Preflection: A (not) new approach to planning
I recently presented a case for anti-planning, largely because I feel that in English Language Teaching there seems to be something of an over-emphasis on planning, an assumption that a detailed procedure will lead to a successful lesson, a feeling among teachers that if they keep a tight control over what happens in the classroom this will somehow rein in the chaotic and disorganised process that is language acquisition. Furthermore, I feel that the importance placed on the planning process in teacher training courses, however well-intentioned, leads to teachers entering the profession with an unbalanced approach to teaching; there’s a certain assumption that, provided a considered and detailed plan has been written, a reasonably good lesson should follow. What I feel is missing is a focus on how to deal with learning as it is happening.
So, I wrote my case for anti-planning in an attempt to redress the balance.
Over the last couple of weeks there have been some really interesting discussions about lesson planning, notably here, here and here (with the eltchat summary available here – thanks to Rachael Roberts.) Reading comments and views from such a range of knowledgeable people has been really useful for me. I’m not going to quote any individuals here because I think you should go and read them for yourself. And don’t just read the posts, read the comments too – there’s some great stuff in there (not just by me!).
What struck me about these discussions was the fact that, while most people still see lesson planning as important, the interpretation of what a lesson plan actually is tends to be very loose. “Lesson plans can be written in any format, including the back of a napkin”, was the comment that readers of Mike Griffin’s blog agreed with most strongly. It was also clear that, for many people, just thinking about a lesson counts as planning. Pretty much everybody seemed to agree that the type of lesson plans trainees have to write on training courses, or the types of lesson plans we have to write in-service for observation purposes, don’t really resemble the plans we write everyday. Nor, it seems, do they necessarily represent the most effective approach to lesson planning.
So, what I’d like to do here is take on board the wonderful ideas and views of other people in the blogosphere and present an approach to planning which I am calling preflection.
I don’t think preflection is a word, but if it isn’t, it should be. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines the word reflection as “serious and careful thought”. When used with this meaning (and you can check this in a corpus of your own choosing), reflection is generally used to describe serious and careful thought about an event that has already occurred. So I’m going to define preflection as meaning “serious and careful thought about an event before it occurs.”
With regard to lesson planning then, I think this word is important because it takes the focus away from writing things down in a structured way, and places more importance on the actual thought processes involved. Another important distinction is that we are not thinking about how to plan a lesson, but we are thinking about the lesson itself. How your plan looks is irrelevant; it may not even exist in physical form. But what is important is that you have put in some careful thought prior to lesson delivery.
I don’t want to get too dogmatic about this, or the whole thing will end up being completely self-defeating. However, if this notion of preflection is about allowing the teacher to think in such a way that they will be able to maximise learning during the lesson, I think it’s probably a good idea to lay down a few guidelines. With this in mind, here are ten basic principles that teachers might benefit from during preflection:
- Don’t be a slave to the materials.
Materials can be used for many different purposes. Just because an activity is described in the book as a warmer, or a clarification stage, or a text that leads to questions developing students’ ability to identify specific information, it doesn’t mean you have to use it for that. Your students may be able to benefit from it in other ways.
- Teaching is more about exploiting learning opportunities than achieving pre-selected aims.
Just because you’ve decided that you want to teach a certain language point, or a set of lexical phrases (or whatever), this doesn’t mean that the students are ready or able to learn it/them. Setting your own language agenda could mean you are less able to identify when the students are ready to learn other language as it comes up in the lesson. When preflecting, use what you know about the learners and relate this to the materials. This should help you to identify what learning could take place.
- It’s not about where you want the lesson to go, it’s about where the lesson could go.
Be open to possibilities – where might the students want it to go? If it went in a certain direction, what could be learnt? Would it necessarily be disruptive to go off in a certain direction?
- Tasks should reflect the learners’ needs, goals and motivations for learning. This can be made explicit to them.
In his more recent work (e.g. here), Dornyei claims that students are motivated by tasks that they perceive as being related to their ideal self i.e. the person they would like to become as a result of their learning. If time is spent tying tasks in with their future-self guides, this will help learners to see the value of the lesson.
- Students who “have problems” with language are students who are ready to be taught.
Instead of anticipating problems, look for opportunities. If you think something will push students to the limit of their knowledge, this is a good thing. How can you exploit these situations?
- Include “wait-and-see” stages.
If you plan for what is going to happen during every minute of your lesson, you won’t have time to effectively manage the unplannable bits. Leave space to allow the students to have some input in the learning process.
- Don’t just expect the unexpected – relish it.
Lessons are not about you, they’re about the students, and you can’t expect to predict how they respond to everything. Be OK with that, and be ready to respond.
- The aims you achieve don’t need to match your original aims.
You might not even have had any original aims. What counts is your ability to reflect after the lesson and identify that learning took place, and that the amount of learning that took place was (at least close to) the maximum amount of learning that could take place within that context.
- Use the students to help guide your lesson stages.
Be sensitive to signals the students give you. They will let you know if they need more clarification, or if they are ready for some group discussion, or if they are ready to move on to something different. In preflection it’s not that important to decide what the staging or focus of activities will be if you can effectively sense what’s appropriate at the time.
- The real hard work takes place in the classroom, not before it.
Teaching is not about managing the delivery of a lesson plan. There’s a lot more to it than that, and good preflection should lead you towards maximizing the learning experience during the lesson.
As my title suggests, I know this approach to lesson planning is not new. Consciously or subconsciously, many teachers adopt some or all of these principles when preparing for lessons already, and have done for years. But how did they arrive at this? Few, if any, of these ideas about planning are championed on the CELTA or DELTA, and yet they seem to be what most experienced teachers advocate and practise when nobody’s watching.
Does it require experience to be able to approach teaching in this way, or should we encourage these principles in teachers from the early stages of their development?
As ever, I’m keen to know what you think.