can influence what students learn – a belief that all language teachers should hold (or else they shouldn’t be language teachers).

    Basically, I think that we should adjust how we see lesson planning and I think this is actually what you are arguing for, but I really don’t think that its a good idea to argue that we should abandon it. Sure, a few teachers may continue to do all manner of ‘preparing’ or whatever, but I think a lot of teachers who latch on to this idea that its better not to plan use it as an excuse for laziness.

    • Hi Jonny,
      Thanks very much for posting your views here. As I said over on @michaelegriffin ‘s blog, I don’t think we actually disagree on that much. I do indeed feel we should adjust how we see lesson planning. I also tend to build my own lessons around tasks, like you. I wrote this post because I feel too many teachers are overdependent on their plans and I wanted to redress the balance a bit. By saying that planning can have a negative impact on teaching, this doesn’t mean that I believe not planning at all is a good thing. I certainly wouldn’t want people to use this as an excuse to be lazy.
      Might I suggest though, that the opposite could be the case. Many teachers put a lot of work into the planning stage, and then use this to be lazy IN the classroom; all they do is follow their plan, because they know that will get them through the lesson and, because that’s how they’ve been trained, they believe they are still doing a good job.
      A teacher who has no pre-determined plan, or who has left unplanned spaces in a lesson, or who is always on the lookout for learning opportunities to exploit (which entails deviating from any plan they had to begin with), needs to work a lot harder DURING the lesson in order to make it successful. I feel that what teachers do in the classroom should count for a lot more than what they do before the lesson begins (this doesn’t mean I believe that pre-lesson work is not important).
      One thing I would pick up on though is that you say it’s the teacher’s fault if they only focus on their plan and don’t pay attention to what’s happening in the classroom. Is it really the teacher’s fault if this was how they were trained?

  5. Daljit Kaur permalink

    I think that some of my best lessons have been the ones which I hadn’t planned for. What I mean by this is NOT that I haven’t gone to class without a lesson plan, but rather I’ve deviated from the plan by reacting to a student’s question or comment. In my opinion, this is an important distinction. A teacher should at least have some idea of what they’re going to teach, how they’ll approach the lesson in terms of staging, input, anticipated problems and objectives. However, to stick closely to the plan can expose the teacher to miss valid learning opportunities.

    A colleague of mine once told me about an inspirational teacher she knew who had gone in to class with just an apple. He conducted an entire lesson around this and she couldn’t believe how he’d done it. I would argue that he already had some kind of lesson plan up his sleeve, but it was so flexible that it appeared arbitrary.

    My siding on this blog is that we should have some idea of what we’re hoping our students will achieve in a lesson, but keep our eyes and ears open for all opportunities to adjust our plans according to how our learners react.

    • Thanks very much for this, Daljit. I think your last paragraph sums up the whole thing up incredibly well. It’s not about “anticipating problems” (i.e. things that might get in the way of the plan’s execution) but about identifying opportunities.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The map is not the territory « The Secret DOS
  2. Preflection: A (not) new approach to planning | stevebrown70's Blog
  3. Even more statements on lesson planning: ELT Chat summary | elt-resourceful
  4. What have I learned? | The Steve Brown Blog
  5. A look back at 2013 on this blog | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  6. To plan or not to plan! | usatiatefl
  7. Lesson plans – a waste of time? | teflreflections
  8. Are we wasting time planning our lessons? | Teach them English
  9. BrELT Chat 11/06/15: Lesson Planning – interesting reads | #BRELT

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