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Preflection: A (not) new approach to planning

June 9, 2013

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.

  1. Thanks for this Steve, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the traditional CELTA approach to planning because it seems to take teachers’ attention away from their students during lessons, particularly when those teachers are just learning their trade on pre-service courses. I also don’t like the idea that teacher training courses tend to judge observed lessons against how well the teacher taught the plan, rather than how well they taught the students! Sounds like you’ve stumbled on a much more student-centred concept in Preflection. Great post!

    • Thank you, Matthew. It’s always nice to find new people who agree with you! I share your discomfort about the way planning is presented on many training courses, but would be curious to know what people think about implementing these preflection ideas at the initial teacher training stage. Do you just have to have experience before you can approach your lessons in this way, or can these ideas be implemented from the start?

    • Excellent points, Matthew.

  2. juergenkurtz permalink

    Dear Steve,

    Great post! Are you familiar with the current discussion about balancing structure and improvisation in creative teaching, as, e.g. in Sawyer (2011)? (I contributed a chapter on improvisation in EFL classrooms which might be of interest to you as well).

    Thanks and best wishes,


    • Hi Jurgen,
      Thanks very much for this. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve done very little academic reading in this area, and have drawn mostly on my own perceptions/experiences and those of the blogging community. I will certainly look at the publication you recommend though. I may find myself exploring this in a lot more detail when I start my EdD in October, so a bit of pre-course reading will certainly help. Thanks for the advice!

  3. Daljit Kaur permalink

    Steve, I love your new word. If we say it often enough, it’ll surely appear in the Oxford dictionary. I think you’ve now hit the nail on the head; it’s all about the opportunities open to us as teachers when we deliver the lesson. If teachers thought more like the example principles you’ve provided, the learning experience would be so much better for every student.

    • Thank you, Daljit – I look forward to preflecting with you in years to come 🙂
      As I said in the post, I think there are many experienced teachers who already adopt these principles, but I doubt if any of us have been explicitly trained to do this. I suppose I want to know how teachable these skills are. Can you be taught to preflect or does it just come with practice?

  4. Great stuff! I believe this has always been my personal approach to learning with my students and it’s wonderful to see it articulated so clearly. I’m sure many other teachers will relate to it as strongly as I have. A real “me too” moment. And, if I may, at the center of this is what always really matters – the students and their emergent language.

  5. Absolutely, Brian – lessons are about the students and the students should therefore be at the centre of any planning (or preflection – I’m taking Daljit’s advice and using it as much as I can!) that takes place.
    Glad that you can identify with what I’m suggesting. I know a lot of us already do this, but I’m still not sure how we ended up doing it! Were these ideas ever taught, or did you just make realisations over time and adjust your practice accordingly? Jurgen (above) has suggest a book that relates to this area. I really must find out more about what has already been written about planning with a view to improvising.

  6. Preflection. I like it! 🙂

    And, I love your 10 basic principles of preflection. Such good advice. My personal favourites being “It’s not about where you want the lesson to go, it’s about where the lesson could go.” and “The real hard work takes place in the classroom, not before it.” Oh, and “Include wait-and-see stages.”

    Thank you, Steve. I’ll be referring people to this post.


  7. Reblogged this on Diary of a Temporary Full Time Foreign EFL Instructor and commented:
    I’m big on Preflection and didn’t know it. Where’s that napkin with all my plans?

  8. Holly permalink

    I especially like the comments on not being tied to how an activity is described. Many times I have gone into class with a “warmer” that has taken up half the lesson as there was so much more to get out of it. Did I preflect enough? Probably not. If I had I would I have realised that there was more to the activity than the aims suggested and saved it for another time. Not wanting to cut short something that the learners were clearly motivated by. I may pat myself on the back for adapting to the moment but at the end of the day the main aim of the lesson was hijacked. Know your students and view activities through their eyes ( wants, needs etc.) and not by how they are described by others.

    • Thanks, Holly. I think it’s common for teachers to discover that an activity described as a 5-minute warmer ends up taking an hour.
      But like you say, this needn’t be a bad thing. Good preflection would allow you to see if there’s further potential value in the activity. I suppose though that the trick lies in knowing when to exploit an activity beyond its original purpose, or when to allow the students to go off in a certain direction, and also when not to allow this to happen. I’m not suggesting that every activity needs to be milked for all it’s worth, and sometimes students (or perhaps a single student) want(s) to lead things in a direction that is not particularly helpful or useful. It’s times like these where the teacher needs to make a value judgement and decide where to go next.

  9. derek permalink

    Interesting post– thanks for sharing.

    This discussion topic gets at some of the anxiety I experience training on Cambridge courses. Teaching becomes more or less formulaic (not that it has to be, but generally, from the courses I assess, this is what I observe). Those who follow lesson models closely for each lesson, will, by the end of the course, be more capable of staging, timing, managing lessons; they will more effectively achieve pre-selected aims than those who experiment and are spontaneous. And the former will get a better grade in the end. Increase the incentive to experiment and engage in reactive teaching and perhaps we will get more teachers taking seriously the suggestions you make in your post.

    As for you idea of ‘preflection’, I think most teachers think about their lessons before they teach, but you are suggesting a particular type of reflection and consideration (And, a particular type of teacher who is comfortable with ‘relishing the unexpected’). All the advice given requires a deeper understanding of the content, i.e. the interrelation of the language systems and how they work in contexts. To foster this understanding, training programs need more language-focused teacher development and more practice with re-active teaching skills. How do we teach this knowledge and how do we practice these skills? Only with a deeper understanding of the language systems and greater comfort with being spontaneous will teachers be able to ‘look for opportunities’ instead of anticipating problems.

    • Thank you very much for this, Derek. It seems that we have experienced similar frustrations as teacher trainers. I suppose though that the question remains whether these ideas about promoting reactive teaching and relishing spontaneity in the classroom are actually teachable, or whether they can only come with experience. If, as you say, they require teachers to have a deeper understanding of both language and spontaneous teaching techniques, maybe we can’t expect new teachers to even attempt this kind of teaching. But I can’t help thinking that new teachers should be made aware that this is perhaps something they should aspire to. Then they might be less likely to leave their initial training course thinking they need to write 10-page lesson plans for every lesson they teach.

  10. I used to have to plan by the minute on a written sheet for each lesson that I taught. This plan was then presented during a meeting with the other teachers and lasted over an hour. It goes without saying that we had to stick to the plan. I felt trapped and couldn’t adapt to what my students needed. It’s really hard to know what is the best thing to do for a particular lesson until you are in that lesson.

    As I know teach one-to-one lessons online and I work for myself I can go into lessons with general aims and let the lesson take its course. This is less true for exam preparation, although a little flexibility is needed when adapting to what the student really needs practice with.

    “Tasks should reflect the learners’ needs, goals and motivations for learning. This can be made explicit to them.”

    I wholeheartedly agree. My students who work on the stock market love that I have knowledge of the world of business and introduce lots of role-plays based on them interacting with English-speaking clients.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jack. It sounds like you’re much happier now you have more freedom and flexibility in your teaching.
      I think what you described in your old job is a good example of how obsession with lesson plans can end up getting in the way of the lesson itself – the main focus seemed to be on writing a good plan rather than on teaching a good lesson.

  11. monbro3 permalink

    Oh wow, really good bullet points! Thank you very much for the Inspiration and sharing this.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Going backwards to (hopefully) go forwards | The Steve Brown Blog
  2. Preflection: My IATEFL 2014 Presentation | The Steve Brown Blog
  3. Tomorrow, I blog. About #onething | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  4. Planning for Chaos | The Steve Brown Blog
  5. I Love It When A Plan Comes Together | Freelance Teacher Self Development
  6. Lesson plans – a waste of time? | teflreflections
  7. Are we wasting time planning our lessons? | Teach them English
  8. BrELT Chat 11/06/15: Lesson Planning – interesting reads | #BRELT
  9. Cert as CPD: Interviews with Anne pt. 2 – Muddles into Maxims
  10. Cert as CPD: Interviews with Anne pt. 3 – Muddles into Maxims
  11. #TBLTChat 5: Practical ways to Focus on Form during the task cycle – Summary | #TBLTchat
  12. What do I think I’m doing? | The Steve Brown Blog
  13. Reflective Teaching for Unreflective Teachers – ELT Depot

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