Letter from the Chair – April 2018
Dear members, colleagues, and friends,
recently, I read an article extolling the virtues and necessity of creating and using a good lesson plan and as I read it, I realised, not for the first time, that I didn’t agree with most of it!
It’s received wisdom, isn’t it, that teachers need lesson plans to guide them through their lessons, so that students know what to expect and so that there’s a record of what has been ‘taught’. I use inverted commas there to signify that what is taught is not necessarily learned!
But what if you didn’t have a plan? What if you had an idea for how to start a class but no idea at all how it might then proceed? What if you responded to students rather than following a plan? What could go wrong?
The reality of course is that lots can go wrong but that’s also true if you create a plan. Given that teaching is a human activity, no amount of planning can ensure a smooth and efficient lesson since one never knows how students are going to react nor what they are going to do.
One of the most difficult tasks in training new teachers, is to get them to understand that more planning does not equate to better lessons, in fact over-planning is a frequent cause of lesson fails. It goes like this: you plan more because you want to make sure there are no gaps, nothing is left to chance and you’ve thought of everything, every detail in the process. And then a student or students react in an unexpected way, catching you by surprise since you couldn’t have predicted all possible responses! And then, like an actor who has forgotten the script, you are left having to pick up the thread.
I know that many teachers are obliged to produce plans for the records, for parents, for the DoS or Head Teacher, for the British Council or whatever and I understand that – it has to be done but does it have to be done for every single lesson? In my experience, it doesn’t. And even if it does, then there’s no reason why one should slavishly follow a lesson plan. I always tell new teachers that writing a plan doesn’t mean you have to follow it, in fact diverting because a need arises should be lauded, not denigrated.
Imagine going into a lesson with a group you know and getting them to brainstorm in small groups on a word or an idea, such as: ‘communication’. How many ways can they interpret that word? Can they then create a mind-map type graphic? Can they then present their ideas to the others? This, for me is the basis of a lesson or maybe even more than one lesson. I have no idea how it will go, no idea what students will do and no idea where it will finish up. I have no idea what language might occur (though I could predict some) and no idea how I’ll manage the class!
What I do know is that I will be able to deal with anything which might occur since I am a teacher and these are my students! It’s important that I have no fixed expectations as expectations are the basis of a plan and I don’t want a plan. Caleb Gattegno (inventor of Silent Way) used to say “Leave your expectations outside the door!” Silent Way is, in a sense, the ultimate no planning approach since both teacher and students undertake lessons having only a rough notion of the route but no idea of the destination.
How many times have you heard someone say “I didn’t expect that” in any number of contexts but especially in teaching where a teacher was expecting ‘x’ to occur and it didn’t? Likewise, comments such as: “I thought they’d know that” or “I didn’t think they’d know that” can occur with or without a plan.
Many years ago, a colleague and I used to test each by giving each other an object just before going in to teach a group – the idea was that we had to base the class around this object and develop the lesson in collaboration with the students. Now, there was one famous occasion when I failed in this endeavour completely as the students had zero interest in the knitted ski-hat I had been given three minutes before the lesson and nothing I could do would persuade them it was worthy of their attention! But generally we both managed to create fresh, vibrant lessons, bound neither by a course book nor a plan but by the limits of our own and our students’ imaginations and their linguistic limits and needs.
As to the records, of course they are necessary but why not create post-lesson plans? Not only do they exceed the need for accurate documentation of the syllabus but they also serve as a reflective tool for the teacher; thinking about your lesson after delivering it is an indispensible tool for the reflective teacher.
Happy teaching and learning
Chair of Gallery Teachers Membership Committee.