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Why lesson plans are the least important part of teaching

December 10, 2020 No Comments

One of the things that persistently perplex me is the obsession with paperwork in the Gulf countries. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates- the former being where I currently reside and the latter being where I resided for the previous 2.5 years- are so technologically advanced with so many tasks being able to be done online (driving license renewals hello!) and of course, the E-gates not even requiring you to produce your passport for a pesky arrival stamp.

But now and then you’ll encounter a situation which will confuse you with its demand for paperwork and demonstrates how not every department has moved with the times. Lesson planning is one of those awkward things that schools in the region are obsessed with and for some reason, the longer, more comprehensive, more planned down to the last minute they seem to be, the more praiseworthy they seem.

This irks me because lengthy structured lesson plans are essentially redundant for me in 2020. Yet a teacher on 32 lessons a week will fill in around 1,200 lesson-plan forms over the course of the academic year. Who has the time or energy?

Of course, planning is always required. We teachers often have to create resources – a protracted process – and, of course, must have an idea of an objective/outcome we would like to reach within a certain period.

But the bureaucratic process by which planning must be carried out – all the while aligning to curriculum standards through a structured template – is not only a huge waste of time, but also serves to detract from the quality of teaching.

I remember what it was like for me in the early years of my career- I spent hours trying to make perfect lesson plans when literally nothing happened in the classroom the way it does on paper. I would spend hours after school writing out lesson plans and then created these incredibly complex assignments that perfectly aligned with the outcomes I wanted to achieve. Inevitably the students would either hate what I was doing and I would have to do something different. Or something would come up like an assembly or a fire drill that would derail my perfect plan and I would have to make up something else on the spot.

And in those impromptu moments was where the best learning happened. Because I wasn’t trying to make a perfect lesson that looked good on paper, I was actually teaching the students in front of me based on their wants and needs. And that’s why it worked.

These are my reasons why lesson plans are the least important part of teaching… for me. You may not agree at all, or you may agree with me to some degree but these are my personal reasons.

Not every lesson follows the same format

The idea of a perfect lesson format is non-existent. While many schools expect you to have a warmer, pre-task, post-task, free practice, controlled practice, language presentation, lesson review, learning checking, content checking, meaning checking or reflective conference, it isn’t practical in the real world. Factor in the time some schools expect you to spend writing down your objectives and “I can, we can and you can” statements plus setting up the technology, signing into the software and settling down the class. You would’ve already lost 10 valuable minutes of the lesson. Some days you’ll need to jump right in with the discussion you were having yesterday; other days you’ll start with a quiz; maybe you need to discuss a social issue or their wellbeing; what about the days when you don’t need to do anything other than observe and facilitate as they dive into week-long projects?

If you walk into my classroom, please don’t expect my lesson to match exactly with what is on a lesson plan.

I’m a teacher that goes by the students rather than goes ‘by the book’ which is why lesson plans are the least important part of teaching. I will re-teach yesterday’s entire lesson if the students feel that they need it. I will switch up the format, change activities and shift direction if need be. I will address the emotional state of the students or an issue they may be having among themselves. Yes that may go against what the lesson plan outlines but if we aren’t teaching to help the students then why are we teaching at all? To conform to a piece of paper?

Every class is different

The engaging lesson you so lovingly put down on paper looks fantastic when read to an audience; it aligns perfectly with the curriculum standards and fits neatly into the time allocations. Perhaps it goes swimmingly with the first period of the day; but what happens when you teach the same lesson to another class in the last period and it flops. Spectacularly. You know what I mean- students don’t engage, they’re disinterested and don’t seem to grasp a concept no matter what you’re saying. Do you still go ahead and follow that lesson plan even though it’s clearly not working? Or do you change direction and do something that’s more aligned with what the students require?

Now 90% of good teachers will tell you that they change tactics to anticipate students’ needs. But then why are we writing these long winded plans in the first place when they’re subject to change based on our different classes’ needs? Because if we can all agree that each student learns in different ways then surely we can agree that every class is different too! So why are we expected to teach each class in the same way?

Are you starting to see why lesson plans are the least important part of teaching for me?

Planning to the last minute doesn’t correlate with class reaction

Many times you think students have a wealth of prior knowledge and that they will rely on in order to supplement the lesson. But of course, upon questioning, they have no clue what you’re on about (just my students? Ok then!). Or conversely, you’re prepared to teach them a whole new concept only to find out they already know what you’re teaching them and so you speed through parts of the lesson that you thought would take eons. It happened to me many times where I misjudged or made bad predictions about students’ knowledge base.

As a language teacher to students who do not speak the language as their primary language of communication, I cannot confidently predict how long a class will take to complete a writing or reading task. They may finish it in record time, and I can move swiftly on. It might fill out the bulk of the lesson, or – quite often – a difficulty arises that requires lengthy explanation and the task expands into another day.

If most teachers have their students’ learning and needs in mind, then a lesson might not be completed as indicated in the plan. It may go longer or have to be carried over to the next day in order to meet the academic and social needs of the students.

In a professional development program at an old school, we were told that we were bad teachers if we couldn’t manage our time with the students. Implying that every lesson should go according to the allocated time thus disregarding whether my students needed extra/less time to spend on an activity. Is disregarding the needs of our students a good thing? Is adhering to strict time limits now the ‘standard’ for what a good teacher is?

Student learning cannot be quantified into neat boxes and well defined time slots. So why do we insist on treating them as if they do?

Who are lesson plans for?

Lesson plans are traditionally made for administrators in order to “to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities”. In my opinion that’s garbage because the only thing it does determine is the extent of teachers planning abilities.

In my opinion the only person who needs to read the lesson plan is the teacher.

I said what I said.

Requiring lesson plans to be submitted to administrators is futile. Will anyone there actually read them? Unlikely. I ve never met an administrator who read a line of a lesson plan I submitted. I am patiently awaiting the day where the administrator stops by my room and says, “Hey, I was looking into your lesson plans and I had some thoughts about helping you develop a broader variety of questioning strategies.” HAHA IMAGINE!

As soon as you start factoring in an extra audience for your lesson plans, they become less useful for you. At that point, lesson plans start losing validity on the most important factor of all, the factor by which every single piece of education policy should be judged– does this help teachers do the work?

Oh, and the old adage about “We need everyone’s lesson plans on file in case there’s a sub”? Look, the substitute isn’t you, doesn’t know your students and doesn’t know what you’ve been doing. Teachers are not interchangeable meat widgets with no personal expertise; therefore the sub can’t execute your lesson plan anyway. That’s why you have separate sub plans for days you have to miss. OBVIOUSLY. This is another reason why for me, lesson plans are the least important part of teaching.

Lastly,

This obsession with paperwork has to stop especially from the grassroots level- from teacher training at colleges at university. There is an unnecessary importance that is placed on producing neat, organised, detailed and long lesson plans. This is misguided, because it doesn’t really prepare the potential teachers for the daily teaching and planning routine. It teaches us a skill that we never use.

It dupes potential teachers into thinking that they can anticipate every problem that might come up in the lesson. It also seems to suggest that only by following a pre-planned sequence of activities can we teach a successful lesson.

Most importantly- it takes the teacher’s attention away from what really matters: the students and what is happening at a given moment in class. Universities and teacher training institutions need to emphasize that while they serve a purpose, lesson plans aren’t the crux of planning; the lesson plans are the least important part of teaching.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel that planning IS important. It is essential. But not in the form of hours spent stressing over a detailed lesson plan that you learnt to draft at university, which most likely will end up accumulating layers of dust somewhere on a forgotten shelf or eventually in a recycling bin.

On a day-to-day basis I write down the main aims of my lessons on post-it notes, draw a flow-chart with main stages on a piece of paper, and make notes in my notepads. I do this daily at the end of the day so I know what I am facing tomorrow. At the end of the week I find all my resources for the next week to have a main idea of what I am doing but honestly, I look for new things as each day goes by depending on what suits my students and how they’re learning is progressing (or not progressing!).

It’s ok not to start the week having figured everything out.

It’s ok not to adhere strictly to what a piece of paper commands you to do.

You aren’t a bad teacher if you don’t plan and execute down to the very last minute!

These are my reasons as to why lesson plans are the least important part of teaching. If you are a teacher, you may be interested in my older posts:

How to resist & disrupt grind culture for teachers

What I wish I knew before I started teaching abroad

Questions to ask yourself before you decide to teach abroad

The racism of teaching abroad

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What do you think about lesson plans? How important are they to you as a teacher? Let me know in the comments below!

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