Planning for Chaos
This is a slightly longer version of an article that first appeared in the IATEFL ES(O)L SIG Newsletter, Issue 2 (July 2014). It draws heavily on the content of the workshop I did at IATEFL earlier this year, and also repeats some stuff I have written in previous posts on this blog. But if you want to know what I think about lesson planning and teacher training courses this is probably the best thing to read.
Planning for chaos: a call for realism in teacher training
I expect most of us have some quite vivid memories of our initial teacher training course. I particularly remember spending hours on end over my lesson plans – agonizing over the wording of stage aims, timing each activity down to the last 30 seconds, scripting exactly what I was going to say, writing detailed analyses of specific grammar points etc. Later in my career, as a CELTA trainer, I saw my trainees going through the same processes, spending days (literally) putting together a 1-hour lesson – then going on to work in full-time jobs that allowed them a fraction of that time for planning.
This led me to question the value placed on the planning process in TESOL courses. Why do we put trainees through this ordeal when they won’t spend anything like as long on lesson planning after they qualify? Does this rigorous approach actually encourage teachers to focus on the right issues? Is it even possible to predict what learning will take place in a lesson anyway?
In this article I argue that a heavy focus on lesson planning, in the way it tends to be done on teacher training courses, is unhelpful, even detrimental, as a means of developing effective ESOL teachers. I will also relate this argument to a more general mismatch between theories of language acquisition and common approaches to language teaching. I will then propose an alternative approach to lesson preparation that is more realistic and which encourages teachers to focus on the actual job of teaching.
We are probably all familiar with the argument that spending hours planning lessons during training does not adequately prepare teachers for the day-to-day environment they will find themselves in. Teachers are busy people and there are simply not enough hours in a week to plan lessons in the way we are trained to plan. The counter-argument to this is that a detailed focus on a single lesson forces teachers to go through certain processes that will prove useful in their future careers, such as identifying language aims, devising effective instructions and checking questions, or becoming aware of the purpose of certain activities.
It is also argued that new teachers need a detailed lesson plan in order to get through a lesson. It gives them direction, focus, something to rely on, and basically stops them from going “off-message” and doing something that might actually impact negatively on their learners’ progress. There is therefore a need to spend hours planning lessons during training courses, because newer teachers need to plan more.
But why do newer teachers need to plan more? Maybe part of the reason is that we trained them to plan more. If effective on-the-spot clarification and improvisation in the classroom are qualities that experienced teachers have, then surely these are qualities we need to encourage in trainee teachers. Assuming this is impossible for them and forcing them to use an alternative (the “crutch” of the lesson plan) does nothing to develop key skills and qualities that are used and valued by experienced teachers. If anything, it leaves them unprepared and unable to deal with the many issues that inevitably arise during lessons.
This practice of conditioning teachers to rely on their lesson plans can have other negative effects. It can lead to a belief that a carefully thought-out lesson plan will inevitably lead to a good lesson; all the teacher needs to do is follow the plan and everything will work out fine. This can cause complacency, devaluing the role of the teacher during the lesson. As I have previously mentioned, experienced teachers learn to become adept at responding to learners’ questions and needs, but the notion that it is good practice to spend hours on a lesson plan, in which everything can be predicted and anticipated, and where the items to be taught are dictated by the teacher rather than the students, actively goes against this. We are conditioning teachers to believe that a lesson requires a pre-set agenda, set by the teacher, and the delivery of this lesson should happen at all costs. Students who ask questions that are unrelated to the agenda set by the teacher are regarded as disruptive.
This leads us to the linguistic implications behind the concept of the detailed lesson plan. On most courses (both initial and in-service), teachers are encouraged to base their lessons on pre-selected aims. Language items should be identified in advance, analysed in detail, and then taught in such a way that allows students to demonstrate that they have “learnt” the items. From a trainer’s point of view this is a convenient model to follow as it is measurable; if the students actively use the language items, the lesson can be deemed a success.
The problem is that language learning doesn’t work like this. Groups of students don’t learn the same items at the same time, at the same speed. The notion that languages can be learnt in this way has been discredited for some time. In 1997 Diane Larsen-Freeman stated:
“Learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another.” (Larsen-Freeman 1997: 151)
Learners don’t learn anything that they are not ready to learn. I’m sure most ESOL teachers will be able to back this statement up with anecdotes about how their wonderful clarification stages, replete with carefully thought-through concept questions and beautiful, unambiguous boardwork, were followed by a practice stage in which the students proceeded to completely disregard everything that had just been clarified.
Not only is the order of learning unpredictable, but even if a student does learn an item in the classroom on one day there is no guarantee that it will be acquired in any permanent sense. As David Nunan has put it:
“A learner’s mastery of a particular language item is unstable, appearing to increase and decrease at different times during the learning process.” (Nunan 2001: 192).
Again, classroom experience in ESOL shows us how learners may seem to “get” language items on one day and then go on to use them incorrectly again in subsequent lessons. We certainly cannot assume that teaching an item once means we never need to focus on it again. I find myself constantly recycling language and re-clarifying items. This isn’t because I taught it badly in the first place, and it isn’t because my students are bad learners – they’re just learners.
When commonly held views on language acquisition are applied to a group context, the idea that all students will learn the same specific items as chosen by the teacher becomes even more ludicrous. This point was made by Jane Willis back in 1996:
“Spending twenty minutes on presenting and practising one single structure to perfection is likely to benefit only the very few learners who happen to be ready to use it. Some may know it already and it might be beyond the grasp of the rest. For these students, such practice is largely a waste of time.” (Willis 1996: 15)
Basically, encouraging teachers to identify specific grammar or vocabulary items, and to create lessons designed to present and practise them, perpetuates an approach to teaching that has been discredited for many years. And yet this is exactly what teacher training courses do. This is indicative of a broad misconception that still remains in our profession – the misconception that learning and teaching is neat and tidy.
When criticising the way ELT coursebooks present language as discrete items, Scott Thornbury recently made this comment:
“Construed as ‘mcnuggets’, grammar offers a means of disguising the inherently chaotic and idiosyncratic nature of language learning, rendering it instead as systematic, predictable, manageable and, ultimately, testable.” (Thornbury 2014)
The reluctance to accept the chaotic nature of language learning helps to explain why training courses persist with this outdated approach to lesson planning. The pretence of measurability and control that Thornbury describes is also apparent; trainers want to be able to measure the success of lessons, and focusing on specific items allows them to do this. But, as Thornbury, Willis, Nunan, Larsen-Freeman and many others have previously claimed, language learning just isn’t like that.
So, language learning is a chaotic and disorganized process, and teachers have no real control over the language items that their students are learning. But this doesn’t mean we should all give up and go home. There is plenty that we can do as teachers to help students to acquire language more effectively. I would suggest though that the focus should be less on what happens before the lesson and more on what happens in the lesson. Therefore, rather than evaluating a teacher’s performance on their ability to execute a plan, training courses should develop teachers’ skills in reacting positively to critical incidents and maximizing learning opportunities as they occur in the classroom. Developing an ability to exercise “professional judgement” (Tripp 1993) is highly valued in generic teacher education programmes, but less so in TESOL courses.
By advocating a heavier focus on classroom-based activity I am not suggesting that we should stop planning altogether. Preparation should take place, but it needs to take into account the fact that different students will be taking different things from the lesson content. I have previously used the term “preflection” (Brown 2013) to describe this mindfulness in lesson planning, and which regards planning as a process rather than a product.
The process of preflection can be facilitated through asking key questions, such as:
- Can I identify a real-world task (not a language task) that all students are capable of achieving?
- Does this reflect my learners’ needs, goals and motivations for learning?
- Am I making the best use of the materials for this particular group?
- What language could the students learn along the way?
- How can the students guide the lesson stages?
Focusing on these questions allows the teacher to design lessons that are appropriate for their learners, rather than prioritising specific language. The lesson can still have an aim, but it is an aim related to the learners’ real lives, rather than a piece of language that the students may or may not be ready to learn.
Below is a list of principles that I have gradually found myself following as I have developed as a teacher:
- Don’t be a slave to the materials.
I know my students, the materials writers don’t. Doing an activity just because it’s there is simply wrong. It’s also wrong to assume that materials have to be used in the way the writers intended.
- Think about where the lesson could go, rather than where you want it to go.
I’ve had some very productive lessons in which I allowed the learners to take things in a direction I hadn’t expected. If they are motivated to discuss a particular topic or spend time on a certain activity, I’m not going to discourage this.
- Don’t just expect the unexpected – relish it.
If language learning is chaotic and the students are all learning different things, unanticipated incidents are inevitable. It’s important to be OK with this.
- Be on the lookout for learning opportunities, and be ready to exploit them.
Not having a language aim doesn’t mean I don’t teach language. It just means I teach the language that the students need, when they need it, rather than items I decided on beforehand. The important thing is for learning to take place, and this is more likely to happen if the students are given space to identify where the gaps are in their language.
- Sometimes it’s best to just wait and see.
You can’t always be sure how students will respond at certain points in a lesson. Building “empty stages” into a plan means I am more likely to respond appropriately than if I had decided on some kind of action in advance.
For experienced ESOL teachers, none of the above ideas are particularly new or revolutionary. But they are not ideas that are seen as good practice on teacher training courses. Why do we train people to teach one way and then teach very differently ourselves? Is it really the case that new teachers must have a plan and can’t react appropriately to learner responses? Or is this inability to react a result of inadequate training?
I certainly feel that if I had been made aware earlier in my career of the principles of teaching that I apply now, I could have become a better teacher more quickly. Maybe, instead of developing experts in writing detailed lesson plans – a skill that is of little use on a daily basis – TESOL courses should aim to develop teachers who are able to respond to their learners and employ techniques that are more in keeping with language acquisition theories.
Brown, S. (2013), Preflection: a (not) new approach to lesson planning, in The Steve Brown Blog, available from https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/preflection-a-not-new-approach-to-planning/ [Accessed 11/05/2014]
Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18/2, Oxford: OUP.
Nunan, D. 2001, “Teaching grammar in context”, in Candlin and Mercer (eds.) English language teaching in its social context (pp. 191-199), London: Routledge.
Thornbury, S. 2014, Who ordered the McNuggets?, in ELTJam.com, available from: http://www.eltjam.com/who-ordered-the-mcnuggets/ [Accessed 30/03/2014]
Tripp, D. 1993, Critical Incidents in Teaching, London: Routledge Falmer.
Willis, J. 1996, A framework for task-based learning, Harlow: Longman.